Red Stewart chats with Lidia Nikonova about The Weeknd’s music videos….
Lidia Nikonova is a Russian cinematographer who has been working in the music and film industries. She is best known for her work on the music videos “Can’t Hold My Love” by T Soomian and “Call Out My Name” by The Weeknd.
Flickering Myth had the privilege to interview her, and I in turn had the honor to conduct it:
Ms. Nikonova, thank you for taking the time out of your day to speak with me. I don’t get a chance to talk to many cinematographers, so this is an honor.
Yeah, right on.
I asked another cinematographer this, but I’m also interested in getting your point-of-view, which is what are some things the industry or cinematographers themselves can do to raise awareness for their craft? I personally feel that cinematography is the most important aspect of a movie as you can have bad sound and bad editing and still have a watchable film, but if a shot is blurry or the the lighting is too dim, then audiences literally can’t see anything. However, outside of a few names like Roger Deakins, it doesn’t feel like the profession is as respected as it should be.
Well, that is an interesting question because cinematography is a below-the-line position, and, as you mentioned, certain other below-the-line positions don’t have the same media effect on the experience. For cinematographers to be more celebrated, I feel like one part is just focusing on doing the job really well and constantly innovating and pushing boundaries. But also, it’s worth pointing out that there are not very many awards for cinematographers specifically, and generally people have less of an awareness of what the job means: they often confuse it with the word ‘filmmaking’.
So maybe also having more visibility for interviews and like workshopping classes would help.
That makes sense that these televised award shows really are the place where cinematographers can get worldwide recognition. I feel that’s what happened with Emmanuel Lubezki- he wasn’t someone who was well known, but then when he won the Oscar three times in a row he got famous.
Yeah, he’s one of the only few cinematographers who got the celebrity status now.
Now I understand that, as close as the 80s, sexism in the cinematography field was bad. That’s more than proven by Rachel Morrison being the first ever woman nominated for the Best Cinematography Oscar last year. What are some things the industry can do to make the role more appealing and gender-balanced for aspiring women?
Well, this is a really complex question, because I wouldn’t be able to speak on behalf of all women or all female-identifying people who work in the film industry, but from my experience there is a huge amount of initiative that hasn’t been taken, though it is growing. In terms of increasing the appeal of the job for women, the first and foremost thing to do is of course awards recognition, but beyond that I feel like the majority of sets are, at this time, male-focused. If you look at the crew list for higher budgeted projects, and let’s consider that a lot of cinematographers do come from crewing, you’ll still see that majority of credits consist of male names. Diversity-hiring starts with crew and finishes with top-level talent, and I think that approaching it in its totality is the most important thing to change.
And I personally feel very strongly about that, so I always try my very hardest to make my crews as diverse as possible. I know that a lot of the collaborators I work with above me, who are producers and directors, also make it a commitment, and I think that it’s very refreshing that it’s our generation that’s taking this seriously. However larger productions, and perhaps people who have been in the industry for longer, may not necessarily share that, and so it’s important for us to get the message to them that diversity hiring cannot be avoided anymore. It’s just not the right time for this, you know [laughs].
And personal motivation for people who work, especially in hiring positions, is very important. Not to mention that there are very little cinematography programs available for women specifically. I worked for an admissions team at the American Film Institute, a new cinematography initiative for women, where I helped select young and up-and-coming cinematographers. Pr ograms like that should exist across the board in the U.S. I don’t think it takes a lot for institutions to start small, intensive or introductory workshops for female cinematographers in order to make the position more accessible. I feel we have to bring people with different bodies, different skin tones, different accents who all will be equally qualified and talented to enter the industry.
And the last thing to say on that is, working with certain projects, I’ve heard the words “female energy” mentioned during job interviews, which I personally find doesn’t help me be a part of the industry, specifically as a woman cinematographer. People have different opinions on that, however I feel that highlighting the gender just puts us in a smaller, isolated box.
Those are all great steps that I hope the industry employs. You know it’s tough, because on the one hand I think everyone theoretically wants a meritocracy format to govern the hiring process, but on the other it’s like, the way the industry is shaped right now, it won’t allow that. You can’t just shift gears, you have to have all these other programs to get more women in the industry, and hopefully, when the balance is set and there’s not much discrimination, you can have a more fair system. But at the moment we do need more women for sure, and I hope we get more Rachel Morrisons nominated in the future.
I feel like there is a particular image that is so associated with what a cinematographer looks like and sounds, something that is perceived as professional, reliable and full of authority. People in positions of power (i.e., those who hire filmmakers) need to recognize these unconscious biases and prevent basing the decisions on these notions. The fact is we, as a society, generally have to ascribe equal time to people who do and do not fall into the stereotypes of the cinematographer, which is something I have been experiencing myself actually. And it’s something that extends beyond programs; it’s just something everyone will have to do as homework.
