Łukasz Żal, born 24th June, 1981, is one of the most talented young cinematographers in Poland. His work on Paweł Pawlikowski's Ida, the most spectacular cinematographic debut in many years, was nominated for an Academy Award for Cinematography.
Łukasz Żal is only 33 years old, but among his achievements are films such as Joanna by Aneta Kopacz, Paparazzi by Piotr Bernaś, Ida by Pawel Pawlikowski, as well as a European Film Award, a BAFTA Award nomination, two Golden Frogs at the Camerimage Festival and an Oscar nomination.
Although his cinematographic debut was just a few months ago, Łukasz Żal is now one of the most famous names of Polish cinema in the world. Variety magazine named him one of the most promising cinematographers whose next films should be given particular attention, and in February 2014, members of the prestigious American Society of Cinematographers gave him the Spotlight award for cinematography for Ida.
Master of the World – Etgar Keret’s melancholy
He graduated from the Cinematography Department of the National Film School in Lódź in 2008 and the AFA School of Photography in Wrocław. For one of his first student films, Master of the World (which can be viewed online on Lódź Film School's website) Łukasz Żal received an Offskar, an Independent Polish Cinema award.
The cinematographer’s film, which he also directed, is an adaptation of a short story by Etgar Keret from the volume Missing Kissinger (transl. A. Maciejowska, Warsaw, 2008). It tells the story of a young boy whose father is celebrating his fiftieth birthday, and this opens a new chapter in his son’s life. The story of one day in the life of the character was an attempt by Żal to test his cinematographic skills (a dynamic camera led the character through a deserted town), a film adaptation which revealed all the irony and melancholy of Keret’s story.
After graduation, he was the cameraman of the film God’s Little Village by Jacek Bromski. He worked under the supervision of the first cinematographer and professor of the National Film School in Lódź, Ryszard Lenczewski, with whom he filmed Paweł Pawlikowski's Ida a few years later. Żal also created music videos, sitcoms and adverts, and cooperated with companies such as Nike, Mercedes, Bosch & Siemens and Credit Agricole.
Paparazzi – a fragmented world
A turning point in his career was the documentary Paparazzi by Piotr Bernaś. This is a story about Przemysław Stoppa, one of the most famous Polish paparazzi. However, the film is more than just a documentary portrait – it is also the story of the fierce sensationalism of contemporary media and the moral boundaries which are very often crossed by photojournalists.
Originally Bernaś (himself an excellent cinematographer) was supposed to take the role for Paparazzi, but after a few months he invited Łukasz Żal to take part in the project.
At first, I was very happy, because this is an extremely attractive film topic. But on the first day, I realised that my job would mainly consist in sitting in a cramped car and searching for a relatively good shot - says Łukasz Żal in an interview with Culture.pl.
Talking about Stoppa’s everyday work, Żal and Bernaś chose a form that would reveal the character’s personality and his way of being. ‘Przemek is very nervous, constantly drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. He was always very excited and ready to go’, remembers Żal, and the film about him was built on short, quickly assembled close-ups. With tight, dynamic shots, Bernaś and Żal showed the tension which always accompanied their character.
Paparazzi happened to me at a particular moment. I had worked on television series and adverts, I did some panning, but I lacked a challenge and a sense of purpose. Paparazzi was such a challenge. After that film, my professional life started to take off.
- says Żal in an interview with Culture.pl.
In 2011 Żal received a Golden Frog for cinematography in the Short Documentary Films Competition at the Camerimage festival, and the film by Bernaś opened the doors to subsequent film projects.
Joanna - a life woven from gestures
Two films in which he directed the photography hit the screens in 2013: Left Side of the Face by Marcin Bortkiewicz (for which he received an award for cinematography at the Al Jazeera International Documentary Film Festival in Doha) and Joanna by Aneta Kopacz. The latter in particular was a proof of his cinematographic artistry.
Aneta Kopacz’s documentary is the story of Joanna Sałyga, a young woman suffering from cancer who recorded her memories from the last months of her life on an internet blog. Talking about her, Kopacz did not make a film about death, but about life, about its beauty and strength. In 2015, the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary – Short Subject.
Much of the credit goes to Łukasz Żal, who draws a subtle portrait of Joanna and her loved ones. His warm pastel shots immortalise the most mundane activities – walking through a meadow, working in the kitchen, learning to ride a bike... He looks at his characters from a distance; he does not cross the boundary of intimacy even for a moment. At the same time, using short shots and paying attention to unremarkable details, he manages to capture the beauty of the moments experienced by the characters, their longing, fear and love.
This was a beautiful, but difficult and painful work. I portrayed suffering, yet I did not want to invade someone’s privacy. Joanna really helped me. There was remarkable understanding between us, and I felt that she let me in her world.
– recalls the cinematographer in an interview with Culture.pl.
Ida – cinematographic debut of the decade
Soon after, Żal was on the set of another film – Ida by Paweł Pawlikowski. He was to be a cameraman, and once again work under the supervision of Ryszard Lenczewski, Pawlikowski’s permanent cameraperson. Everything changed when Lenczewski fell ill and had to withdraw from the project. As a result, Żal became the chief cameraman and was given the opportunity for his feature-length film debut.
From the very beginning the film was admired by critics. Tim Robey from The Telegraph called Ida ‘a miraculous, immaculate masterwork’, and journalists from all over the world praised the phenomenal black and white cinematography of Łukasz Żal and Ryszard Lenczewski. Produced in a 4:3 format, the images define the way in which the film is perceived. The composition of frames is striking: details and close-ups in Ida are adjacent to more spacious scenery with lots of ‘air’ – empty spaces above the heads of the characters. Long, mostly static shots build the atmosphere of the film and delight with their artistic beauty.
In Ida we wanted to show the world as Paweł remembered it from his childhood. This world is not cluttered, but made up of simple forms. It was really important to me that the image was as aesthetic as possible. When I was studying at the Lódź Film School, Professor Jerzy Wójcik often spoke about how much beauty is hidden in the simplicity of Romanesque churches with their purity and lack of decoration. When we were shooting Ida I understood what he meant
- said Żal to Culture.pl.
Ida brought many awards and distinctions for Żal. For his debut with Ryszard Lenczewski Żal received a Golden Frog for Cinematography at the Camerimage festival in Gdynia, a European Film Award, a BAFTA Award and an Oscar nomination, as well as awards from the American Society of Cinematographers and the Polish Society of Cinematographers.
After such an amazing debut, Żal had to decide on his next step: he chose the collaboration with talented, young directors. Magnus von Horn's The Here After (2015), shown in Cannes and awarded for Best Direction and Best Screenplay in Gdynia, turned out to be a great success. The Polish-Swedish production about a young boy who has to face his own crime and the ostracism of his peers was widely acclaimed. Żal's cinematography perfectly conveyed the chilly atmosphere and were like a look from the distance, so characteristic of Scandinavian cinema. Żal was also responsible for cinematography in Wojciech Kasperski's The High Frontier (2016), a thriller set in Bieszczady. He collaborated with the director also on Icon (2016) - a story about a psychiatric institution in the Siberian province. The film was awarded with Złoty Lajkonik award and FIPRESCI award at the Cracow Film Festival, where Żal was also honoured for best cinematography.
Author: Bartosz Staszczyszyn, transl. Bozhana Nikolova, February 2015; updated by NMR, October 2016.