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Aymerick Pilarski, AFC chooses Cooke S8/i FF and Panchro/i Classic FF for feature film 'Black Tea'

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By: The Cooke Team  |   2 min read

‘Black Tea’ was shot by multi-awarded cinematographer Aymerick Pilarski, AFC and marks his first time working with Mauritanian-born director Abderrahmane Sissako. This is the latest film directed by the Academy Award and Cannes festival nominated director who previously won seven César Awards for his film ‘Timbuktu’ (2014). Pilarski employed the Cooke S8/i FF and Panchro/i Classic FF lenses for the film.

On the day of her wedding, Aya, a woman in her early thirties from Côte d’Ivoire West Africa, surprises everyone by declining her groom. She relocates to Guangzhou, China, securing employment in a tea export shop. There, she encounters Cai, a 45-year-old Chinese man, and they develop a romantic connection. However, their relationship encounters obstacles stemming from their pasts and societal prejudices.

Pilarski originally studied film in France before relocating to Australia to concentrate on visual arts. Whilst in Melbourne he discovered stage lighting design, quickly becoming captivated by its potential for emotional impact. Aymerick had been fascinated by Asian culture and when he chose to specialize in Cinematography he wished to combine the two interests. He learnt Mandarin and enrolled at the prestigious Beijing Film Academy from which he graduated more than 15 years ago. A 10-year stint in China proved fruitful and he shot both national and international productions for which he was awarded at major international film festivals with films such as “Egg” (Mongolian entry for the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film and Berlinale Golden Bear nominee). The COVID-19 pandemic brought him back to Europe where he is now primarily involved in international feature film co-productions.

Pilarski muses that collaborating with a seven-time César Awards winner could suggest there would be challenges, but overall he found it to be an incredibly enjoyable and rewarding artistic exchange.

“Abderrahmane is an intuitive director who finds inspiration in those around him. As a director of photography, it’s crucial for me to grasp the director’s vision, even when it’s not explicitly articulated. This aspect of my job can be described as psychological, as I strive to translate abstract concepts into tangible images.” From here the director provided feedback on whether the visual representation aligned with his vision. Despite no prior work together the duo were able to quickly establish a common visual language for the film.

The film narrates the journey of Aya, who relocates from Africa to “Chocolate City,” a real-life African district nestled within China. The film’s aesthetic draws inspiration from the vibrant essence of the location, a multicultural trading hub pulsating with neon lights against an Asian backdrop.

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Stills from Black Tea
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Stills from Black Tea

Despite the real-world setting the priority visually became more about capturing Aya’s imaginative perception of the place rather than aiming for complete realism. This allowed the team to play with reality, incorporating elements such as reflections, and filming all the scenes at night to infuse the environment with a striking and poetic ambiance. As a result there is a compelling visual contrast between the daytime scenes in Africa and the nocturnal atmosphere of Asia.

The cinematographer wanted vibrant colours and a modern aesthetic that would reflect Aya’s imaginative vision rather than adhering absolutely to reality. Pilarski reviewed camera and lens tests at the AFC (French Society of Cinematographers) and swiftly concluded that a full frame camera would be the ideal choice to accomplish his desired look. “Not only would it offer the vibrancy and modernity I sought, but it would also provide the flexibility to shoot in the narrow, natural locations commonly found in Taiwan.”

When it came to picking lenses shooting on Cooke came to mind very quickly. “I am aware that Sissako’s cinema is primarily characterized by its poetic essence. This is precisely why Cooke lenses immediately came to mind when I first read the script. Cooke lenses effectively convey a poetic vision through the delicate softness they impart, while still retaining sharpness, and warmth. This aligned perfectly with the cinematic aesthetic we aimed to achieve.”

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Aymerick Pilarski on the set of Black Tea
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Above: Aymerick Pilarski & Abderrahmane Sissako. Below: Black Tea BTS

Pilarski had previously utilized both spherical and anamorphic Cooke lenses across several productions but he hadn’t yet used the latest full frame offerings. As such, and with the script in mind, he initially tested the S8s and Panchro Classics (both FF) at the Paris Micro Salon 2022. “Although it can be challenging to fully assess lenses in an exhibition setting, I was immediately captivated by the aesthetic they provided. Subsequently, I conducted camera tests with these lenses in Paris before heading to Asia, and the results confirmed that they were indeed the perfect lenses for the project.”

Pilarski takes the approach of always planning ahead and takes the responsibility of being the film’s visual guardian seriously. Whenever he starts working on a new project, he makes a point of reaching out to as many departments as possible to share ideas and reach an alignment well before the first day of shooting. This proactive approach helps prevent many mistakes and it extends to his testing process in which he evaluates the complete image pipeline and workflow.

“I conducted camera tests with some of the actors in Paris, not only to select the right camera and lenses but also to allow the director to see the actors on a big screen for the first time. This is a significant moment where I invite every department to contribute ideas in the color grading suite. With everyone involved and able to see the images, it becomes easier for us to engage in a concrete discussion about the film’s visual aspects. Moreover, it serves as a crucial moment to test the workflow and establish a LUT (Look-Up Table).”

Furthermore, Pilarski reached out to the editor who worked on Sissako’s previous film, ‘Timbuktu’ to gain a better understanding of the director’s filming approach. This enabled him to get a sense of the director’s preferences such as number of takes, desired level of coverage, the pacing of editing and preferences for shot sizes.

Principal photography consisted of 7 weeks in Taiwan and a further 3 in Africa. Pilarski remembers that despite very rarely seeing the sun in Asia, with all the work taking place at night, the weather remained extremely hot and humid and the temperature only rose once they relocated to Africa!

“The entire shooting process felt like a journey, characterized by constant transitions: switching between Mandarin, English, and French; moving between different countries; adjusting to new technical crews; and constantly meeting new people. It was a whirlwind experience that enriched both the filming process and my personal journey.”

To achieve distinct visual aesthetics between the settings of Asia and Africa the cinematographer employed different lens combinations. The S8s were used for the West Africa portions and the Panchro Classics for the Asian night scenes.

“This choice allowed me to create unique looks for each location while maintaining a cohesive visual narrative throughout the film.”

Aymerick Pilarski, AFC | Director of Photography

When it came to challenges, the night scenes in Asia would regularly prove to be tricky. Numerous pre-existing light sources illuminated the environment and some were beyond the production’s control. Additionally, the diverse range of skin tones amongst the actors added another layer of complexity and the incorporation of glass frames and mirrors to create reflections didn’t simplify the task! However by aiming to maintain a diverse range of colours in the images and making sure there was adequate contrast Pilarski was able to achieve his desired visual impact.

The scenes shot in the basement of the Tea Shop became a place where the Cookes really shone. Pilarski and Sissako aimed to establish a cocoon-like atmosphere for the two characters in which their intimacy could be fully revealed. These scenes were predominantly lit with a single bulb and diffused top light, but thanks to the contrast characteristics of the lenses any harshness in the simplistic lighting setup was avoided by maintaining a good level in the shadowy areas. This approach helped to enhance the emotional depth of the scenes while preserving the desired aesthetic.

“The Cooke lenses played a crucial role in achieving the poetic aesthetic I sought. Their subtle softness, coupled with natural contrast, perfectly complemented the visual storytelling, enhancing the overall cinematic experience.”

‘Black Tea’ was in competition at the Berlinale festival and is currently released theatrically in France.