Director Kenneth Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos were putting the finishing touches on the forthcoming sequel “Death on the Nile” when working on that project and everything else in Hollywood ground to a halt. It was March 2020, and the early days of the coronavirus pandemic put a stop to Branagh and Zambarloukos’s plans to fly to Egypt for additional photography on the Agatha Christie drama. But friends for years, the pair stayed in contact regularly during the spring and summer of 2020, both about “Death on the Nile” and a new project Branagh was writing, “Belfast.”
Months later, the Oscars favorite — which won the prestigious audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival this year — is in theaters and marks Branagh and Zambarloukos’s eighth collaboration together (although seventh released, as “Death on the Nile” was bumped to 2022). According to the Gold Derby odds, “Belfast” is an early awards front-runner in multiple categories.
Set in the late 1960s, the semi-autobiographical film finds Branagh grappling with his own divided homeland and the strength of family during tumultuous times. To convey the emotion and evocative nature of the piece, Branagh and Zambarloukos shot “Belfast” primarily in black-and-white.
“My feeling about black-and-white versus color is really one of the selection processes for the audiences,” Zambarloukos tells Gold Derby during our “Meet the Experts” cinematography panel. “We as filmmakers would have a certain amount of control over the information the audience receives. I find color to be very descriptive and fantastic in immediately giving you information — it immediately tells you the color of someone’s hair or the time of year, et cetera. But it’s quite a lot of information. I believe, in telling a story, you need certain brevity and minimalism. This isn’t just color versus black-and-white, this is something we expressed with Ken in how we block a scene together, in how we are quite minimalist in the movement, in the way we space actors apart.”
But according to Zambarloukos, the black-and-white photography helped to make the film “more lucid and immersive in its portrayal of emotion.”
“We felt you could feel what the actors felt a little more deeply in black-and-white,” he says. “That’s one of black-and-white’s attributes. It will not create a feeling or emotion that is not there.”
Shooting on “Belfast” took place during the pandemic, and Zambarloukos says Branagh was particularly mindful of new rules and safety measures that never had to factor into filmmaking before — something especially important considering the cast includes both a young actor (Jude Hill) and 86-year-old Oscar winner Judi Dench.
“Ken made it very safe to work under the conditions,” he says. “He took such care in the protocols when there was no history of it.”
“Belfast” also stars Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe and Ciaran Hinds and is out in theaters now from Focus Features.