Eye on the Oscars: The Cinematographer
From Tom Stern’s bloodless, monochromatic palette on Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar” to Janusz Kaminski’s vibrant, painterly images in Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse,” filmmakers took radically different approaches to capturing historic periods in their work this year, whether based on real-life figures or simply grounded in a certain time and place.
For Peter Suschitzky, who shot David Cronenberg’s early 20th century Freud/Jung drama, “A Dangerous Method,” the very idea of altering his style to suit a particular epoch is specious at best. For the d.p., subtle differences are more visceral than strategic.
“I’m not going to change my camera style radically just because it’s a period movie,” he says. “But something obviously does happen inside of myself, and style shifts naturally. We took into account that the film is set before (everyone had) electricity. My compositions were based more on place. In the mental hospital scenes, I wanted strong compositions. Freud’s apartment has a completely different feel from Jung’s by virtue of the sets. I shoot on those sets organically, reacting instinctively to what I see.
“I do think the period speaks to you and influences you in ways you are not conscious of,” he adds. “Just seeing the actors in period clothes has an effect on the work.”
Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” by contrast, was shot specifically to illustrate a particularly lonely Cold War ambiance. The cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who has been tackling period films for years, feels it’s easier than contemporary work, because “time gives you perspective — you can be a little bit more analytical about certain things. The time is well defined in a visual sense.”
The goal was to bring viewers into what the filmmakers perceived to be the real “atmosphere of the Cold War” in Eastern Europe, far from glamourized notions. “This is the darker side of the Cold War, the painful side — people locked in small rooms lit by artificial light, going through the motions,” van Hoytema says.
“MI6 (operatives) in this time were hard-laboring, lonely men who had secrets they could not tell anyone. We wanted to show how lonely and dreary it was. I wanted a scruffy finish to the cinematography — real texture in the frames.”
To accomplish this, van Hoytema used an old, grainy Fuji Reala 500D film stock that is now discontinued. He then enhanced grain via a 4k digital intermediate workflow at a Swedish facility called the Chimney Pot.
“I got more grain with that stock, and also by slightly underexposing it,” he says. “(The 4k process) meant that we could work at a much better resolution. This way, we lost less of the structure of the original negative, which was important to me. A 2k process can interfere with original film noise, and grain can get filtered, making its roughness appear digital. Here, we were able to get back that organic sense.”
Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” meanwhile, moves back-and-forth between contemporary and period visuals. The mission was all about romanticizing Paris at night during a famous historical period, and distinguishing it from contemporary chunks of the film.
To achieve this, for the period sections, d.p. Darius Khondji used old Taylor-Hobson Cooke lenses from the 1960s and ’70s, and sharp, modern Cooke S5 lenses for contemporary pieces.
“The modern period also has a wider lens and more camera moves to be sharper with more depth of field,” says Khondji, “while we used longer lenses for period work.
“In the 1920s, they didn’t have a wide-angle lens, so I shot that period without one. We tried to glamourize it with longer lenses and less movement — more classical. Also, more backlight. I don’t use a lot of backlight for modern stories, but it’s an iconic, vintage look that works to (represent) older photography.”
The filmmakers attempted to differentiate vintage Paris at night through a distinct lack of exterior light. “We turned out the lights in Paris,” Khondji says. “In modern cities, there is too much light. I imagined that back then, there were bubbles of light only around cafes and restaurants, wherever there was activity.”
“War Horse,” which takes place during World War I, appears to reference the kind of fiery sunsets and dramatic vistas of classic epics like “Gone With the Wind” and “Duel in the Sun.”
These rich, light-intensive compositions — achieved almost totally in camera — are, in a sense, characters in the film, reminding viewers of a simpler era compared to what’s coming.
“We talked about amazing exteriors, beautiful skies, and great clouds,” Kaminski says. “To maintain the beauty of the sky, you have to light actors at certain levels so they don’t blend in with the landscape. If it were a contemporary movie, I would have had a different approach. I wouldn’t light people as much as I did on this movie, and the importance of deep skies would not be emphasized as much.”
The period nature is particularly accentuated during the battle sequences. An iconic cavalry charge inspired by historic paintings descends into the dark, graphic reality of trench warfare. Spielberg and Kaminski are certainly no strangers to visualizing the battlefield after “Saving Private Ryan,” but this time around, the camera highlights a different kind of a war.
“This movie has fewer camera tricks, fewer manipulations (for battle sequences) — it’s more straightforward,” Kaminski says. ” ‘Private Ryan’ relied on manipulated camera speeds and lenses a lot more. ‘Private Ryan’ was handheld and, here, we are usually away from the actors — we’re more objective about it, less personally involved.”
Meanwhile, Stern’s dark, shadowy look on “J. Edgar” accentuated the period costumes and sets. As such, Stern says he was generally more focused on lighting and lensing for the evolving state of Hoover’s mind, given that the film is a psychological drama.
“He was going between the frustration of his emotions and his yearning for power, and he descends into a sort of tragic isolation,” Stern says. “That’s what we were trying to capture. At times, he’s a couple molecules short of bonkers, and we lit accordingly. The period is mostly taken care of with design. A friend recently accused me of having it look old mahogany, but I guess that was the sense and (palette) of high-end federal buildings back then.”
The same sets in the Department of Justice and Hoover’s office are used across many decades, so lighting fixtures were swapped out. Gaffer Ross Dunkerley, for example, used practical 250-watt bulbs to light all the 1920s scenes in the main corridor. In the 1960s, that same corridor is lit with practical fluorescent lights to make it look brighter during daylight hours.
Such subtle tricks are all over “J. Edgar,” but perhaps the most overt attempt to distinguish one era from another took place during the digital intermediate process. There, Eastwood and Stern had Technicolor Hollywood colorist Jill Bogdanowicz radically desaturate the 1920s imagery to make it look like it was closer to how film looked back then. Bogdanowicz even added soft vignettes to 1920s shots to keep eyes focused on the center of frames to mimic the look of darker, vintage lenses.
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