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.
Cinematographer. Nominated for an Academy Award for Cinematography for Ida by Paweł Pawlikowski. Born 24th June, 1981.
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 - the Melancholy of Etgar Keret
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 - the World's in Shreds
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.
Paparazzi Trailer from Lukasz Zal on Vimeo.
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 - the Value of Small 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.
Joanna - zwiastun from Culture.pl on Vimeo.
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 - Best 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.
Łukasz Żal o "Idzie" from Culture.pl on Vimeo.
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 the Oscars
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.
Loving Vincent – Filming Animation
One of the most unusual cinematography experiences in Żal’s career was his next film – Loving Vincent, a feature-length animation using real paintings. 65,000 paintings were used for this 95-minute-long story, inspired by tens of Vincent van Gogh’s more and less known paintings. From among 5,000 entries, 125 artists were chosen, who, frame by frame, painted the story of the Dutch artist, using more than 3,000 litres of paint.
However, before they started work on the paintings, Łukasz Żal, together with the directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, and the second cinematographer Tristan Oliver, had to capture every shot with real actors and a stanard camera. Only after being filmed, the material became a canvas for the animated film, which ended up being nominated for an Academy Award.
Dovlatov – a Dream of a Spiritual Journey
In 2018, another exceptional film with Żal’s cinematography came on to the big screen: Dovlatov, directed by Aleksei German Jr., a Russian director who has worked on a number of Polish-Russian co-productions. The story depicts several days from the life of the prominent Russian writer Sergei Dovlatov who was sentenced to artistic non-existence by the authorities in the 1970s. Łukasz Maciejewski wrote the following in his review of the film written for the Onet website:
The oneiric ‘Dovlatov’ is a film in the spirit of Angelopoulos, a film about awaiting one’s fate, the never-ending journey and the problem of nature versus culture […]. Łukasz Żal’s cinematography looks as if it was taken straight out of ‘Ulysses’ Gaze’ or ‘Eternity and a Day’ – the Greek director’s later masterpieces. In his films, Theo Angelopoulous invoked the salvaged rudiments of a great cultural legacy. He emphasised that a self-conscious filmmaker cannot limit himself, be ashamed of grandiose words, scenes and of pathos. What irritates in others, comes out as a lesson of cinegenic beauty in the works of Angelopoulos or his student, German.
Cold War – Love Poetry
Żal also hit poetic notes also in Cold War, the second film he created with director Paweł Pawlikowski.
Pawlikowski’s lyrical melodrama is the story of Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) – lovers whose lives alternately separate and come together again. It takes place over two decades and in several diverse sceneries (from Poland under the communist regime, through Yugoslavia and 1960s Paris). It is a story of the impossibility of fulfilment and about two people who don’t know how to live with each other, but also can’t live without each other. This poetic film brought over 900,000 Polish viewers to cinemas. It also became one of the biggest hits of international festivals worldwide.
In 2019, Cold War received three Oscar nominations: for the Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director and Best Cinematography. Żal, for whom Cold War was only his fifth feature film, received his second Oscar nomination, writing a new chapter in the history of Polish cinema. Members of the Academy appreciated his black-and-white cinematography, with its noticeable inspirations from the films of Wojciech Jerzy Has, the French New Wave and the masterpieces of the Polish school of cinema.
- 2019 Cold War - ASC Award (American Association of Cinematographers): Best Cinematography
- 2019 Cold War - Oscar (Academy Award) nomination: Best Cinamatography
- 2019 Cold War - BAFTA Award nomination: Best Cinematography
- 2019 Cold War - London Critics' Circle Film Awards: award for technical achievments
- 2018 Cold War - Camerimage Festival, the Silver Frog in the Main Competition: Cinematography
- 2016 Icon - Cracow Film Festival - Best Cinematography
- 2015 Ida - Oscar (Academy Award) nomination in the category: Best Cinematography
- 2015 Ida - BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award) nomination in the category: Cinematography
- 2014 Ida - San Francisco (The San Francisco Film Critics Circle Awards) Award in the category: Cinematography
- 2014 Ida - Eagle (Polish Film Award) nomination in the category: Cinematography
- 2014 Ida - Eagle (Polish Film Award) nomination in the category: Discovery of the year
- 2014 Ida - PSC Award (Society of Cinematographers)
- 2014 Ida - European Film Award (formerly Felix) Award in the category: Best Cinematography
- 2014 Left Side of the Face - Doha (Aljazeera International Documentary Film Festival) Award for cinematography
- 2014 Ida - Bucharest (Medias Central European Film Festival) Award for cinematography for the ‘composition and black-and-white cinematography, which allow for a better understanding of the family tragedy of the young woman and her struggle in a ruthless world’
- 2014 Ida - ASC Spotlight Award
- 2013 Ida - Warsaw (Jewish Film Festival) Award for Best Cinematography
- 2013 Ida - Minsk (Listapad International Film Festival) Award for cinematography
- 2013 Ida - Gdynia (until 1986 Gdańsk) (Gdynia Film Festival) Award for cinematography
- 2013 Ida - Bydgoszcz (fom 2010; 1993-99 Toruń; 2000-09 Łódź) (Plus Camerimage International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography) Golden Frog in the Main Competition
- 2011 Paparazzi - Bydgoszcz (from 2010; 1993-99 Toruń; 2000-09 Łódź) (Plus Camerimage International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography) Golden Frog in the Short Documentary Films Competition
- 2008 Master of the World - Offskar (Polish Independent Cinema Awards) Best Cinematography
Author: Bartosz Staszczyszyn, transl. Bozhana Nikolova, February 2015; updated by BS, 2019.