Natasha Braier enhances emotion of cinematography

FF2 Media staff writers are using our time in quarantine to reflect on the influence of women artists – especially behind the camera, where women account for only six percent of cinematographers working on top-grossing films, according to research from San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.

Though only five women have ever been nominated for the Best Director honor at the Academy Awards, only one woman has ever been nominated for Best Cinematography (Rachel Morrison, who worked on Mudbound and Black Panther).

But several female cinematographers are doing beautiful work, bringing a keen sense of visual art to moving pictures and creating memorable images. Cinematography is not an aspect of film I’d normally call “emotional.” It’s a practical way to view a story through a lens, to make it look appealing and pleasing to the eye. Writing and acting are more obviously connected to emotion, creating a character’s journey with words and feelings. But photography has always seemed more like a practical and mechanical skill, as manual as operating a camera or managing sound. If a director of photography is good at her job, that means we shouldn’t notice it. It should be as beautiful as a painting that feels so effortlessly alive, we forget it was created with a brush. 

At least that’s how I viewed the art before I saw Honey Boy last year, in which Natasha Braier’s imagery perfectly emulated the emotionally taxing story between characters onscreen. Alma Har’el’s poignant picture of the life of young Shia LaBeouf won her won a Director’s Guild of America Award. The stunning film chronicles the child actor Otis’ (Noah Jupe) complicated relationship with his manipulative father (played by LaBeouf); Lucas Hedges plays an older Otis, looking back on his childhood trauma and understanding how it relates to his current place in life – a court-mandated rehabilitation program.

As emotionally complex and beautifully-written as Honey Boy is (LaBeouf wrote the script in rehab and sent it to his friend Har’el), it’s Braier’s skilled photography that makes it especially memorable. Mentally conjuring the story of Otis and James is easy – especially picturing the dark and tiny seedy highway motel where they live, where the blue and purple lights glow off of the dirty pool, where prostitutes sit in lawn chairs across the way. The tangible heat of the LA summer only adds to the discomfort, the cramped room where they live, the lonely sound stage where Otis works on a kid’s sitcom. 

Braier and Har’el create singular images of a lonely boy who can’t rely on his father. The uneven tone and unpredictability of his rage and behavior is matched by the images on the screen. The highs and lows of their struggle are documented through chaotic fight scenes and peaceful moments of joy – the change in imagery only adding to the changes that arise seemingly out of nowhere when James enters a rage. 

Honey Boy should also be applauded for its consistency – scenes of preteen Otis and his adult counterpart are both tinged with light, giving the viewer hope for his future, and maybe LaBeouf’s. Braier expertly fills a film that is ultimately about empathy with light in the darkness, preventing it from becoming a dreary and entirely unhopeful film. This makes Honey Boy unique – it expresses a complex and harrowing relationship that makes you feel for the abused, while sharing in and understanding his refreshing approach to forgiveness. The marriage of these emotions and the visuals are subtle but important, thanks to Braier’s keen eye, which won her a nomination from the Film Independent Spirit Awards

What was important in Honey Boy was to create that space between fiction and documentary but also to convey Otis’s dreamworld and psychological reality,” she told Film Comment in 2019. “My parents are Freudian shrinks, so I’m super fascinated with any kind of healing modality. When you go through therapy, you’re in contact with your inner child, and there are all these theories in quantum physics that claim time doesn’t exist and if you heal a trauma today, you can take that energy into the past and heal your ancestors. So from a cinematography standpoint, it was interesting to play with the parallel between the adult and the kid and suggest there’s only one space-time [for the character]—that of trauma. Although I was improvising a lot of things on the shoot, my guideline was to blend past and present through camera and lighting, and the edit accentuated those links, like when Otis’s screams in the forest echo with those of his younger self.”

Photo by J Trueblood/Fabula/Sony/Kobal/Shutterstock (10157070c)

Braier has worked on five other films from female filmmakers, including the especially unique 2016 thriller The Neon Demon, along with The Milk of Sorrow and XXY.  The 2018 mid-life crisis drama Gloria Bell stars Julianne Moore as a woman in her 50s attempting to start a new chapter by dancing at Los Angeles clubs. What it lacks in story, Gloria Bell makes up for in visuals, creating the same signature colors, movement and light as Honey Boy – eliciting emotion from a very different story focused on a different age group, but a shared humanity. Braier expertly combines a character’s emotional growth with whatever is surrounding her. For Otis that’s a seedy motel, an open freeway, a lonely soundstage. For Gloria it’s a purple-hued night club, dancing in the darkness.

Braier met iconic cinematographer Roger Deakins on the awards circuit in early 2020, writing in an Instagram post: “When the maestro Deakins tells you how much he loved the cinematography in 

‘Honey Boy,’ that it’s his favourite of the year and that it reminded him of himself when he was younger, and you think, ‘Is this really happening?’” She wrote that she will replay the video of meeting Deakins when she feels low. “It was better than when I got the ASC nomination and I think winning wouldn’t have match[ed] it either.” 

It’s fun to imagine some young girl with a camera meeting Braier one day and feeling the same way. Thanks to the work of women like her and Morrison, it just might be possible.

© Georgiana E. Presecky (4/29/2020) FF2 Media

Photos Courtesy of Amazon Studios, Film Comment and American Cinematographer 

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