No, that’s true. I’d almost forgotten that stereotypes are something that have a lasting impact on perceptions in successive generations- they continue to appear and we have to fight that for sure. Moving on, first off, I’ll just say congratulations on getting the job shooting The Weeknd’s “Call Out My Name.” He’s one of my favorite artists working today.
I just have a question about music videos in general. It used to be that music videos and commercials were the entries into the film industry. You know you had famous directors like David Fincher and Zack Snyder that started off their careers doing music videos before moving onto feature films. But these days, music videos are lavish productions. That’s not to say there weren’t expensive ones before- we all know Michael Jackson put money behind his mini movies. However, it seems like even smaller artists are releasing videos with budgets larger than conventional indie films. What has your experience been like dealing with these budgets?
I feel that’s an interesting question because, as we experience music videos right now, we have to understand that this is no longer something that lives in just television; there are people who view it across different platforms. First and foremost I’ll say that what music videos relate to the development of visual albums, or providing different videos for different platforms, like we did with “Call Out My Name”- there was an exclusive video I shot for Spotify that was completely different from the YouTube lyric version followed by the official version that came out later. So right now, people have the opportunity to make it an all-encompassing experience for the song. And I can’t understand how somebody can’t be excited by that; I think it’s endless opportunities to be creative. Like for instance, I don’t know if you know about Hiro Murai, he’s the director who does the music videos for Childish Gambino. I feel like he understands YouTube viewership really well, making it the place for “This is America,” which was a huge success.
Now, I wouldn’t say that music videos today have the same budgets as they had in the Michael Jackson era, because again, the power of the labels across the music industry have been decentralized, and so now people have different incomes for funding the videos. But unfortunately, it’s still only the highest-grossing artists that get extraordinary budgets. However, all budgets have limitations, meaning you have to focus and center on an idea.
So working with the budget that we had for The Weeknd, especially for the Spotify video, was a nice experience, and that specifically came from the collaboration of myself, the director Joachim Johnson, and our producer Rebecca Hearn. We knew that we could only shoot for one day, and it was Joachim’s idea to bring in Sasha Lane, who is the actress from American Honey, to do this very dynamic performance in front of the TV screens, which have a pre-recorded image of The Weeknd. It was not an altogether extraordinarily expensive idea, but to executive it well and to incorporate the lighting changes to show emotional tones was quite challenging, and I was glad we had the resources to do it.
Overall, I think having strong performers, and being able to afford strong performers is what makes the experience so powerful.
You’re right, at first glance it seems like “okay, this is a smaller budget video,” but then when you see what’s actually on the screens, as well as what’s going on outside with the camera, it reveals something innovative that more people will appreciate as time goes on.
And another interesting thing is that we shot the two music videos back-to-back, because we knew that they were for different platforms. So I think what was interesting was designing something that would show part of the same content thematically, but be tailored specifically for the platform they would come out on, which was an interesting challenge.
And speaking of the two videos, I was wondering, were they shot in completely different sessions? Or was it shot together, and you just changed it up in the editing studio?
Well, what I’ve found with doing music videos personally is that people try to shoot as much content as possible in one shooting period, whatever it may be, be it a day or a week. So usually you’d find that I’d shoot one or two videos back-to-back, and on top of that you’d do multimedia content for the social platforms and so forth.
However, what was interesting was, thanks to the vision of our director, we knew that there was other content that was going to come out, and so we tried to make sure that it aesthetically-aligned with everything else. Before the release of “My Dear Melancholy,” it was very clear that The Weeknd had this very specific color palette, and so Johnson’s idea was to continue pushing that palette, and solidify it into just two colors, which was primary red and blue. And across the board, there were additional materials released with the same color palette, and very deep dark shadows and high contrast. So they all came out as one uniting theme behind all of them, which I think is interesting.
That’s what’s exciting about working across platforms- you get to maintain your visual identity in the very different media.
Oh okay, so it was about having a similar identity, while also having individual freedom with each video. I’m curious, you mentioned how you worked with the director and producer, while also wanting to be consistent with The Weeknd’s own established color palette. When it comes to shooting these videos for popular artists, how much freedom are you, the cinematographer, given in terms of what you want to do versus what the director, producer, and artist themselves want?
Well, I think that it’s very project-dependent and it also depends on your relationship with the director. I’ve been blessed in that a lot of the directors I’ve worked with involve me actively in collaborating with them, like with creating the shot list and designing lighting and camera movement. And this is really why I love what I do, because you get to work on these beautiful visuals together, and make them dynamic and immersive, and occasionally philosophical if the projects allows us to do so.
