Photo courtesy of Netflix.
Cinematographer Yinka Edward on Making the Netflix Hit, ‘The Black Book’
When Nigerian director Editi Effiong wanted to make his debut film, there was only one man he wanted behind the camera.
There’s a specific grounded sense of place that you feel when watching Editi Effiong’s The Black Book. The film reminds you of where you are because it’s important to the story; these places have witnessed pivotal histories and you must know them intimately as the film progresses. The person responsible for visually framing this story is Yinka Edward, a seasoned cinematographer with credits such as The Figurine, Lionheart and The Milkmaid – the latter being Nigeria’s entry for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars in 2021.
“For me it’s all about the story,” he OkayAfrica, when asked about the most crucial aspect in capturing the essence of a film. This principle is evident in the way he’s able to adapt to every story: The Figurine is eerie and cold, ’76 feels like a documentary, Crime and Justice Lagos is moody, and now, with The Black Book, he has created something he describes as having scale.
Edward believes it was “divine direction” that led him to become a filmmaker. His early start came from his youth group at church, where the group president taught him how to use a camera and he would go out with him to shoot weddings and birthday parties. When a childhood friend, who at the time was studying at the National Film Institute (NFI) in Jos, told him he wasn’t qualified to shoot his short film, it hit a nerve. “The comment brought me back to earth and challenged me to attend film school,” says Edward. “The rest is history.”
He spoke to OkayAfrica about the process behind some of the stand-out scenes in The Black Book, while also contextualizing his place in Nollywood history.
The interview below has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Within your body of work, you've done work for films that have prominent places in Nollywood history like Lionheart, 93 Days and The Milkmaid. How would you describe your relationship with these films, and with Nollywood at large?
With articles I have read and with observations of the Nigerian film industry, I think these films have played a part in moving our industry forward in some way. The Figurine, Lionheart, The Milkmaid, ’76, October 1, 93 Days, The Black Book have all played a significant role in the advancement of the industry, both locally and internationally. And I feel very privileged and blessed to be a part of this work. As for my relationship with the films, I think I am my biggest critic.
The Black Book is being praised for its captivating cinematography. Could you share some insights into the specific choices you made to accentuate the film's unique atmosphere and storytelling?
One of the things we wanted to do with The Black Book is that we wanted to give it scale so I was very deliberate with that. I wanted to be in control of a lot of the elements so we decided to build a lot of the interiors because, in Nigeria, working in locations could be really challenging and many times, you lose control and become at the mercy of a lot of seen and unforeseen circumstances. Choice of equipment was also important, we shot on the Panavision Primos. The Primos are really beautiful lenses. But don’t take for granted that I had the opportunity to shoot some of the best faces in the Nigerian film industry. With those faces on screen, it just had to glow.
There's a specific scene in the film that everyone is calling the money shot – where we see Sam Dede's character kill Officer Abayomi through old metal pipes. There's an invasive sense to that shot, like we're not supposed to witness the killing. Could you share a bit of the process behind creating that scene?
It is fascinating to hear how the audience sees and interprets our work. In our head, we didn’t think it would be referred to as the money shot. In fact, the original location we were supposed to use didn’t work, so we had to find somewhere else and our search led us to the construction site we used for the scene. We wanted to make it feel like we were looking through the barrel of a gun, since someone was about to be killed. If you notice there were more barrels behind the characters, and I wish they were not there because I think the shot would have been more effective without them. I am glad that the audience liked it. For me that is the beauty of filmmaking: sometimes you do not plan for some things but you can just embrace whatever elements your environment lends to the story.
Editi and Richard Mofe-Damijo have spoken about how difficult it was getting access to Holy Cross Cathedral in Lagos, an iconic location. What was the preparation like and how did the final day turn out?
It is an iconic building, and so I felt that it was our responsibility to make sure it was photographed well. As challenging as it was for us to get the location, it was just as challenging to light it. Both the day and the night scenes were challenging but fun as well. It was challenging because we didn’t have the resources to get all that was required to light the space but we had to make it work.
Francis Wanyandeh Ouma, my gaffer, and the lighting team worked very hard. It is a location the lighting team will never forget. Both day and night scenes were challenging but of course, we love challenges. In the night scene, for the moonlight source, my gaffer, Francis, and his lighting team had to carry the 18k Arri Max which I think weighs about 70 kg through narrow winding stairs of about four to five floors because they had to get it to the roof of a building that was beside the church. This was because we needed the height for the moonlight source. We didn’t have access to machines and riggers that could have made it easy so we had to use manual labor. It was hard work but I really liked the outcome.
The Black Book | Official Trailerwww.youtube.com
Capturing the essence of multiple locations in Lagos and Kaduna and still maintaining the gritty nature of the film is no small feat. Were there any specific visual elements you used to enhance the storytelling?
The gritty nature of the film has to do with production design, and the time of the year we shot also played a key role. Some parts of Lagos, by nature, are already gritty. In Kaduna, the time of the year we shot played a key role in the look of the film, we shot during the Harmattan season. In the quarry scene, when we got there the whole place was white like a fog, and we couldn’t see more than 70 to 100 meters away, and we just embraced it. It was nature’s gift to us. We had a few of those moments in the film when nature just smiled at us.
How do you balance maintaining your artistic vision as a cinematographer/director of photography while also honoring the overall creative vision of the film’s director?
I don’t want to believe that I have a [specific] style, because I think the story influences my approach to the film. My approach to any project is, first of all, having conversations with the director to find out what best serves the story, then we create a visual narrative for it. And a big part of that conversation is with the production designer. For example, with The Black Book, Pat Nebo built models for all the sets, which we used as a base for conversations during prep.
You've been working in the industry for a long time now, how do you think cinematography specifically has evolved?
The art and craft of cinematography (use of lights, lenses and camera movement to enhance storytelling) in Nigeria is still evolving. We are going through phases in cinematography in Nigeria, and the way I can describe it is the first, second, third and maybe fourth phases. In the first phase in the '70s and early '80s, I think cinematography was led and spearheaded by foreigners, mostly oyinbo. I look at some of those films, and they didn’t have a lot of movement. They were mostly static, or panning shots for obvious reasons. The first phase was shot on film.
The second phase was the birth of the digital age, which started in the early '90s. This phase was led by Nigerians. Very few were trained in cinematography, many were semi-trained or untrained. This phase was a bit more about capturing what was in front of them using what I can refer to as the triple take technique — long shot, medium shot and close up. This was about capturing performance but not much about using the art of cinematography to enhance the story.
Lighting then was pretty straight forward. It was all about illuminating faces and spaces, not about using it to craft a story. All that would have been available was basic color correction, and that color correction could be for a few filmmakers. Usually it was just white balancing the camera before the shoot. This was the era when color bars were on sale [chuckles] and who knows, maybe there were some filmmakers who could not afford it.
Fast forward to the third phase and fourth phases. Now, the art and craft of cinematography is used more to enhance storytelling. And the knowledge of that is growing.
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