The Look of… Joker
- November 11, 2019
- Chris Haigh
|Director: Todd Phillips||Production Design: Mark Friedberg|
|Cinematographer: Lawrence Sher||Art Direction: Laura Ballinger|
|Editor: Jeff Groth||Set Dec: Kris Moran|
|Cameras:ARRI ALEXA 65, ARRI ALEXA LF, ARRI ALEXA MINI LF||Costume Design: Mark Bridges|
|Lenses: ARRI Prime DNA||Hair Department Head: Kay Georgiou|
|Filming Locations: New York and New Jersey||Makeup Department Head: Nicki Ledermann|
Mirrors play a key role in Todd Phillips’ Joker not just for the main character, but for the city of Gotham’s reflection of 1980s New York City and our society as a whole.
In this “Look of…” we focus on the cinematography, production design, costume and hair and make up of the 2019 R-rated smash hit and how its intimate realism, camera height, shadows and reflections are the key to its success.
Joker is the archetypal comic book villain, the paramount of anti-heroes and what makes him so exciting and compelling is his complete lack of backstory! So when Todd Phillips and Scott Silver came to tell his origin story, their first task was to make a character study (something that we have had very few of of late) based in reality and to make it reflect a world we inhabit and make him relatable.
Making Joker real makes him believable and his descent into darkness so much more interesting. Therefore in order to make what is a very comic-book-based villain as “real” as they could, they started with the city in which he grew up, the roads that he travelled to work along every day and the unforgiving atmosphere that oozed from it.
“The look and feel was influenced by our memory of New York/New Jersey of 1981.” Joker Cinematographer Lawrence Sher recalls. “I immediately went back to my own personal memory of what New York was like at that time. When you get on the bus and go in from Jersey where I grew up. I was super into hip hop and breakdancing. I’d go into the Bronx and watch breakdancing documentaries. I had this visceral memory of what that was, whether it was the graffiti or the trash or the buildings.”
Above: Photographs of 1980s New York
A brief look online and at the montage above (that this writer lovingly created for you all – *nods to tip jar on his desk) reveals just how powerful this setting is – a world that has completely lost control due to the crack epidemic, the overwhelming level of homelessness, the staggering amount of crime and corruption, the gargantuan gulf between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ and the riots that that gulf produced. A city like New York in the 1980s, that has been seemingly abandoned by the rest of the world, makes it perfectly understandable for someone like Arthur Fleck to be chewed up and spit out as the Joker.
For that reason, we as an audience, find sympathy for his behavior and, dare I say it, empathy for his character. Look at the world around us today, one of outright fragility with characters not too dissimilar from Arthur Fleck adorning headlines everywhere – Phillips and Sher created a movie that challenges us to question vital themes such as mental health and the funding/resources that are dedicated to it. However, people may have viewed the film, that is extraordinarily powerful.
Production Designer Mark Friedberg discusses the pre-production location scouting of his home town to develop a map of Joker’s Gotham – “On the first page of the script, Todd and co-writer Scott Silver tell us that this gritty world is real. It’s a place that’s down—it smells, and the people in it are really harsh. So, the stakes for main character Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) are real. Arthur lives in the same dehumanizing place as so many others, yet for some reason what affects most people affects Arthur more. Gotham oppresses Arthur as much as anything in the film, so defining this version of Gotham is what roots the story. This version of Gotham is also a version of Joker himself.
When you’re developing a film with many geographical areas, each realm has to look and feel distinct. We decided to map a new version of Gotham over current New York, based on the places Arthur passes through on his journey.”
KNOW THE WORLD LIKE GOD KNOWS HIS
Sher himself commented on how detailed the world that they designed was and the intricate process that they went through to develop a believable world for their character. “Robert McKee had that thing where he’d say, “Know thy world like God knows his.” I might be misquoting it, but it’s effectively that. Your job as a storyteller, as the screenwriter, is to build a world constructed with such detail and specificity that it feels three dimensional and real.”
