SPOILER ALERT: This article has minor spoilers for “Killers of the Flower Moon,” now playing in theaters.
There is a scene near the beginning of Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” that shows crude oil spurting out from the ground — “black gold.” It’s a joyful moment for the Osage tribes.
“Scorsese kept talking about oil gushing up in the air,” cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto tells Variety. “When you find oil, it bubbles under the surface, but he wanted to do something surreal and joyful, which contrasts with what that black gold brought them.” So, the shot required an oil pump as well as a derrick 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 around the oil naked, celebrating. The oil brings the Osage immense wealth, but with it, death. “We shot it with a Phantom camera which we set to high frame rates — 700 frames per second. That’s why you get that slow feeling of euphoria and that exaggerated sense of excitement. It’s a technique that we’ve used before with Scorsese,” Prieto says. The DP and the 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 that has 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 (lookup table) that emulated the beginning of color and still photography,” he explains.
He emulated the Autochrome Lumière technique, an early photography process developed in 1903 by the Lumière brothers. “When Ernest arrives that’s the way you see the environment, through those colors. It’s all relatively subdued,” Prieto says. In contrast, when he’s showing Mollie (Gladstone), her dawn rituals “were as naturalistic as possible.”
The team did not digitally manipulate the old photographs in the film, but “recreated those with a very old camera and used dry plate photography,” Prieto says.
As death sweeps through the community, Prieto’s color shifts, but the pivotal moment he says comes once Mollie’s sister Rita, played by Janae Collins, is killed when her house explodes. “The whole look of the movie changes for everybody to a much higher contrast, with a saturated and grainy look,” he says. To pull it off, Prieto used ENR, a bleach bath process developed by Technicolor Rome in 1981.
For its epilogue, Prieto notes how colorful the film becomes, “It’s the ‘30s. We wanted to use some form of color that was popular at that time, so we used the Technicolor Three-strip camera. Films like ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ all used that at the time.”
While testing how that technique would look visually, he used an earlier shot – when Mollie’s mother dies and is greeted by her ancestors. “We loved the way the test looked. There’s this autochrome world that she’s in with her descendants around her, and then her ancestors come, and it’s full of color. So, the color there is the three-strip technicolor. We took license there because we loved the way it looked. It’s a little artificial and special,” says Prieto.