Joachim had worked on the album cover for The Weeknd’s “My Dear Melancholy,” so he was already invested in the aesthetics and look that The Weeknd was after. When we first talked, he already had a clear visual idea for what he wanted to do, and my job was to make sure that we did it eloquently and we would have all the right tools. Which, if you were to shoot a vertical anamorphic video, you would come to know that it’s not as simple as it may sound. Because, speaking of the right tools, if you are mounting the camera sideways on the steadicam with anamorphic lenses, a lot of the accessories don’t work the way you want them to work, and the more complex the rigs are the more of a challenge it is to mount them correctly: all to make sure that we shoot vertically.
No, I understand how there are different challenges that come with each project. Now, as you pointed out earlier, in the video there is a focus on blue and red light, which obviously pertains to the emotional circumstances described over the course of the song. But I’m curious, what challenges does strong colored-lighting like that present to you as a cinematographer?
I feel like there is a lot that you will have to encounter if you opt out for doing such a radical choice of color. One of the bigger problems with cameras of today is that they have Bayer patterns on their sensors, so ultimately by choosing only one color, you’re starving your sensor of some of the resolution that you might have had if you were to do it in full spectrum lighting. I feel like modern cameras handle colors, quite well considering the fact that you still lose a little bit of resolution if you opt out to shoot everything in one color. The benefit of doing it for a smaller sized platform, like iPhone or iPad, though makes it virtually impossible to see that difference.
But I think, more on the creative side, it’s hard to commit to go for a look like this because it cannot be undone without major consequences and loss of quality in the image. So once you do it, there is no way out of it. And the other thing is, I feel like filmmakers of today are exposed to one of the more popular technologies out there, which is LED lighting and especially RGB LED fixtures, that are currently in the market. So yeah, it’s quite a liberating time for driving colorful lighting all across the board, especially in the medium to low budget productions.
That’s a good point about people being more creative, and I definitely hope that more filmmakers embrace these styles and do cool things with them like you have with The Weeknd’s video. I also understand that you’re one of the pioneers for the industry shift to vertical anamorphic. Pardon for me asking, but the style really looks reminiscent of shooting a video on an iPhone, with obvious quality differences. But is that the notion that you’re going for with vertical anamorphic?
That is interesting that you say that because you can crop any footage to fit in on an iPhone screen – you can cut any footage vertically. However, there is a big quality difference between shooting on vintage Hawk anamorphic lenses supplied by Keslow Camera paired with top-of-the line ARRI sensor of the Alexa Mini, which was our camera of choice for that, versus sensors that lack that in dynamic range, as well as in resolution.
You also won’t have a lot of artifacts that these lenses have that you otherwise would not be able to get in your images. One of them is this very prolonged anamorphic flare where you have a light source in the frame and it just suddenly turns into this streak, which I guess is a very sci-fi look. In “Call Out My Name” music video for Spotify the camera and the lenses were mounted vertically, so instead of having this horizontal streak you have it vertically, which is one of the small things that constitutes the overall quality of the project. People may not necessarily notice it, but it creates a new experience altogether.
The other thing is that the lenses work differently with focus, having different focus fall off and optical distortions, and so the image gains certain cinematic qualities by using them. When people see this classic anamorphic look vertically, it may be quite unusual and enhancing the visual experience of what is in front of the frame. But then the lyrics themselves bring things together. So I think the choice of the vertical format paired with these lenses worked out for conveying the emotional experience of the song.
Thank you for explaining that for me. I hadn’t actually thought about all these other factors that come with filming in vertical anamorphic, in terms of not just quality but the different aesthetic evocations from the anamorphic lenses.
Yeah, it’s important to remember that anamorphic lenses have been used for all high budget cinema for generations now. It’s kind of a go-to for high-end action and science fiction cinema. So this look is familiar, almost from birth, to viewers, and I feel like it’s interesting to convert it for this new platform and continue bringing in this effect that these specific lenses have, but using them in a context where they feel a little bit unusual.
And I assume all those are the reasons why the music industry is starting to shift to this format right? Because of these factors, plus being a new look in general.
Again, everything is project-dependent, and I’m sure other people shoot differently for different stories and different experiences. But having that diversity and being able to choose between all of those is nice.
That’s cool. As we talked about earlier, music videos are more popular now than they have ever been before, and I hope we see more innovative cinematographic techniques.
