The Lure begins with a young man playing music on the shore as a young woman in the water surreptitiously stares. She’s curious, possibly smitten, and suddenly joined by her distinctly less friendly companion, and the two sirens begin their song. Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Michalina Olszańska) are mermaids whose angelic voices get them quickly into the good graces of the house band at a bawdy Warsaw nightclub. With human-like legs when out of the water, the sisters become the club’s hottest act — singing, dancing, baring it all, and immersing themselves in an oversized bowl to reveal their voluminous tails.
Set in Poland and steeped in ’80s pop and punk, the full-fledged musical tells the story of Silver’s crush on the handsome Mietek (Jakub Gierszal) — the bass guitarist from the beach — and Golden’s ensuing alienation, which strengthens her resolve to return to the ocean with her sister, and to their diet of human flesh.
The Lure screened in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and won the category’s Special Jury Award for Unique Vision and Design.
“My first impression of the script was, ‘Oh, my God, this is a completely crazy story!’” cinematographer Kuba Kijowski, PSC, says during AC’s chat with him and the film’s director, Agnieszka Smoczynska, in Park City. “But I figured out [early in the process] that the story is all about the duality between a fictional world and a realistic world. It’s like a fairytale for adults, and combines two different aspects — one is childlike and naïve, and the other is more realistic, more human and more brutal. This was my point of view from the beginning, in telling the [overall] story and in thinking about each scene in terms of lighting and camerawork.”
It was thus decided to shoot The Lure in two distinct styles — one for the dramatic scenes, which were shot predominantly via handheld by operator Michal Dymek, and another for the musical numbers that push the story forward in more abstract and emotional ways, shot mostly on Steadicam by Andrzej Glacel.
“I wanted to get across the physical aspects of being a mermaid — and a human — and at the same time to [portray] the beautiful, colorful world of the [musical sequences],” Kijowski explains. “My biggest inspiration was night street photography from the 1980s — not artistic photography, but [everyday] photography. Photo and streetlight technologies in the Eighties weren’t as ‘perfect’ as they are today. Before sodium-vapor, there were mercury-vapor streetlights, [which produced] a green-and-blue light. And there were a lot of old fluorescent lights on the street, as well.”
The film’s greenish-blue, earth-tone palette accented with bursts of bright color was also inspired by a single painting of a mermaid by artist Aleksandra Waliszewska, which served as The Lure’s primary visual reference. “I showed a picture of it to the whole visual department,” Smoczynska says, “[to explain] the overall style of the film, and I asked them to use these colors.” Waliszewska’s artwork was also used in the film’s opening credits, which were animated by Julia Mirny.
The production employed Arri Alexa XT cameras, which recorded in ArriRaw to internal Codex drives. “I really like the Alexa,” Kijowski attests. “It has a lot of soft tones and I can trust that the image will be good.” The Lure was primarily a one-camera shoot, with an occasional second on hand for supplemental crane or Steadicam work. The cinematographer makes special note of the contributions of gaffer Piotr Krysk and dolly grip Tomasz Sternicki.
Though framed for a 2.39:1 aspect ratio, Kijowski shot with spherical lenses. “I didn't want an overly aesthetic depth of field,” he says of his decision to eschew anamorphics. “I was looking for something more dirty and realistic. I also used old lenses to [achieve] an old-style look, like from the Seventies or Eighties, so I chose [Zeiss] Super Speed Mark 2s. I like the look they provide, and they’re very fast lenses: T1.3. I also like the size, but they're not so friendly for the focus pullers [Paweł 'Muniek' Kincel and Sebastian Obuchowicz] because they’re super-short. A challenge with these lenses is that the focal-length selection is not very [extensive]. When you shoot in interiors, sometimes you miss a 40mm or 32mm. With this set, you don’t have to overthink it.” Kijowski shot primarily with the 25mm and 35mm, while a 19.5-94mm (T2.6) Angenieux was kept on hand for zoom effects. The cinematographer generally kept his ISO at 800, and made frequent use of ND filters when adjusting aperture to control depth of field.
The Lure’s color grading was performed by Kijowski and colorist Ewa Chudzik at Warsaw’s WFDiF Documentary and Feature Film Studio. Chudzik worked primarily with Autodesk Lustre, and adjusted sharpness with Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve. The production employed Platige Image for visual effects, though both cinematographer and director are clear that the mermaids’ tails were built practically. “Four or five guys had to take [the actresses] over their shoulders, after two hours of preparing,” the cinematographer attests. Smoczynska notes that “mucous” was then applied, and Kijowski adds with a laugh that “nobody could pick them up after that because they were very slippery!”
When Silver starts to fall for Mietek, Golden descends into melancholy and sings of sadness and gloom. She begins in the bathroom and meanders through the band’s apartment, while all other characters are frozen in place — including the drummer (Andrzej Konopka), whose vodka spills interminably into his glass. “When she’s in the bathroom and she starts to sing,” Kijowski says, “the lighting changes completely. The dim lighting starts to be very stylized, especially the color. Our great Steadicam operator shot it on stage [with the 25mm lens], and I lit with [Fluorescent Green] gelled tungsten lights, primarily through the windows.”
