Cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw Is Bringing a Visual Subtlety to the Marvel Cinematic Universe

The week after “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” claimed its spot at the top of the box office, the film’s director of photography found herself simultaneously delighted and exhausted by the film’s success.

“This is new to me, honestly, ” Autumn Durald Arkapaw told IndieWire at the annual EnergaCamerimage cinematography festival in Toruń, Poland. “So yeah, I do feel pressure, but I think that’s what you work for, right? If you really want to do great work, you push to that moment. And if it finally comes to you, you better put a smile on your face.”

Durald Arkapaw describes her career as going from “little fashion films to music videos to indies to studios.” She first drew attention for her sensitive camerawork on Gia Coppola’s “Palo Alto,” before shooting with Elle Fanning on Max Minghella’s directorial debut, “Teen Spirit.” Her work on “Loki” and “Wakanda Forever” helped shift the previously bright and shiny Marvel universe into a more somber, even melancholy look. Using new cameras, lenses, and lighting schemes, Durald Arkapaw and her team added nuance and subtlety that performers and viewers alike have embraced.

For “Loki,” Durald Arkapaw was part of a team of newcomers to Marvel, including director Kate Herron and production designer Kasra Farahani. Durald Arkapaw consulted with her friend and “Black Panther” DP Rachel Morrison about “Wakanda Forever” prior to meeting with director Ryan Coogler.

“It was really important to him that there be this texture of grief throughout the film,” she said. “Grief can feel like a dream. That played a big role in our lensing. I’m a fan of anamorphic, and Ryan had yet to shoot an anamorphic film. So our conversation started with that. In a way he was already setting a framework for me to push the envelope.”

They talked about “Alien” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” films that felt naturalistic despite their effects. Durald Arkapaw and Coogler tried to ground even the wildest “Wakanda Forever” scenes in some sort of reality: “You see something that looks completely fake, like when they’re climbing up the hull of a giant ship in the middle of the ocean,” she said. “We actually shot that.” They also leaned heavily on darkness. “I tend to light moodier and that was embraced here,” she said. “I always feel like lighting is a character in the film. Light shouldn’t fall everywhere. A character should come in and out of light, like real life.”

Durald Arkapaw prefers to light stages beforehand, so actors can come onto a clear set and not be distracted by equipment. “But I don’t want to do broad lighting,” she said. “I don’t want to just light the stage with a big soft box, where people are walking around and everyone has the same exposure level, right? I want each face to have contrast and be shaped. There’s so much texture and drama to a face. If you don’t shape it, then you don’t feel the emotion” — like in a searing “Wakanda Forever” speech from Angela Bassett’s Queen Ramonda.

“That’s my favorite scene,” Durald Arkapaw said. “I was on the set and staring right into her eyes when she did that. Every time I watch that, I start crying.”

She had a handheld camera move in close for a funeral scene between Shuri (Letitia Wright) and M’Baku (Winston Duke). “When we were shooting that beautiful, intimate scene, I center punched Shuri on her coverage,” Durald Arkapaw said. “Ryan asked me to bring in more of M’Baku’s shoulder, make it more prominent. My brain wasn’t automatically thinking that way, but in Ryan’s mind Shuri was meeting M’Baku, who’s a big force in her life. Ryan wanted to show how empowering M’Baku was in that moment, to have his big shoulder looking over her. I watch the film now and I love that frame. I remember specifically on that day he asked for that. It’s just so thoughtful and helpful for the story.”

There’s also a shot of Shuri in her lab, where what appears like a narrow depth of field contributes to the uneasiness the Wakandan princess and scientist is feeling. “I like to shoot wide open, which in anamorphic accentuates that narrow depth of field,” Durald Arkapaw said. “It looks very shallow. For closeups, I tend to use a 35mm, which is one of the widest for anamorphic. In intimate moments when you’re really close, I think that lens looks beautiful. But I think what you’re probably feeling more is I tend to like my anamorphics with fall off on the edges. It feels like a shallow depth of field, but we also detune the lenses. So there are these aberrations and you feel like you’re closing in on the character.”

On “Wakanda Forever,” Durald Arkapaw used a Sony Venice, shooting 6K with detuned T-series Panavision anamorphic lenses modified by Dan Sasaki. She could set her own specifications: “How much fall off do you want? How far do you want it to reach to the center of the lens? So if I’m photographing you right now and I want it to be blurry on your hair, but have your eyes snap in — you can do that. It’s that precise.”

If one thing came up in IndieWire’s conversations with Durald Arkapaw at Camerimage, it was collaboration. She was quick to credit department heads like production designer Hannah Beachler. “That’s such a huge relationship for a DP,” she said. “Without them you have nothing to light and you have no space and you have no framework for the actor. It’s not about just making things look good, it’s about that collaboration, working to create a structure that will create a mood. On ‘Loki’ we fought for ceilings, so Hannah knew that I would want them here. Her ceilings had great texture.”

She also singled out visual effects supervisor Geoffrey Baumann and the entire VFX team. “You’re not combative, you’re not trying to have your own agenda, you’re collaborative,” she said. “That’s why at the end, VFX is spending hours helping you map your lenses. Vendors don’t usually have profiles for the lenses we used because they’re so unique and they’re so bespoke. For them to take that time, do hundreds of charts so they can tell how the flares react, where the fall off is, where the aberrations are — that’s commitment.”

Marvel productions are known to be tightly controlled, storyboarded and prevized to the nth degree. Did Durald Arkapaw find it hard to keep her creative voice on “Wakanda Forever”?

“I was very fortunate to have had ‘Loki’ prior to ‘Panther,’” she said. “I think there was some support going into the next project. The Marvel producers were familiar with how I work, how I like to shoot. Now doing boards and previz is very tedious, right? I may not agree with some of what we’re doing. I sometimes think, I’m not sure that’s going work. But it’s at least a framework for when you get there.

“There’s a scene in the script and there’s a whale jumping over a freeway. They’re underwater, swimming around, and it’s just like, ‘What is that? I have no idea how we’re gonna shoot that.’ Months and months later it evolves, you see the effects come in, and they’re great. That’s one reason why you need the previz.”

Durald Arkapaw was a vibrant presence at Camerimage, heading the jury for the TV Series competition, attending Q&As, and sitting on a Sony Venice panel with Claudio Mirando (“Top Gun: Maverick”) and Arnau Valls Colomer (“The English”).

“I’ve never been here before, I’ve only heard about it through other DPs,” she said. “I don’t think anything prepares you for this experience. To be able to open your film, one of the biggest openings I’ve had in my career, to be around so many filmmakers and craftspeople where you’re getting direct feedback about your work — it’s just so rewarding and encouraging and inspirational. I just had a conversation with Mandy Walker and I was so touched to be able to talk to her in this environment and to pay it forward.”

The Camerimage screening of “Wakanda Forever” was only the second time she’d screened the film, after its premiere (“where I had a seat all the way in the corner”). Of course, that’s after weeks of color grading in post-production.

“Your job as a DP isn’t just in production,” she explains. “It’s to carry out the visual language, the direction of photography, from start to finish. There are so many people who go into making your final image. You have to be very clear on what you want that to be. If everyone’s on the same page, then it can happen.”

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