The detailed focus on the garbage is equally fascinating because the world that they are building has the juxtaposition of clean and dirty, of rich and poor, of “civil” and “uncivilised”, of light and dark. Look at the contrast between the Porn Theaters that Arthur Fleck stands outside with his sign and the regal cinema that the prosperous Wayne family attend to watch Chaplin’s Hard Times.
That gulf between rich and poor (a key theme of the Batman cannon) with Bruce Wayne growing up in a world that is the binary opposite of his counterpart was also exploited by the filmmakers in post production…
“Most of the trees appear when Arthur goes out to Wayne Manor. That aerial shot where the train is on the river and all those trees are on the left-hand side. All the trees that surround Wayne Manor is a universe Arthur wouldn’t see very often. So when we would do our aerials, we would selectively take visual effects and remove buildings and remove trees and just make it a sea of low line tenements leading to a skyline of older buildings.”
We are entering a Gotham very much in-keeping with Nolan’s Dark Knight and a young joker who could easily bloom into the deliciously sadistic unstoppable force that is Heath Ledger’s Joker.
“What’s interesting is we would reference the movies we saw in that era in our mind but we didn’t necessarily go back and watch them. I went back and watched a couple of movies Todd and I were referencing thinking that they were going to really give us this template for Joker‘s look i.e contrast, color, saturation, or even some lighting references. Every time I went and watched them it was the memory of the movie I was looking for not necessarily the look of the movie itself.”
We cannot help but see the glaring references to Scorsese throughout the movie. Of course, Scorsese’s influence is palpable from the opening credits right through and it should be – the man was originally pencilled to be an executive producer on the project before a conflict with his movie The Irishman led him to hand the reigns to his long time producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff who is renowned for her knowledge of New York and the outstanding crews that he builds from the city. Therefore it comes as no surprise that other names synonymous with Scorsese movies pop up on the IMdB page for Joker and no surprise that there are Scorsese hallmarks throughout.
Phillips even remarked that he wanted the look of Joker to be ensconced in that late 70s/early 80s style – the first giveaway being the large lettered title that overwhelms the entire screen. This old technique was originally filmed on film and then put onto the digital negative to give it the bleed on the edge of the letters and the grain to age it.
Sher calls the Scorsese references the “perfect emotional mirror from 1981 to how we’re feeling in 2019” bringing back the overall theme of this article and what we believe is the intention of the movie as a whole: to reflect the suffering of the time and its impact on one of the millions out there and how it parallels the modern era, blighted by crime and intensified by the canyon that has formed between the rich and the poor.
Arthur’s apartment (owned by his mother) itself is it’s own character. Presented with its long hallway, dilapidated elevator, and an apartment interior that appears stuffy and claustrophobic really sets up Phoenix’s Joker.
Look at the environment that he returns to every evening.
Look at where he calls home.
The fact that he can fire a gun in the living room, late at night and for nothing to happen shows the kind of area that he is in. You can be forgiven for thinking, as I did, of scenes like that in Big with Tom Hanks where his first night is spent cowering under the bedsheet as a cacophony of gunfire erupts outside his bedroom window! This is a lawless place and we cannot be surprised when it gives birth to the clown prince of crime himself – it was an inevitability (*don’t think of Thanos).
Friedberg refers to the world that they developed outside the apartment, “we added facades for porn theaters, built out various open and closed businesses, and added graffiti and lots of garbage. (We had an entire department focused on garbage design and distribution.)”
JUXTAPOSITION OF JOKER
Again, the binary opposition is a key set design fingerprint of Joker that we can’t pass up. This detailed focus on the garbage is fascinating because the world that they are building has the juxtaposition of clean and dirty, of rich and poor, of “civil” and “uncivilised”, of light and dark. Look at the contrast between the Porn Theaters that Arthur Fleck stands outside with his sign for an “Everything Must Go” closing down sale for a cheap shop and the regal cinema that the prosperous Wayne family attend to watch Chaplin’s Hard Times – with the irony not being lost for a second. The garbage (possibly a reference to the garbage strikes of the late 60s and the impact that that had on the society – a great leveller).
