Visuals boost films’ drama

Cinematography deliver heaven, hell and run-down bars

The year’s crop of heavy dramas has offered works of such an unsettling nature that they practically dare the viewer to look away. And yet the filmmaker’s job — and therefore the d.p.’s by proxy — is to make the drama so absorbing, and perhaps ultimately life-affirming, that the audience remains transfixed.

Storytelling of a sometimes disturbing nature, of course, calls for myriad visual approaches, from stylized to naturalistic. For “Precious,” director Lee Daniels and cinematographer Andrew Dunn imagined a reality-based look to surround larger-than-life characters. The protagonist, played by Gabourey Sidibe, occasionally slips into fantasies, and the filmmakers referred to Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz” (1979), photographed by Giuseppe Rotunno, as the basis of their approach to those scenes.

Our conversations formed the groundwork, but we didn’t plan every shot extensively,” Dunn says. “Once you develop a symbiosis between the director and the cinematographer, that groundwork becomes second nature. On the set, it feels natural and puts the actors at ease. If everything is planned, it can become unreal, and that comes across on the screen. It’s something the audience senses.

My part is to bring out what the actors do,” he adds. “The camera becomes a confidant. I’m the first member of the audience, and I have a responsibility with the camera to get in there and discover who this person is, and share that with the audience.”

Fred Elmes and director Jim Sheridan collaborated on “Brothers,” about a family torn apart by war. They avoided overplanning, preferring to find the shot on the set. “Jim’s method is to talk about it with the actors, and then let them find the right way,” Elmes says. “He’ll find it with them and steer them around, but he really listens to them and what they feel is right. It’s important to Jim that the actors feel comfortable doing what they were doing. He is very respectful of them.”

In Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones,” the main character, Susie, hovers in the afterlife, watching her loved ones react to her murder. “Early on, Peter commissioned concept art to investigate how we would approach Susie’s ‘in-between’ world,” says the film’s d.p., Andrew Lesnie. “I also immersed myself in the paintings of Andrew Wyeth and watched East Coast movies from that era. Susie’s heaven is a shape-shifting landscape that reflects her emotional state.

Peter is a very intuitive director, so I always try and design lighting and camera systems that are flexible and nonintrusive,” Lesnie says. “I made sure the performance space belongs to the director and the cast. Production designer Naomi Shohan made a huge contribution with her extensive ’70s research. Being immersed in the lifestyle of the period has a definite subliminal impact. You end up living and breathing the film while it’s being made.”

Cinematographer Barry Markowitz and director Scott Cooper concentrated on finding locations in New Mexico that dramatically enhanced the story of a dissipated country singer in “Crazy Heart.”

I thought there were too many interiors in the script,” says Markowitz. “I went out for a week, drove around, slept in a tent and waited for good exterior light.

We were looking for muted tones that don’t reflect a lot of light back,” he adds. “We shot in actual old bars and roadhouses. You couldn’t build them like that — why screw them up?

Markowitz explains that the main character of Bad Blake, played by Jeff Bridges, wears a cowboy hat and sunglasses, “so I couldn’t use bounce to get exposure on his face because you’d see the reflection. So we went really, really dark. But that darkness worked for the story.”

For Markowitz, “It’s all about cutting the light, not adding it. The film stock handled it beautifully.”

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