Fish Tank


Fish Tank

I saw the exquisitely crafted film, Fish Tank, at IFC yesterday and thought I'd share a few thoughts. This British feature was written and directed by Andrea Arnold and lensed by Robbie Ryan, BSC. The female lead is Katy Jarvis, a non-actor who the director spotted shouting at her boyfriend on a subway platform east of London. Unhappy with who the casting agency was offering for the lead, she followed the teenage girl home and asked her if she wanted to be in a movie. After some persistence she agreed to take the role and the performance Arnold was able to get out of her is nothing short of stunning. This film is very much in the style of Ken Loach and Lynne Ramsay in the naturalism of the images, performances, and the unfolding of the narrative. This is independent filmmaking done right and for every incredible film like this there are 1000 that are made and never find their audience. After working camera department in the indie film trenches for several years here in New York, that's just the sad reality of it. This film is the exception and is a fascinating look at the English underclass from the perspective of a 15 year old girl lashing out against her troubled Council Estate existence and dead beat mother. The direction and storytelling are expert but this isn't a blog about the all the wonderful artistic merits of cinema so much as it is about images and the technology used to produce them. 

From my perspective, what's most interesting and unusual about this film was the decision to frame and release in the old school 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Very few feature films have done this in recent history and seeing it in the cinema like this is a very different experience; a bit like watching a giant old TV screen. For Fish Tank, that's 100% from the perspective of the young girl and her inescapable, claustrophobic existence; this aspect ratio was a masterful aesthetic decision. It has such an intimate quality as if all that exists in the world is the tiny bit of frame around her Close Up. 2 shots also have a heightened intensity because of the tighter frame and the scenes with her and her mother's boyfriend are elevated because of it. I love this approach. A director I worked with a few years ago who is a vehement Tarkovsky enthusiast suggested working in 4:3 but we were shooting HD and at the time it seemed like a bad idea to me. These days I don't think I would be as opposed. Fish Tank however was shot on film and with the resolution celluloid affords, I don't think the quality is as compromised for 4:3. I'm assuming this film was shot on 16mm because of the gain structure, depth of field quality, and how nimble the camera operation was. However, it could have been shot on 4 perf Super 35 and the grainy look derived in the DI. I saw in the credits the cameras were Panavision and the stock was Fuji. It looked incredible so if anyone reading this knows more about the process, I'd love to learn more. Hopefully American Cinematographer will take notice and do an article. 


I've just heard that it originated on 35. Fuji stocks used: Eterna Vivid 160, Eterna 400, Reala 500D. Apparently a lot of work was done in the DI to make the look as "photochemical" as possible.   

If think if I were to shoot something 4:3 digitally,  I would go with the Arri D-21 because the sensor is a 2k x 2k square. It's designed to be matted down to 1920x1080 or to be used with Anamorphic lenses but I'd just keep the picture right off the sensor. The D-21 is also very beautiful in low light and available light. Cinematographer Rain Li made some gorgeous images with this camera in another indie feature, Uncertainty. This film was shot in NYC and she did a fantastic job of capturing its energy and vibrancy especially the Chinatown sequences. Shooting in Chinatown is an art form unto itself! There is some absolutely stunning low light photography in this film and I highly recommend anyone who is afraid of underexposure to watch it.