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'Black Dog' wins Un Certain Regard at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival

Black Dog shot on Cooke s4/i
By: The Cooke Team  |   2 min read

The 77th Festival De Cannes took place in May this year, celebrating the work of talented filmmakers from around the world. Director Guan Hu’s ‘Black Dog’ took home the Un Certain Regard Prize at the 2024 Prix. The film follows Lang, an ex-convict who returns to his hometown in Northwest China with the task of clearing stray dogs before the 2008 Olympics. Lang finds himself bonding with a black stray and the two souls embark on a new journey together.

The film was shot by Cinematographer Gao Weizhe who once said to the director: “Could we film like students who have just graduated from film school, make a simple and honest film without any ulterior motives?”.

Black Dog shot on Cooke s4/i Gao Weizhe and Guan Hu

This isn’t the first time the pair have worked together. Guan Hu hired Weizhe after graduating from the Cinematography Department and they have collaborated on many films since, such as “My people, my country” and “Revolutionist”. Shot in the Gobi wilderness, Black Dog presented different challenges to their previous work.

One of the aims Weizhe had was to make sure to capture the naturalistic lighting in the film. He chose Cooke Anamorphic/i S35 lenses for Black Dog, having heard of them previously during his time as an undergraduate in the Cinematography Department. Weizhe associated the ‘Cooke Look’ with being unique, soft and understated, words he had heard his professor use when talking about the lenses. This was undoubtedly a large influence on his lens choice for Black Dog.

The cinematographer first used Cooke lenses in his second year on a commercial, during the era in which cinematic filmmaking was becoming more influential. Weizhe used the Cooke S4/i lenses on the shoot, remarking that the 65mm at f2.8 added an ‘indescribable abstract beauty’ to the image. Having been so impressed with the lenses, he used them again on a later award-winning project “Plastic Goldfish”. Additionally, “Revolutionist” was shot using Cooke Anamorphic/i 1.8x FF lenses, and was the first Chinese film to use them.

Black Dog shot on Cooke s4/i
Black Dog shot on Cooke s4/i

For ‘Black Dog,’ we used Cooke 2x Anamorphic/i S35 lenses, and the entire film was shot with a single focal length lens. 

I always believe that the lighting used is far more important than the lens used. However, every time I use Cooke lenses, I associate them with words like humble, understated, soft, unique, and distinctive, which constantly remind me of my origins.

Gao Weizhe | Director of Photography

Black Dog was shot in the Gobi wilderness, resulting in some breathtaking shots. The natural beauty of the location significantly enhanced the film’s atmosphere, making it an invaluable feature. Weizhe describes the Gobi wilderness as falling within the realm of landscape photography which can be split into two categories. The first being characterised by Sebastião Salgado and Steve McCurry as an explorer’s curiosity and concern for humanity. The second, Weizhe believes, evolved into the ‘New topographics’, a term associated with American photographers Robert Adams and Stephen Shore. Their aesthetic greatly influenced the style of Black Dog, maintaining a sense of calmness and neutrality whilst holding ‘immense energy beneath the surface’.

Photography by Robert Adams
Photography by Robert Adams
Photography by Sebastião Salgado
Photography by Sebastião Salgado

Maintaining realism was imperative for both the director and cinematographer. This was achieved by keeping the lighting design subtle, using natural light where they could. If they were unable to use natural lighting, the dogs in the shot had to run into the frame under diffuse light. Weizhe remarks: ‘the animal team guided 2-3 dogs down the hill each time, and if we couldn’t find a cloud during the day, we would shoot during the diffuse light around sunset’. The result was a film that looked effortlessly real.

Black Dog was shot entirely on one focal length of the Cooke 2x Anamorphic/i S35 series. For the Super 35 format, they cropped the image to a 2.47:1 aspect ratio, making use of as much of the sensor as possible. Weizhe used a deep focus technique throughout the film, a unique choice that isn’t always used by cinematographers. This makes it inescapable to miss the charm of the vast beauty of the Gobi landscape.

For creative shots, the camera was always operated by the team with the camera on a tripod, rather than using aerial or cranes. If they needed a wide shot, the camera was moved back. Likewise for a distant shot, the camera would be physically taken up the mountain. This resulted in a fly on the wall piece of imagery; immersing us as the audience with the characters as if we are one with them.

Black Dog shot on Cooke s4/i
Black Dog shot on Cooke s4/i Gao Weizhe and Guan Hu

Much of the film was shot on location. Lighting materials such as black cloths and other fabrics capable of changing colour temperature were pre set before filming began. This along with the use of natural light was a valuable time-saving strategy for production. Weizhe believes that colour expressions, tone and shading of a scene must be based on the original atmosphere of the light. Weizhe and the directing team also pre-shot some scenes prior to filming using a small camera, creating a baseline for the team to work from. He and director Guan Hu adopted this method for several of their films.

Weather conditions for the film varied greatly. Mainly shot outdoors, the script included atmospheres including strong winds, heavy rain, flying snow, fog, sandstorms, hail and ‘magical’ eclipses. This created a complete colour palette, maintaining naturalism whilst still being impressive. Shooting the eclipse was no easy feat. The challenge was recreating the unique and other-worldly atmosphere that was produced by the light. The team researched eclipses extensively to learn how to control the lighting. They discovered that during an eclipse, the scattered light from the sky’s zenith is very weak, with a high colour temperature, while there is a distinct low colour temperature with warm light in the direction of the horizon.

Black Dog shot on Cooke s4/i
Black Dog shot on Cooke s4/i

Although shot on a digital format, Weizhe wanted the final image to be as vivid as possible, and so did this through the film medium. He collaborated with FotoKem to transfer the digital images to film, then scanning them back to digital with the addition of film grain. After several tests, Kodak film was chosen as it preserved the graininess and minor imperfections that Weizhe wanted.

Reflecting on his time at the Film Academy, Gao Weizhe recalls a teacher remarking that ‘good cinematography should hide himself behind the story’. Post graduation, Weizhe wanted to add as much as he could to his cinematography. With Black Dog however, this was the opposite; he stripped it back, coming at it with a documentary style approach.