What strikes us most (no pun intended – in fact, it comes across as clever – pun intended) in this analysis is that the team favored real places in New York, Newark and Jersey as the playground for the Joker character ahead of sets or manufactured locations. Real locations again take us away from the superhero/comic book world that so many have embraced especially with the look of the majority of DC output over the last 10 years since “The Dark Knight Rises”. We are entering a Gotham very much in-keeping with Nolan’s Dark Knight and a younger joker who could easily bloom into the deliciously sadistic unstoppable force that is Heath Ledger’s Joker.
“Ultimately, our decaying Gotham City, the character, and Arthur Fleck, the character, merge. When the social compact finally gives way, Joker is born.”
ABOVE: Arkham State Hospital is virtually unchanged from the real-world Brooklyn Army Terminal.
Head of Makeup, Nicki Ledermann, known for her work on The Greatest Showman (2017), The Devil Wears Prada (2006) and Sex and the City (1998) and also for The Irishman, had the key focus of making the Joker “not of the superhero world.”
“This story is treated as real life, and that’s what made the project so interesting. Everything in Gotham is dark and gritty. We wanted to connect that air to Arthur and, eventually, Joker.”
Given that the iconic opening shot of the whole movie is of Arthur Fleck sitting in the corner of a dingy room surrounded by clowns, putting on his make-up, this is one of the seminal places to put some of the weight of this article. This is Arthur Fleck, alone, putting on a mask with a smiling face despite the fact he is painfully holding back tears introducing the whole theme of “putting on a happy face” that follows us throughout the movie. This isn’t an evil megalomaniac, it’s a lost little boy in a bustling metropolis (covert superman reference) and the framing with a distant long lens magnifies his loneliness. Something I’ll return to later in this article.
A SIMPLE & CLASSIC CLOWN
“Arthur’s appearance as a classic clown needed a familiar yet unique style to deliver his working look at the beginning of the film,” says Ledermann. “But we needed to create simple clown makeup that would not be compared with anyone else,” she adds.
When Fleck turns into Joker, that clown character he hides behind to make people laugh is gone, he has left the realms of make believe and has gone completely crazy, the only similarity is the makeup – the clown at the beginning and Joker at the end are made up the exact same.
Joker’s white face is never pure in color and more matte than glossy. Blues and reds are tonally subdued, too.
“We didn’t want the makeup to reflect in the light so that it could fit with the muted color palette, since nothing is shiny in this movie,” says Ledermann. “The colors are a bit antique-y, meaning they’re not pure but have some warmth. The blue is a mix of greens and teal. The red is a reddish-brown color that resembles blood. Even his slanted smile is a metaphor that everything is not perfect. Maybe it’s funny — maybe it’s not.”
Adding to this, Arthur’s hair is described in the script as black, but Kay Georgiou, Head of Hair Department knew that would be too dark. Therefore she opted for a lighter shade, dying it in a way that wasn’t distracting or wouldn’t get lost in the lighting designs by cinematographer Lawrence Sher. “Whatever you do for hair in real life, it always lights darker on film, so we wanted to go with his normal hair but a shade darker,” Georgiou says. Completing the style, she added grease and texture to make it look lived in.
Similarly, Oscar Winning Costume Designer Mark Bridges, dressed Phoenix in polyester as Arthur Fleck and the color palette was meant to mirror bad laundry, “I imagined if he ever did laundry, everything went into the washer at the same time. It’s those subtle choices you can make for a character that inform the audience who they are and how they live.”
“As Arthur progresses, we made little movements toward darker colors in his wardrobe right before he becomes Joker to echo what goes on emotionally for him in the story.”
Interestingly Bridges adopted the 1970s-style maroon suit to clothe the Joker, but maintained the mark of the man who became him with garments synonymous with his past. “His clown waistcoat is his Joker’s vest. The clown tie becomes a necktie that he wears. Everything has a motivation, and it all comes out organically,” he says.
Again, character and realism were key starting points for Bridges, “Where does he get his clothes? Would he care how he looked? Would he dress like a little boy? Because he lives with his mom, there’s something kind of awkward and adolescent in his clothing. He’s probably had his sweaters and shirts for years, and, when he does his laundry, he puts it all in with his mom’s laundry. He lives hand to mouth on public assistance, so he shops at second hand stores…his clothes are inexpensive and not stylish. That was his backstory and we dressed him accordingly.”
