Solo: A Star Wars Story has arrived in theatres. And amid a production plagued with reshoots and high profile crew replacements, there has been one constant throughout the whole process. Academy Award nominated cinematographer Bradford Young is the man behind the camera for the latest instalment into the Star Wars universe, and like always he finds a way to bring a personal touch to a technical world.
Despite his many protestations about falling into his career in film, it would seem from his origins that Bradford Young was destined to be a storyteller. Born in Louisville, Kentucky to a family of funeral directors, from a young age Young had unwittingly become implicated in a history of storytelling, and of storytellers. As he himself admits, “I didn’t know what a cinematographer was growing up, but I grew up in a very image intense environment.”
For most people funerals are about saying a goodbye to a loved one, an opportunity to celebrate the deceased one last time. For a black family of funeral directors stretching back four generations, steeped in the histories and experiences of the South, funerals take on more weight. They present a chance for a narrative, to tell a careful story of a life lost and to ensure there is a certain dignity afforded the dead that there may not have been in life.
It is unsurprising that having grown up in this environment, Young found himself drawn to cinematography not just as a craft, but as a responsibility. “People who looked like me got lost because they didn’t end up seeing themselves [on screen]. They became traumatized, and I didn’t want that. I want peace,” Upon graduating Howard, Young threw himself into a career that has yielded an excellent filmography so far. He first came to notice with Pariah (2011) where he won the Sundance cinematography award. Since then, partnering with several fellow black filmmakers (such as Dee Rees, Ava DuVernay and longtime collaborator Andrew Dosunmu) Young has embarked on a mission to challenge preconceived notions of traditional lighting and cinematography, culminating in an Academy Award nomination for Arrival (2016) in 2017.
When it comes to his craft, Young is passionate about challenging the ways in which the film industry lights and frames black skin. For him film, that is the stock, is elitist, racist and sexist. He is more interested in taking away the power “from those who hold too much.” He wants the medium to be available to those who have meaningful stories to tell but maybe not the access to the tools they need. Bradford Young roots for those on the fringes of stories who have stories to tell themselves. It is this marriage of the technological and personal in his work that drew the attention of Kathleen Kennedy, head of Lucasfilm. And despite the original directors of Solo –(Phil) Lord and (Chris) Miller – being replaced mid production by Ron Howard, Young has remained ever present on the production. What’s more, on the set of Solo, he was given the backing and confidence he needed to fully express his vision and identity.
So what to look out for from Bradford Young in Solo? Ava duVernay has described his work as full and lush. Teju Cole compared his work – his “overwhelmingly beautiful films” – to that of legendary photographer Roy deCarava. The cinematographer himself cites deCarava as his primary source of inspiration when it came to learning how to create images that would evoke such meaning that they stayed long in the memory. “Every film I’m trying to achieve that perfect resonance of life and energy in the shadows.” he told an interviewer.
Technically speaking, Young has fully embraced the advances in camera technology, especially the digital format. He prefers shooting in digital over film. His visual language incorporates lots of “practicals”, favouring raw light and shooting into it. He also enjoys non linear storytelling. Very often he will lights a scene with the light available in the shot; an overhead lamp in the kitchen table, or the harsh fluorescent lights in a military tent. This allows him not only to ground the viewer in the moment the character on screen is experiencing, but to remove as many obstructions between the camera and the subject as possible, doing away with excess rigs and lighting technology, which he finds obtrusive.
That process of grounding the viewer in the moment, and of transforming the events unfolding on screen into a memory is an integral ingredient that underpins Bradford Young’s cinematographic ideology, and something that he has held on to since childhood. When he comes across a technical difficulty when making a film, Young thinks back to his memories of his grandmother’s house in Illinois, Chicago, and what the lighting was like in those moments. By accessing those memories, he knows he is on the right track. “I use those memories as the ethos of how I make movies.”
From navigating the delicate story of a pariah coming to terms with her sexuality, to a galaxy far far away, Bradford Young has managed to build a remarkable career using intimacy and family, and well worn memories. When you go to see Solo: A Star Wars Story, be sure to keep an eye out for that memory of Bradford Young’s grandmother’s house.