We then follow Golden down a hallway in a maneuver captured via zoom lens and dolly, as she returns to the open bathroom door, from which a softly shimmering light emerges and bathes her face in a watery glow. The effect was achieved by placing a mirror at the bottom of a small, water-filled tank and aiming a light into it, which bounced off the mirror, through the doorway and into the hall. “Every song has an emotion,” Smoczynska explains, “and for this one, the emotion was loneliness. She wants to go back to the water, and that’s why you have this image.”
When Mietek tells Silver that he’ll never think of her as a human being, she attempts to win his love as she lies in a bath. The bright, sterile lights dim to black, and are replaced by the Fluorescent Green-gelled illumination as she begins to sing. The scene transitions to the two performing a duet in the club after hours. Chairs are stacked on tables and the primary illumination is a single Clay Paky Alpha Beam 1500, initially aimed directly at the camera, putting the couple in stark, smoke-filled silhouette, and then at a disco ball, which scatters the light in concert with vintage, spinning multicolored party lamps. The camera moves along a dolly track, which was laid to surround the entire dance floor, and interacts with the spot to produce some choice, elegant flares. The location itself was rebuilt from an actual club that had fallen into severe disrepair, necessitating a ground-up build — painting, erecting walls, and sourcing ’80s-era lighting fixtures from small, local rental houses.
The mermaid and the musician are then transported back to the tub, into which she pulls him headfirst, and the two are suddenly swimming underwater. “We worked with a special crew and an underwater camera operator [Artur Zwierzchowski],” Kijowski notes. “There were five or six divers in the pool.” Lighting was provided exclusively from above the surface via “4K HMIs and some smaller ones for fill light,” he says. “Underwater shooting is always difficult because it takes a lot of time, and the water is never very warm, so the actors are in a really difficult situation; after a while, everyone is cold. There were also a lot of communication problems while filming in the swimming pool. The diving crew uses underwater speakers, but as soon as their heads breached the surface, communication is disrupted by the echo.
“I used different lenses under the water,” Kijowski continues, “because I was concerned about the resolution of the old lenses. Underwater [footage] is more monochromatic; [you're not working with] the full range of color, and you really need more resolution, so I used [Arri/Zeiss] Ultra Primes.”
When it becomes clear to the band — including the lead singer (Kinga Preis), formerly the mermaids’ staunchest supporter — that living and working with two supernatural creatures with a taste for blood may be untenable, they part ways with them in a decidedly unsavory manner. The band’s collective guilt results in an all-out brawl in their apartment, captured with a handheld camera. “I tried to be more aggressive in lighting for the fight scene,” Kijowski says, “with open-faced [650- and 800-watt] tungsten as back-top and back-lateral light, and Kino Flo as fill light.”
Airborne pillow feathers released during the fray serve as a transitional image, as we cut to a night exterior dotted with snowflakes added in post. The two mermaids find a canoodling couple on a darkened back road and indulge their primal hunger — their blood-stained faces revealing Silver’s reticence and Golden’s passion for the kill. Not a fan of “beautiful moon effects,” Kijowski lit the scene primarily with a variety of HMI lamps “that achieved a ‘city light’ effect,” he says. “The biggest lamps were HMI 4K Pars, and a few were 1.2K. Some of the smaller lamps were gelled with Fluorescent Green and others with Urban Sodium.”
Intercut amid the carnage is the post-fracas apartment, where the smallest bits of feather dust were being sprinkled by a crewmember, and the camera was back on Steadicam. The band members have passed out, and an interloping femme fatale sings of poison as she hooks each catatonic band mate to respective IV drips. A single LED bulb was affixed directly to the camera, so the source was essentially the camera itself, illuminating the characters with a deathly sheen as it approached. The effect was enhanced with the mirrored-water-tank technique. (“We used it in many scenes,” Smoczynska notes.) As frenetic tension boils over, the scene concludes with sunrise as light pours in through the windows — provided by direct, unfiltered 10- and 20K tungsten lights.
When Silver comes to the inevitable conclusion that her musician friend will never fall in love with her as she is, she elects to undergo a radical surgical procedure to trade bottom-halves with a human woman. Silver sings softly from her operating table as the camera peers down at her from significant height, slowly pushing in, rotating, and ending the shot with a close-up of her abdomen being sawed into by a surgeon’s electrical rotating blade. The sequence was captured with the aid of a Giraffe crane and hot head.
“We shot this on location,” Kijowski says. “We found a room in an old factory; what I really liked was the [checkered] floor. It also had a very high ceiling, so we could use a really, really long arm. We shot on a super-wide [14mm Arri/Zeiss Ultra Prime] lens to include everything. It’s the widest shot in the movie.”
Kijowski sees this sequence as a prime example of his initial vision. “It’s like a picture from a child’s book,” he says. “It’s colorful and very simple. The point of view is beautiful, but not connected to reality, like with all of the songs in this film. That’s why I sometimes shoot from the top and sometimes underwater. I push the director and the [entire] production to do it, because I believe that it will be important. In every other scene, we can shoot as simply as possible — handheld or single shots, where we don't need anything special. But in the music scenes, it should look like a picture from a fairytale.”