Shooting the Black Swan.

How was the film Black Swan shot? How did the filmmakers deal with all the mirrors? How many lights did they use and what kind? Those were my thoughts while watching Natalie Portman’s remarkable performance. Here, I have compiled the most interesting technical aspects of the movie, gathered from several articles and forums, including a great interview by American Cinematographer’s Stephen Pizzello with the Director of Photography Matthew Libatique.


Regarding the mirrors and avoiding camera reflections, which is the real reason why I did some serious  research on this movie, Libatique says “we did as much as we could practically, but we knew there would be moments when we wanted to create seemingly unachievable shots, and for those we just removed the reflections digitally with the help of Dan Schrecker, our visual-effects supervisor at Look Effects. A good example of Look’s work is the scene where Nina is rehearsing in front of a mirror, the lights go out, and her reflection starts moving independently; the camera was right where you see the reflection, but Darren wanted to get tight eye lines, so we had to paint ourselves out in post. For other scenes, it was easier to just hide the camera or shoot from angles where you couldn’t see it. We also used one-way mirrors to get a shot where we created an ‘infinity reflection’ of Nina sitting in front of a dressing-room mirror. We positioned Natalie between two one-way mirrors and just shot from behind them. We wanted the film’s horror beats to be a bit more stylistic.”

Black Swan Hallucination Scene


The main lighting source was “a strip above the dancers’ heads. We had about eight rows of 1K cinema globes running 60 feet across the stage. We just used different gels and put the lights on different channels; we’d go from a green gel to white to magenta, and we also started to mix them, which was nice. It was less complicated than using moving lights. For one sequence, we combined a moon backdrop with a rain effect that we created by filling a pool of water with broken glass and placing it at the base of the background. We just powered Source Fours into the pool and modulated the water movement with fans.”

Natalie Portman Pictures CompilationCameras

“The movie was a single-camera shoot except for maybe one day, and our main camera was an Arri 416, which we used with Arri Ultra Prime 16 lenses. We used a Canon 7D or 1D Mark IV for all the subway scenes; I could just carry a 7D and shoot on the subway all day with a very small crew. I did some tests with my wife beforehand to figure out my ASA, my stop, and how I was going to deal with the focus. I didn’t use any rigs with it because I wasn’t trying to shoot in the traditional way. I tested a bunch of different exposures and then brought the footage to Charlie Hertzfeld at Technicolor, who put it in the system so I could look at the highlights, the moiré and the resolution. Then I went back to the drawing board to do more tests. The 7D has more depth of field than the 5D, but I needed that because I didn’t have a follow-focus unit and needed to work really fast. I shot everything documentary-style. I did all the focus pulls by hand, and we’d just look at it on the camera’s monitor. I ended up shooting on a Canon 24mm lens at 1,600 ASA to get as much depth of field as possible at a stop of T81?2.”

Director of Photography Matthew Libatique shooting Black Swan with the Canon 7D in New York's subway.

Special Effects

Check this short documentary on this movie’s special effects.


Camera Movement

Every performance was covered in long master shots, which “we just augmented with other moves as necessary. To Natalie’s credit, we rarely did more takes for her; if we required additional takes, it was usually for us. We knew we’d be shooting her from the chest up most of the time, but we knew we’d be in great shape, performance-wise, as long as we could see her face and arms. For wider shots, we could just use her dance double. We did almost everything handheld.” The only Steadicam shot is at the climax of the final dance number. Unreal.

The movie is now available on Blu-Ray.


Can’t miss seminars at PDN’s PhotoPlus Expo 2011.


Last week, my great friends Ted Kawalerski, Matt Stanton, and Justin Katz helped me shoot this 45-second video to promote my upcoming seminars at PhotoPlus Expo in New York City.

On Friday, October 28, from 8:45 to 11:45 a.m., I’ll be co-teaching “Portrait Lighting Techniques & Lightroom Workflow” with Bobbi Lane. Expect a very energetic and intense seminar.

The same day, from 3:45 to 5:45 p.m., I’ll be presenting “Intro to Digital Cinema.” This 2-hour class is specifically designed for photographers transitioning into HDSLR video, and my goal is to provide enough tips and resources so that attendees will be able to start shooting video by 6 p.m. that same day. I guess I love challenges. As the title says, this is an introductory class.

To truly understand all the technical concepts, filmmaking techniques, and upcoming trends of this amazing digital revolution, I suggest you attend one of my upcoming 2-day PDN HDSLR Video Workshops in New York (Oct. 30-31), Washington D.C. (Nov. 5-6), and Los Angeles (Nov. 11-12).

Let me know if you have any questions!