Moreover, the focus on the “real” and the reflection of New York life in the 80s is also present in the costume design with Bridges subtly nodding to Bernhard Goetz, New York’s notorious “Subway Vigilante” of the early ’80s. “I was living in New York at the time so I remember it quite well,” he said. “He was a very bland person, who had just had it, so there was a bit of that too: Art imitates life a little bit. If this already happened, it’s not a far stretch for someone who has been abused and misused enough to fight back, finally.
With everything being set in 1981 and Todd Phillips and Lawrence Sher steadfastly standing by their homage to the look of movies around that era, the likes of Taxi Driver, King Of Comedy, Serpico and Network touted stylistically as what they were going for, the first thing Todd Phillips said was “we’re shooting this on film, not doing this ‘digital bullshit.’”
Although the puritan filmmakers amongst you will have just cheered, the fact remains that large format film is either too expensive or not available. Sher recalls, “We wanted to shoot 65mm from the start, and we were strongly dissuaded from doing that because of budget. We thought this would be a great movie to shoot large format because of the shallow depth of field and the resulting intimacy. But the truth is the cameras are really hard to find and it was more expensive.”
With there only being about four or five bodies capable of capturing 65mm, two of those being apparently in the possession of Kenneth Branagh and Wonder Woman asking Warner Bros. if they could shoot in 65mm (something Warner Bros had already rejected), Sher and Phillips went back to the drawing board. “Our movie was a much smaller budget, so the short answer — or the long version — was no to 65mm.”
“Then we went back to 35mm, and we were going to shoot 35mm film all the way up until really the last minute. What happened was while we were testing it, although we knew we had very controlled things in this movie, we also knew were going to shoot the movie under very low light conditions and where we would not have a lot of rehearsal or marks on the ground.”
Therefore, despite 35mm and even 16mm being favored, digital capture was more in line with Joaquin Phoenix’s improvisational method of acting. Moreover, when the two of them looked through camera tests, the key difference was in terms of color – “When we actually projected it and we looked at it up there — well, outside of film grain and gate weave and some of those elements — we could get the contrast to match. We could get the color to be pretty damn close. The color rendition of film still beats digital, no question about it. It can render the nuances of color depth better than any digital camera out there, but there were benefits of digital too. The technical considerations – focus, low light, improvisational filmmaking – were also considerations in the decision. For instance, we would never have a surprise that a shot was unusably out of focus the next day because if there were issues we would see it immediately.”
A CHEMICAL LOOK OF JOKER
“Interestingly enough, we did very specific testing, in the beginning, to build a very specific LUT that would replicate filmstock 5293 as close as I could possibly get if we used digital which we eventually did… I promised Todd we would stay as true to a chemical look as we possibly could. I worked really hard to give it that look. We’ve tricked a lot of people into thinking it was shot on film. That was a thing about the look is “what are those qualities that film has and how can you replicate that better?”
“The main thing that pushed it over the edge was that if we shot digital we could go back to a large format that we wanted to shoot in the first place. That was probably the biggest thing. Digital would allow us to do that for the money we had. What’s funny is that when the movie was finished, it was Warner Bros. that wanted 70mm prints because they have some investment in the format because of all the Christopher Nolan films, and they’re like, “Listen, let’s make some 70mm prints of this movie. Let’s make 55 of them or so.”
Ironically then, the pair managed to end up with the result that they were after all along using an ARRI Alexa 65, the ARRI Alexa Mini LF and the ARRI Alexa LF and shooting on a whole Frankenstein’s array of lenses including ARRI Prime DNA Lenses, Leicas and old Canon lenses. “Lenses that could cover the field of view of the sensor and felt like lenses of that era.”
LENSING AND CAMERA MOVEMENT
Using the re-housed vintage optics of the DNA Primes produces images with a specific character – more gentle compared to the signature primes yet very sharp in the center, “with a buttery smooth focus fall-off”, out of focus rendering and different flaring characteristics. They tend to have a look similar to that of old anamorphic lenses in terms of very subtle vignetting.
