Director of photography of ‘The Killers of the Flower Moon’ on Technicolor techniques

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SPOILER ALERT: This article contains minor spoilers for “Killers of the Flower Moon,” now playing in theaters.

There is a scene near the beginning of Martin Scorsese Flower Moon Killers” showing crude oil gushing out of the ground: “black gold.” It is a time of joy for the Osage tribes.

“Scorsese kept talking about oil gushing into the air,” cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto says Variety. “When you find oil, it bubbles under the surface, but he wanted to do something surreal and happy, which contrasted with what that black gold gave them.” So the shot required an oil pump and an oil rig.

Based on the non-fiction book by David Grann, set in the 1920s, the film stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro and Lily Gladstone. Weaving a narrative of exploitation and murder, the story tracks the mysterious deaths within the Osage Nation that led to a federal investigation and the birth of the FBI.

In the scene, the Osage dance naked around the oil, celebrating. Oil brings the Osage immense wealth, but with it, death. “We filmed it with a Phantom camera that we set to high frame rates: 700 frames per second. That’s why you have that slow feeling of euphoria and that exaggerated feeling of excitement. “It’s a technique we’ve used before with Scorsese,” says Prieto. The cinematographer and director previously worked together on “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “The Audition,” “Silence” and “The Irishman.”

Throughout “Killers,” Prieto wanted to make a visual distinction between the European settlers and the Osage. Much of his visual language was inspired by early photography and Technicolor techniques.

“For everything to do with Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio) and his uncle and the mastermind behind the exploitation of the Osage, William Hale King (De Niro), I used a LUT (look-up table) that emulated the beginning of color and still photographs,” he explains.

It emulated the Lumière Autochrome technique, one of the first photographic processes developed in 1903 by the Lumière brothers. “When Ernest arrives, that’s how you see the environment, through those colors. “Everything is relatively calm,” says Prieto. By contrast, when he shows Mollie (Gladstone), her dawn rituals “were as naturalistic as possible.”

The team did not digitally manipulate the old photographs from the film, but rather “recreated them with a very old camera and used dry plate photography,” Prieto says.

As death sweeps through the community, Prieto’s color changes, but the turning point, he says, comes when Mollie’s sister Rita, played by Janae Collins, dies when her house explodes. “The whole look of the film changes for everyone to a much higher contrast, with a saturated, grainy look,” he says. To achieve this, Prieto used ENR, a lye bath process developed by Technicolor Rome in 1981.

In the epilogue, Prieto highlights how colorful the film becomes: “It’s the 1930s. We wanted to use some form of color that was popular at the time, so we used the three-strip Technicolor camera. Movies like ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ used that at the time.”

While testing what that technique would look like visually, he used an earlier shot: when Mollie’s mother dies and she is greeted by her ancestors. “We loved the look of the test. There’s this autochrome world where she’s with her descendants around her, and then her ancestors come, and it’s full of color. So the color there is three stripe technicolor. We took the license there because we loved the look of it. It is a little artificial and special,” says Prieto.

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