Female cinematographer behind The Weeknd’s Call Out My Name lyric video and the song’s accompanying exclusive music video on Spotify, Lidia Nikonova, answered a few questions about her latest project.
Lidia is an accomplished cinematographer who’s worked on various projects including music videos for artists such as L Devine and T. Soomian, as well as commercial work for high-profile brands including Spotify, VICE, VICELAND, and SSENSE. She most recently completed her latest film, The Day That, which was an official selection for AIFF, RIIFF and Palm Springs Shorts.
Currently, Lidia is one of the few creatives pioneering an industry-wide shift to vertical content, as we’ve seen with Spotify Video and the launch of Instagram TV (IGTV). With The Weeknd’s Call Out My Name Spotify music video, Lidia produced one of the first vertical anamorphic videos, which allowed her to increase the field of view while retaining all the textural qualities of the vintage anamorphic glass — the flare, the breathing and the oval bokeh.
PH: Can you talk a bit about how you got into the industry?
Lidia Nikonova: It is fascinating that a lot of filmmakers come into the industry from very diverse walks of life. My path, however, started as a documentary photographer in Australia where I worked for newspapers and magazines. I started off as an intern at The Sydney Morning Herald. I got to shoot the jobs that nobody else in the department wanted to do. I had to make strong artistic photographs out of extremely boring scenarios such as house auctions and press conferences—it was not an easy task. I think this was the best training I have ever had.
Eventually, I progressed to shoot documentary and investigative projects that focused on people and spaces around them including Australian rodeos, Parisian teenagers, and Russian outlaws. Once when I was on an assignment in the middle of nowhere in East Russia, a reporter and I had to run for our lives for miles. We were evading an enraged ex-convict who was deeply offended by our refusal to drink shots of bootleg vodka with him.
After some years of photojournalism, I eventually gave in to my long-lasting passion for cinema and moved to Los Angeles. I was fortunate to attend the American Film Institute, where I met many talented collaborators (especially directors Dorian Tocker and Chelsea Woods) and mentors. This was my head start in the industry.
PH: What was the post-production process on a project like this like?
Lidia Nikonova: I started shooting music videos a few years ago, but my favorite one so far is a vertical video for The Weeknd's song “Call Out My Name” which I shot for Spotify's new vertical video platform. I was shooting a short film when I got a call from the creative producer, Rebecca Hearn, to shoot for a series of videos for The Weeknd's Spotify release of his latest LP My Dear Melancholy. Rebecca and I often work together and needless to say, I was very intrigued by the vertical videos and the fact that there are so many new platforms that need content tailored to this format. We researched a lot of vertical content, but couldn’t find anything that had the level of professionalism and production value we were after. After all, most of the videos we found were filmed on iPhones and thus inherently had the DIY aesthetic.
The director, Joachim Johnson, comes from the world of fashion photography, which often shoots vertically to fit magazine pages. So, he had a lot of ideas on how to tackle the vertical format. His concept to elongate the mis-en-scene by creating vertical structures opened a lot of creative possibilities for framing, composition, and camera movement. Joachim’s idea was to tower up a bunch of TV screens with The Weeknd whilst his image would interact with our main character played by Sasha Lane. It took a lot of choreography and timing to make sure the screens, the lighting, and the performance were all in sync, but ultimately the video turned out to be very powerful and matched the tone of the song.
Having to shoot vertically was an interesting challenge since everything needed to be tailored to this format. When we scouted locations, we had to look for something that had a lot of headroom to allow us to get dynamic multi-layered vertical compositions. The production settled on an old theatre with a stage. I did some research on vertical videos, but it looks like we were the first to ever produce a vertical anamorphic video. The benefit of going anamorphic was that we increased the field of view whilst retaining all the textural qualities of the vintage anamorphic glass: the flare, the breathing, and the oval bokeh. Next up was figuring out the resolution and the aspect ratio, as well as making custom framelines and LUTs to fit the unique look Joachim was after. We shot that video on Alexa Mini using Hawk C-Series Anamorphic lenses from Keslow Camera. It turned out to be quite a challenge to mount the camera sideways on steadicam or to make it ergonomic and comfortable for handheld operating. Everything had to be adjusted and tweaked because the eyepiece didn't mount correctly, the rods were offset and so on.
My camera assistants did a great job figuring out how to make it all work. When we got to post, it was even more confusing as we had to turn our monitors sideways during final DI at Company 3. Our colorist was Bryan Smaller, who graded a lot of The Weeknd’s videos—including “Starboy,” which is one of my favorites—and it was a blessing working with somebody who knew exactly what we were after. Since we shot vertically, it was hard to see all the details on 16:9 monitors because they would have a lot of dead space on each side. By rotating the monitors 90 degrees, however, all the orientation controls on Resolve had to be adjusted.
PH: What was your favorite part of this project?
Lidia Nikonova: My favorite part of the project was our close collaboration with Joachim Johnson, Rebecca Hearn, and Dylan Coughran, who was our editor and who also works a lot with The Weeknd’s creative team. As a DP, I felt very included in designing this unusual and beautiful project. Everyone was onboard with the challenges and we approached the project with a fresh perspective, building it from the ground up based on its unusual format. In the end, we came up with something very unique and well-received, even though we had to do a lot of late night engineering and magic to make it all work under tight deadlines.
PH: How is the approach to cinematography different for a music video versus a film or documentary?
Lidia Nikonova: I love working both on music videos and narrative films. The approach to each is very different and I find it creatively invigorating to switch between them. Music videos are driven by the emotion and the rhythm of the song where lighting and camera are to support and amplify these notions. Often the scenes are very short, so each second needs to be carefully crafted. You don’t get as much time to establish the relationships between characters, so each frame needs to be filled with subtext in order for it to work.
One of my favorite aspects of the music video format is the fact that it is open to experimentation and visual poetry, which allows me to create stunning and complex images that may feel too loud in narrative films. I love using cranes, drones and lighting gags — amongst other magic tricks—to create vivid experiences that don’t subscribe to gravity and the physics of the real world.
PH: What other upcoming projects and goals are you looking forward to completing this year?
Lidia Nikonova: This autumn is going to be interesting. In a few weeks, I am going into production for the film People Will Not Believe, which is about dealing with severe trauma, disguised as a vampire story. My good friend and ex-AFI fellow, Myles Hawthorne, is the director. After that, I have a music video that I will be shooting and co-directing that is set in the jungle, as well as an action feature — both of which should wrap before the Camerimage Festival in Poland, which I hope to attend!
PH: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Lidia Nikonova: My short film The Day That, which is directed by Dorian Tocker and produced by Cemile Seren Turam, just won Gran Prix at the 2018 Rhode Island International Film Festival. It is one of my favorite projects because it employs a very experimental approach to telling a deeply personal story. The film is set on the day of a father’s death and follows five of his family members who find themselves in the minutia of everyday life which takes on a heightened and disarming power in his absence.
The film was designed to be a very visual experience with little dialogue and exposition. The challenge was to design the images that convey the emotions and tell the story just as much, if not more, than dialogue or exposition. Both the performance and dialogue were often improvised and so we seldom knew what was about to happen in front of the camera. To me, it was a beautiful journey as we had to be open to new ideas and always explore what was around us. The Day That is in official competition at Mill Valley Film Festival which is taking place from October 4 to October 14. So, the film is still on the festivals round and I hope you will see it playing around town in the coming months.