Cinematographer: 'There Will Be Blood,' 'Michael Clayton'

Honoring past traditions while questioning established practice is perhaps life’s, let alone filmmaking’s, trickiest balancing act. But cinematographer Robert Elswit is living proof that it can be done, and with a flourish.

He will go out of his way to diminish his own contribution to the movies he’s made mightily possible — not only the entire oeuvre of Paul Thomas Anderson including his latest, “There Will be Blood,” but also “Michael Clayton,” “Syriana,” “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “The River Wild” — and will stress that today’s cinematographers exist merely in the shadows of the d.p.s behind Hollywood’s classic movies from the 1930s and ’40s.

At the same time, spend any amount of time talking with Elswit and it becomes piercingly clear that he thrives on radical approaches to making movies and recognizes that he needs to be alongside a director who questions rules, habits and conventional wisdom.

Nothing is more exciting for Elswit than being on a location and absorbing the setting, environment, space and light, and then making it up at the moment of filming. Which is exactly how Anderson works.

“We noodle through a scene without rehearsals,” Elswit says. “I might do a little prelighting, but other than that, Paul wants to work through a shot and find it as it’s done. He wants mistakes to happen, because that’s when life breaks out. There’s no slate, no marks on the ground, no hair and makeup, and a crew of no more than eight people. I can’t tell you how different this is from the way Hollywood usually works.”

Fundamentals nevertheless apply: “I always relate everything I do to the screenplay and storytelling,” he says. “I use light, and the key to my work is trying to come up with something that relates light to the script’s thematic ideas. Everything else is secondary.”

He’s effusive about the past masters — “The geniuses who lit those classical films, the Tolands, the Altons, we’re nowhere near what they achieved!” He’s also a fan of the lighting masters who dominated the 1970s, especially the New York school of Owen Roizman (“The French Connection”) and Gordon Willis (“The Godfather”). The central point, as Elswit sees it, is that Roizman and Willis recognized the traditions of the craft while doggedly searching for new ways to express with light on film.

These tendencies flow powerfully through Elswit’s best work, typically characterized by the anamorphic process, frames that allow for open (exterior or interior space), crystalline resolution, a love for slow film stocks, raw realism intervening on exquisite compositions and a palpable visual tension between figure and horizon.

Unusual among cinematographers, Elswit’s background in visual effects production (particularly his apprenticeship at Industrial Light & Magic) expanded his toolkit, but he admires the old-school approach of Anderson and “Michael Clayton” writer-director Tony Gilroy, and what he terms their “photo-chemical preferences.”

“The other thing that Paul and Tony share in common that’s just fantastic for me,” he adds, “is that they’re always willing to listen to ideas from anybody on the set, as long as the ideas make the scene better. And even if it doesn’t work, at least they’ll try it out.

“This is rare among writer-directors, who can sometimes become so attached to their work on the page that they won’t test out something else. But that willingness is central to the creative process.”

SNAPSHOT

Awards pedigree: Oscar and ASC noms for “Good Night, and Good Luck,” which also earned awards from the Boston Society of Film Critics, Spirits and the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.

Mentors/inspiration: “Being around very smart people like (ILM’s) Dennis Muren and Kenny Ralston gave me a chance to see guys who reinvented the world of visual effects and yet were able to function creatively and in the moment. Another mentor was Les Novros, who made Imax documentaries and demo films for NASA and JPL as well as ‘To the Moon and Back’ in the mid-’60s, which had a crucial influence on Kubrick for making ’2001.’”

Visual aids: “Studying classical Hollywood films from the 1930s and 1940s; they did it better than we do.”

Favorite tool: “My light meter.”

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