Despite the emphasis on realism, Sher took some inspiration from the look of the images in comic books recalling how Production Designer Friedberg brought a copy of renowned Joker comic, The Killing Joke on the location scout.
“I picked it up and started flipping through it. I remember thinking, “This is gorgeous.” The tonality of it. The darkness of it was just striking. I just remember feeling that it was beautiful with really emotionally evocative imagery. So, at the very least, I set out to create those kinds of images… You’re creating these really dynamic frames via composition, the shading, the contrast, all these things where you have a format that is different than a movie.”
The result of this was shots like the one below that are rather unique to Joker with Phillips remarking that the high angled dutch angle is much more in-keeping with Graphic novels than it is for film.
Further to this, when bringing one of the most renowned comic book characters to life, especially when so committed to creating a believable, genuine person, Sher and Phillips took time to explore how to make Joker personal and ensure they kept the audience connected with the character at all times.
“That was certainly my number one thing, how can we constantly find ways to put the camera in a position to connect the audience to him and to feel as if we are one with him and connected to his journey in as emotional a way as possible and how does that manifest itself in the decisions with the camera and the lighting.”
“I think of subtle ways compositionally to make Arthur’s character feel slightly insignificant, surrounded by grime, big buildings etc.” There certainly was a feeling of Arthur being boxed-in from the very beginning making him come across as a small figure in a big world, almost invisible. The amount of head room that Arthur was given, certainly shrunk the man behind the myth so to speak.
“In 70mm, he appears much tinier, almost dwarfed within the frame. That was by intention. That was one of the things I really set out to do early on in the movie. To try to be strong compositionally in this movie, and more so because this movie presents itself in a way as a character study, in a way Todd and I set out to make it. I could finally be a lot more expressive in composition than maybe some of the previous movies we’ve done together. A lot of it was how do you make somebody look small? Okay, well a lot of extra headroom, kind of pushing him in between objects to make him look very small and insignificant. Certainly at the beginning of the movie. I really tried to think about the arc of the photography just like the arc of the character. Trying to get early themes, whether through lens choices, composition, and lighting and then build the character as we transformed into Joker.”
GOTHAM AS THE BULLY
Having already discussed the importance of Gotham as a character in itself earlier in this essay, Sher’s point above about the framing of the city and its sheer size coupled with the mass of clutter on the screen when Arthur is thrown into the middle of this “helps to put him into a place where there is a lot of downward pressure on him.” Every shot only goes to confirm how much the world has not been kind to him, Gotham is the bully and Arthur the bullied and this builds an immense amount of empathy for the character.
Let’s go back to that opening of the movie when Arthur is dressed as a clown trying to entice customers into an everything must go sale, I have mentioned earlier in this essay. Sher chose to keep us distant from him on a long lens “witnessing him as other people see him, we have not been invited into his world yet to see him any closer.” Arthur is the lonely person on the bus, the person that we have all seen in our daily lives that we don’t really pay much attention to. From a lens and coverage standpoint, for this purpose, the creative team chose to long lens earlier in the movie to distance us from him and then as we enter his world and go into his home and get to know Arthur, the lenses become wider and we get more intimate. “We have the ability to be close to him in a place that the rest of the world doesn’t see.”
“The only time we break that really is once the kids have beaten him up and he is left alone in the alley, we finally go to a wide lens very close to him. Then when we cut to him on the bus, we go back to a long lens because he is back in the world again.”
Sher also revealed in an interview with the Academy that the creative team didn’t storyboard, but instead made a shot list and tried to find shots “in the moment”. They would run scenes top to bottom and generally shoot wide to closeup. However, some scenes, like the social worker scenes (below), they would do the opposite; starting with the closeup and work their way wider. This was primarily due to the incredibly physical nature of Joaquin’s laughter and wanting to capture the strongest takes close up, early.
Camera movement was equally important and Sher exercised the opportunity to use handheld when possible to connect us with the character, his struggle and to create tension during violent scenes. For example, in the subway, as Arthur is about to be attacked, camera operator Geoff Haley was in the subway car with a handheld camera whilst Sher controlled the lighting to ramp up the tension.