On that note, it’s very important to remember that vertical content will be with us for a while. So cinematographers will have to adjust to the fact that this is now yet another thing that we produce images for, where it comes with its own set of rules. Such things as aspect ratios, lighting, composition, the camera movement work differently when viewed vertically. This is a challenge for people who are about to hop into the industry, as well as those who have been in here for a while, to make sure that these are not disregarded as just some low-end, content productions. You can actually make it quite a beautiful experience.
Oh for sure, and both versions of the music video were gorgeous to watch. Now, I just have one question about The Day That, which I know is the short film you worked on recently. I would ask more, but I really couldn’t find any information or footage of it outside of what was on the main site. I understand it was experimental in nature, and experimental movies can be hit-or-miss because you think you’re doing something good, but it turns out the audience doesn’t care for it. However, I understand this project was very personal to the director, Dorian Tocker, given that it’s based off of the loss of his father, so what was it about The Day That that made you want to invest hours into doing it?
The Day That is actually one of my favorite projects that I’ve worked on, partly because I am a great fan of Dorian Tocker’s work, and we had collaborated prior to that film. And also our producer, Cemile Seren Turam, who provided support that I’ve never had before. It’s thanks to her and Dorian’s patience that we managed to do this film together.
Similar tho the story in the film, I lost my father at a young age, and ultimately it was hearing Dorian talk about it and having all the pain and guilt and conflict – a mixture of emotions that I have carried with me since I was a teenager – that made me feel like this is a film that needs to be made and I need to be a part of that team. And I was very pleased that Dorian and Cemile decided to take me on this journey.
Like you said, it’s an experimental drama, so there’s very little dialogue: it’s driven by visuals in order to create a sense of minutia and emotions overwhelming every day life, taking control of all of the people in it as they’re dealing with their grief. We tried to make sure that the environment and the internal grieving process had each family member in contrast and juxtaposed, yet constantly working with each other. And I feel like we did a good job, we all are very proud of it.
We’re still in the festival round. Even when we premiered a few months ago, this film is still quite early for us. But working with our creative team and with our cast was something special, because everybody was on board to experiment, and ultimately having a very tight budget and a very tight schedule pushed us to experiment more, rather than less.
And again, thanks to Dorian’s trust and to me, we also did quite a lot of experimentation with the lighting and really using lighting to pin and externalize the conflict and thoughts of the characters where they may not necessarily have a line of dialogue. I feel like with this film, we’ve been talking and in production with it for so long, I think our pre-production was 7-8 months. But when we finally got into visual references, that’s where it became clear to us that we just couldn’t find anything within canonical, traditional filmmaking that works to reflect our experiences. So ultimately, we kind of looked into Tod Hido photography, we watched a lot of indie films, and Bas Devos’s movie Violet was a very big inspiration for us: all of his films use cinematic time to create pressure, what one may call “slow cinema.”
So for us, getting into that plan and watching cinema was about discovering what resonates with us most. And really then going for it. There were side people bringing up concerns about how it may affect future distribution, but the fact that we went without even questioning our instincts made it the powerful piece that we’re so proud of.
And I do wish that it does get a wider release, because when you hear that kind of passion put into a project, it definitely makes me want to see it. It’s heartbreaking to lose a parent, especially at that age.
I feel like ultimately everybody has to go through losing their parents or their loved ones, and this is just such a terrible and painful experience. And yet, it’s so widespread and shared by literally the majority of people on the planet. You know, it’s an interesting field to explore just how we grieve, interact, and lose each other.
That’s a beautiful way of putting it. Last question, I found your background very interesting in that you began by using your photography skills to pursue the real world and nonfiction through your work with news companies, but now you find yourself in the realm of fiction with music videos and short films. What’s it been like to bring those two worlds together?
It’s been a blessing that I’ve had to work for newspapers and online digital agencies across the world, because being on an assignment in the field is a very scary and very challenging experience that makes you decide on what you feel is the truthful representation of what is happening in front of you, and not really getting the time to think about it or to ponder or analyze other angles. It’s just the media’s response to your sense of truthfulness to the events, and then, further down the line, when I think about how I moved more towards fictional work, the same response when you are encountering something that is not true, can also work in fiction where people create emotional truths through dialogue, through performance, and again through lighting and camera moves and all the other tools in our arsenal. So I feel like it’s just responding to something that feels true and authentic to me, and making human experiences for people to relate to and connect to.
For sure, film definitely has that. And with mass media, you can see how all these images and videos have nationwide impact. And I’m glad that you’ve been able to naturally bring your own experiences into your current field, while innovating the genre. And I hope you have a great career Ms. Nikonova.
Thank you so much!
Flickering Myth would like to thank Ms. Nikonova for sitting down with us. Readers can watch The Weeknd’s “Call Out Your Name” on YouTube and Spotify.