Vanja Černjul, ASC


Vanja Černjul, ASC

Rich Look for Crazy Rich Asians

Vanja Černjul’s career began with studies in his native Zagreb, Croatia, and continued under the mentorship of virtuoso cinematographers Sven Nykvist, ASC and Haskell Wexler, ASC. After earning an MFA at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Černjul embarked on a varied career that spans art house cinema (Wristcutters: A Love Story), romantic comedy (City Island) and inventive hit television (30 Rock, Nurse Jackie, Orange is the New Black, Marco Polo). Other credits include The Mudge Boy, The English Teacher and Violet & Daisy. Along the way Černjul has earned two Emmy nominations and a reputation for a unique sensibility and an unerring eye.

Most recently, Černjul turned his talents to Crazy Rich Asians, a Warner Bros. feature based on a best-selling novel of the same title by Kevin Kwan, and billed as the first studio film with an all-Asian cast, starring Gemma Chan, Michelle Yeoh, and Harry Shum, Jr. The director was Jon M. Chu. 

In the story, an educated American couple travels to the man’s Asian home town for a wedding. There, the woman discovers that her fiancé is one of the most wealthy – and eligible – bachelors in the country. Comedy ensues as she must deal with a succession of avaricious, superficial and conniving women bent on stealing him away. The complicated social milieu is Singapore’s impossibly rich, and the garb is haute couture. 

The production was mounted in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Having shot seasons one and two of Marco Polo in Southeast Asia, Černjul has gained a familiarity with the region that gave him an advantage on the project. With 38 different locations spread across 43 shooting days, every edge was important. Lending these locations a consistency was one of his major concerns, and a key rationale for his decision to shoot with a combination of the Panasonic Varicam and Hawk V‑Lite 1.3x anamorphic lenses from Vantage.

“Last year, I shot a series for HBO titled The Deuce, which takes place in New York City in the 1970s,” says Černjul. “I found that the Varicam’s dual native sensitivity was extremely appropriate given the existing, available light we were using. I got used to the freedom that gives you – the ability to switch between 800 and 5000 ISO, depending on the shot. I wanted to have that freedom on Crazy Rich Asians, too. It’s a very stylish romantic comedy, and we were going to be moving around so much. The ability to mix lighting and color temperature without worrying too much about light levels was important.”

The Panasonic Varicam Pure utilizes a 4K Super 35 sensor. Černjul generally kept the ISO set at 2000 or below, with one or two exceptions. “I wanted to preserve as much information as possible to work with in color grading,” says Černjul. “I thought 4K uncompressed RAW was the right choice.”

The Hawk 1.3x anamorphic lenses squeeze the image to a lesser degree compared to standard 2x ‘Scope lenses. Cinematographers love the resulting images, which have some of the flavor of anamorphic without the inconveniences that come with the full 2x format. The Hawk 1.3x anamorphics dovetail nicely with a wide range of taking formats and deliver the pleasing organic bokeh, lens architecture, and depth of field characteristics that viewers subconsciously interpret as cinematic sweep. Their popularity has risen hand-in-hand with that of digital cameras, as cinematographers have turned to lensing to provide personality and distinctiveness. 

“I’ve used the 1.3x Hawks a lot, in many different applications,” says Černjul. “I’ve used them in combination with 16 mm to create a widescreen image. I’ve used them with Super 35 for a 1.85:1 image with some anamorphic traits. And what’s beautiful is that Vantage has added some amazing 1.3x anamorphic zooms that now come as part of the system. There are three zooms that I ended up using a lot, on cranes especially.”

Hawk 1.3x Front Anamorphic zooms combine the flexibility of variable focal length, anamorphic flavor and extremely close focus capability in a very small package. The zooms come in 30-60mm, 45-90mm and 80-180mm sizes, and are based on the V‑Plus model. 

“With the Hawk 1.3s, you get the anamorphic look, but with small, wide lenses that open up fast and a system that is very easy to work with,” says Černjul. “The result was a very cinematic-looking image with a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. On the Varicam, you can just switch in the viewfinder to 1.3x anamorphic, which was another great aspect. We tended to stay on the wider focal lengths because we wanted the environment to be present in every shot. Even the close-ups were done on 35 mm or 40, tops. Also, the camera and lenses are compact, which is nice for location work. It was the ideal choice for this job, and it paid off. It was a beautiful combination, and we were very happy with the results.”

Image by Sanja Bucko

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