Camera movement is something that Sher also used to show the titular character’s development beginning with slow, “meditative” camera work earlier on in the movie – a good example being the (now famous) Bronx Stairs and how movement changes as the movie continues. In the beginning we pan very slowly, and tilt-up with him to see those 180 stairs he climbs every day.
For the camera team, it meant having a camera at either end of the stairs, top and bottom and using that slow tilt to reveal the painful climb from bottom to top (which people in the Bronx have been doing day-in, day-out for decades).
By stark contrast, the later scene (again, the now most recognizable scene in any movie of 2019 – a quick poll of the office has put Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’s Flamethrower scene at a close second) “is a celebration of him accepting his truest self, which is his most villainous self and the person we all know. For the last scene on the stairs, we used a techno crane, which gave us fluidity to move with him and create energy. He dances through the frame, backlit with a hopeful warm sunlight. We are low with the camera and he for perhaps the first time in his life is powerful.”
COLOR-PALETTE – LIGHT &SHADOW IN JOKER
Alongside camera movement to show the transition from Arthur to Joker, Sher also used lighting and shadow to hammer home the descent into darkness – “As Arthur becomes Joker, his composition in the frame changes. Weight, perspective, power. Joker is Arthur’s Shadow. Getting darker and bolder. More shadows appear throughout the film as he transitions.”
The shadow gets bigger an bigger until eventually it consumes him. Hence the overemphasis on MIRRORS. Joker is the reflection of Arthur – every time he looks at himself in the mirror, it’s like he sees a different version of himself that at first he is totally unconnected to and, in some ways, disgusted by. Dare we say, it is only when he has fought back, killed and danced a transformative dance in front of a subway bathroom mirror that he finally recognises himself as Joker assuming a somewhat christ-like pose, a savior unto himself in the chemical glow of the flickering light.
A large part of the color scheme in the movie is based on sodium-vapor lights (the greenish-orange colored streetlights that existed before they recently switched to LEDs). “It represents two sides of him: the dusk blue representing his isolated and lonely side and the warmer light the more hopeful side of someone seeing a different future. Even if that future is with his mom, before we learn the truth about her. When he’s watching TV with her or bathing her in the bath, there’s a more comforting warmth. Towards the end of the movie, he chooses that dark part of himself and we bring the warmth back. He is, once again, hopeful, even if it’s for a nihilistic and chaotic in the future. In his mind, it’s the future he wants to embrace.
Returning to that Subway scene where Arthur undergoes a violent attack before pulling a gun and killing the three men accountable, Sher and Phillips built the subway car set and used LED light panels to have full control of the lights inside and outside the car. Sher would be sitting at a control board outside the car (with handheld camera operator Geoff Haley inside) with a dimmer, controlling the lights inside and outside the car. At the moments of tension and violence, he would shut the lights off and have flashes of hot lights in different colors from outside of the car. “As the men approached, we used the lighting to build the downward pressure of feeling surrounded, confused, like a nightmare. It was about creating the storm of energy he’s feeling, that leads to this violent act that’ll change his life forever.”
Mirrors play a key role in Todd Phillips and Lawrence Sher’s Joker not just for the main character, but for the city of Gotham’s reflection of 1980s New York City and our society as a whole. Therefore, in the style of the subject matter, we finish with a reflection.
In the final scene the coverage and the camera angles, where Arthur is talking to the African-American woman behind the desk, almost exactly reflects the social worker scene at the very beginning; the lens is the same, the framing is intended to be very close to, “but it’s not exactly the same. The room is meant to be very similar, but obviously, it’s now removed from all of its clutter, all of its density. It now has to be the most minimal stark environment. You are stripped away from reality and everything else in the world and you’re just left with a human being, and a stark table and a bunch of white walls.”
For a movie that is filled with color, saturated with it some might say, the fact that the end of the movie is as devoid of color as possible, is almost purely black and white could not be a better reflection of the realism that Sher and Phillips brought to the character, the city of Gotham and of our society as a whole.