Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' - Behind the Visuals With DP Santiago Gonzalez
“Black Is King,” now streaming on Disney Plus, was executive produced by Beyoncé as a visual companion to her 2019 release, “The Lion King: The Gift.”
Cinematographer Santiago Gonzalez talked with Variety about how the visuals for the Grammy-nominated music film came together and collaborating with Beyoncé.
What conversations did you have with Beyoncé regarding the visuals for “Black is King?”
The project evolved as we shot. Most of the conversations about the look of the different sections I shot were discussed more with each specific director. I was in a lot of prep meetings with Beyoncé but those were after she and the director had landed on a general look and feel for the section. These meetings would be logistical and world-building and at times I would present to her my ideas for the lighting so we could get more granular about what was needed for each day.
After we shot the first section of “Find your Way Back,” the project seemed to grow larger in scope to eventually become “Black Is King.” I was brought in to shoot “Find your Way Back” and “Bigger” with Kwasi Fordjour directing, which eventually led to me staying on for various other sections with several different directors and production designers. I filmed “Mood 4 Eva” with Dikayl Rimmasch directing and Ethan Tobman as production designer. I moved on to “Don’t Jealous Me” and “Otherside” with Emmanuel Adjei directing and Miranda Lorenz as production designer, and finally to “My Power” with Beyoncé directing and Hannah Beachler as production designer.
Beyoncé directed “My Power” and that section of the film was the one on which I collaborated with her the most. There was also a co-director, Julian Klincewicz, who operated a vintage Ikegani broadcast camera from the 1980s. Our discussions were mainly focused on the set, which was inspired by Alejandro Jodorowsky’s film, “The Holy Mountain.” We wanted to make sure to show how grand the set was. I thought of it as a temple dedicated to the power of femininity — sisterhood and motherhood. We used wide lenses and low sweeping angles to add dynamism to the dance and show the grandeur of the space.
The Ultra-Wide 8mm Prime made each column feel huge and added speed to the camera movement and made the columns feel alive and large. One of the things Beyoncé reiterated on the day of the shoot was that she didn’t want to be the point of focus for any shots that included the featured artists (Tierra Whack, Busisswa, Moonchild and Nija).
You can see Beyoncé on the edge of the frame, or integrated into the group where all the artists are the same size in the scene. Because of this, and to show the set, I wanted to keep the lighting bright and with less of a key light. No one had their own beauty light and the lighting was designed to highlight the women’s natural beauty.
The narrative to “Find Your Way Back” is beautiful — can you break down how that was filmed and framed — and the vision behind this number?
“Find Your Way Back” was the first video I did for the project. I think at this time it was just being thought of as a video to be released independently and it wasn’t until we filmed scenes for “Bigger” that the scope of the project became a much larger film. It’s funny — when we were prepping for “Find Your Way Back,” the idea behind it at first was to shoot the entire video on drones.
We had a location near Pismo Beach and the idea was to film large wide shots with Beyoncé small in the frame and then come into a close-up, and variances on that. The shoot prep was so quick that even though I wanted a camera that I could carry around with us to shoot in between drone setups there was no time and so we proceeded with the drone idea.
On the shoot day, Beyoncé’s team arrived and to my excitement, they had a full Alexa Mini package with them and so I recruited some of the drone team to help me. I built my own camera, pulled my own focus and downloaded my own media, but this gave me the freedom to move faster during some of these shots.
To me, the song felt like it was a call to come back home, to come back to our ancestry and the journey that follows. I think the idea of Afrofuturism is introduced here — with celestial bodies, the Dogon Kanaga masks, etc. In the video, we see a lot of light scenes (desert) and dark scenes (Beyoncé laying down on a bed of stars, the comet landing, the lantern dance, a starry sky) which visually represent a journey and also a duality.
Another thing that was very present for me was the use of sequins and crystals in the fashion which we lit so that they could sparkle and glimmer like stars. Kwasi and I discussed framing her with a lot of negative space around her, primarily above her or to the sides and VFX proceeded to add the moon behind her in a lot of these shots. We scouted sand dunes for a full day and were looking for interesting shapes in the dunes, either very deep valleys or high ridges that would play well with the drone.
I felt terrible sending Beyoncé hundreds of yards down into a valley that I knew she’d have to climb out of later, but we got an incredible image from that. In my experience, she always has the vision to see what the payoff will be. Some of the framing came directly from me thinking about the cover art of Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” — I composed a profile of Beyoncé with dancers in the back as an homage to that art.
“Mood 4 Eva” is another stunning visual, this time with prints — were there filters or specific lenses?
This video was the exact opposite of the simplicity of “Find Your Way Back.” Instead, “Mood 4 Eva” was a behemoth two-day shoot in which we had 20 big setups around a Beverly Hills mansion and my crew totaled around 40 people in both G&E and camera. The scope of the shoot was massive and we had quite a bit of prep for it.
This track is the “Hakuna Matata” of the “Black Is King” narrative and thus we wanted the mood of this to be bright, with good contrast, and saturation to make it feel opulent. The idea for the video was a carefree lifestyle with a dreamscape harkening back to old Hollywood and culminating in a Busby Berkeley style aqua-musical fantasy.
The co-director for this section, Dikayl Rimmasch, wanted a vintage look but with images that felt poppy, rich and saturated in the grade. We decided to employ Kowa Cine Prominars — spherical lenses built in the 1960s. They gave us a vintage feel, looked great on skin tones, and had a warmer flare. I also used a diffusion filter to bloom the highlights just a bit and make the images slightly softer. The lighting was mainly designed to feel naturalistic and to make Zerina Akers’ amazing wardrobe stand out. I also wanted a lot of the window light to bloom so that we conveyed a dream quality to the video.
One of the main references for this video was the Esther Williams aqua-musical “Bathing Beauty,” which we used for framing and lighting of some of the synchronized swimming sections. Some other references used were Eddie Murphy’s “Coming to America,” particularly for Beyoncé’s waking up scene, and Hype Williams’ film “Belly” for the club scene.
“Bigger” is one of my favorite sections of the film. Everything came together for this section. There was a beautiful clear day and an amazing sunset that played beautifully for the scene. I did enhance the daylight slightly with a couple of big units, but besides that we played it natural — embracing the direct sunlight and not opting for a large overhead diffusion.
One of the recurring visuals that Beyoncé asked for was a drone shot that was a slow push from a very wide landscape to a mid-shot of her in a beautiful setting. We did one on Bigger and repeated this motif in several of the other videos. In addition to capturing some of her performance on the beach with a drone, I was able to shoot this in both a digital format and on film.
Half of the video was a performance with Beyoncé singing to the track which I filmed on an Alexa Mini with some Zeiss Super Speeds. In addition to the performance, we also shot an elaborate line procession in which Beyoncé carries a child and washes the child alongside other mother-like figures also holding babies.
For this section of the piece, I shot Kodak film with “Astra” Master Primes that were designed by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema who used them on the film “Ad Astra.” I opted to use film because I wanted it to feel different from her performance pieces.
This portion was all shot as a beautiful single-take shot by Steadicam operator Nick Muller that unfortunately didn’t make it through the edit process, which was really a shame. The shot followed Beyoncé carrying the baby with the frame moving from a very tight closeup to a wide and back and forth between the two. We ended up shooting the line procession through nightfall. I kept adjusting my stop until there really wasn’t any light left to get an exposure.