Cinematographers fete their fellow filmmakers
Alfonso Beato on Danny Cohen for “The King’s Speech”
Danny Cohen made great use of camera angles and lenses to interpret and span both post-World War I as well as the pre-World War II decor in “The King’s Speech.” I certainly made note of the usage of proper lighting depicting that historical period in England.
In his outdoor scenes, which I particularly enjoyed, Cohen captured the ambiance of the environment of damp, foggy and at times bone-chilling England, and that atmosphere translated into the real mood of the country and the sense of gloom and foreboding that was encroaching Europe and England as the threat of war hung heavy in the air. So his cinematography mirrored the mood of the time and the country.
Affonso Beato’s d.p. credits include “The Queen” and “Nights in Rodanthe.”
Christian Berger on Xavier Grobet for “Mother and Child”
I see more and more cinematographers who are professionally very good — they are skilled, trained, but they don’t show me enough secrets. Where the sun shines on it, it is discovered … it is a little boring — I have nothing to discover anymore.
But this year, in “Mother and Child,” Xavier Grobet captured the emotion of the actors very well. He was able to champion the female’s point of view beautifully in the film, and I think his work is consistently exciting. He shows the atmosphere from the live circumstance very well. His lighting of the rooms and spaces gave a rich ambiance that increased the emotion of the narrative.
I want to see more cinematographers create subtext and different levels of perception in the images — that makes a rich picture for me.
Christian Berger was nominated for his lensing of “The White Ribbon,” directed by frequent collaborator Michael Haneke.
Michael Chapman on Hoyt Van Hoytema for “The Fighter”
“The Fighter” is part of a special genre of movies I’m very fond of, which is movies with a Boston accent. It was actually shot in Lowell and places like that, which look like those towns. And the movie very successfully anchors them in that world. Much of that has to do with a sort of ordinary daylight cinematography, intelligently set up.
The fights are shot with multiple cameras … I don’t know for a fact; it would just be my guess. When they’re covered in television, they’re covered with multiple cameras, usually. And they’re brightly lit in a way that, I guess, is like what you see when you see a fight covered on television or covered in a sort of straightforward way.
They are done totally within the framework of the movie and the story, not as essentially arias, as they were done in “Raging Bull.”
The movie struck me as doing the basic thing that cinematography does when it’s done well, which is to present a three-dimensional stage in which the actors can move and be convincing and feel unhampered and free. And (d.p. Hoyte Van Hoytema) does that very well, and lets the people be where they want and need to be.
The early stuff where they are being interviewed by HBO — and it keeps recurring — has a documentary feel, and that bleeds over into the actual action so you’re not quite sure whether they’re still being interviewed. It takes a really clever piece of staging to do that. Again, the lighting reflects that.
Michael Chapman, an ASC Lifetime Achievement honoree, was the d.p. behind “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull.”
Anthony Dodd Mantle on Roger Deakins for “True Grit”
Busy, indeed prolific, wise and wonderful — the white-haired knight of cinematography. I actually have difficulty imagining Roger Deakins ever having had a different color mop on his head. He seems timeless and tireless; his works seem the same — immune to trend or fashion but always so quietly innovative.
The movies he has photographed seem blessed with a cinematic effortlessness, very reminiscent of his own demeanor the few times I have had the pleasure of his company. I imagine him a gentle rock on set, clearly loyal to the story and evidently the same to his ever-returning directors.
Roger’s work on “1984” infiltrated thoughts and images deep into my private inspiration headspace forever — so deeply embedded are these memories that they superseded any private vision I previously may have had from Orwell’s writing. I remember as a cinematography student looking at his lighting diagrams from the fire sequences in “Barton Fink” and wondering how any cinematographer could be so organized and so specific, so far ahead of time; in the same breath I feared I would certainly never ever reach his planet.
I was christened into the Digital Intermediate process on Thomas Vinterberg’s “It’s All About Love” in Scandinavia, parallel to Roger and the Coen brothers’ “O Brother Where Art Thou.” I recollect sharing the dawn of this new era with mixed feelings, but I remember how informative, generous and open his thoughts were on the subject at the time. His experiences and comments, as ever, available for the education of others like myself. To this day he remains enthusiastic and inspired despite the most awesome and overwhelming legacy of masterpieces already behind him.
I join thousands of others who knowingly or unknowingly have been bombarded and inspired by his brilliant, consistent and relentless cinematography for so many years. Eight Oscar nominations to his name plus countless other wins. Could it be “True Grit” for the True Brit this time round? He has led the field for so long that we all know it will come sooner than later. But who knows when?
As I wait with the rest of the world for that moment, I am consoled by the thought of how much more there is still to come from Roger Deakins.
James Chressanthis on Roger Deakins for “True Grit”
His peers have already nominated Roger Deakins for eight Oscars. You don’t need all of your fingers to count the number of contemporary cinematographers with eight nominations.
“True Grit” is his 11th collaboration with Joel and Ethan Coen at the helm. The story, set in the 1890s, takes audiences on a journey to the Texas frontier at a time when light at night was motivated by the moon, campfires or oil lamps.
Roger spent the first seven years of his career as a documentary cinematographer for the BBC in England. That was great training, because great fiction cinematography has to make the audience believe that they are witnessing things that are really happening.
As Roger points out, there is no second take on a documentary. You have to make decisions very quickly and intuitively. Do you pan to a reaction or follow the action? Stay wide angle or move closer-in? Is the light right for that moment in the story? What lenses do you use?
In “True Grit,” Roger used the camera as both a witness and participant. He puts the audience in the story as though they are there with U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn on the frontier hunting for the villain who killed Mattie Ross’ father.
A lot of what a cinematographer does is transparent to audiences. Roger had to ask himself is front, back, side or top light right for each shot? How do I light gigantic night exteriors in an expressive and utterly believable manner? How do I render the texture of a scene? Its visual grit?
There were countless other variables. Should he under- or overexpose the film? What’s the right lens? That’s just the beginning of a long list of decisions that he had to make on every shot.
Jeff Bridges, who plays Rooster, is getting a lot of attention from critics who are reviewing the film. But let’s not forget Hailee Steinfeld, the 14-year-old actress playing Mattie. Roger helped to put the audience in her head. They see large parts of “True Grit” through her eyes and feel what she is feeling.
The brilliance of Roger’s cinematography lies in something very difficult to achieve: It’s completely transparent to the audience because it looks and feels real.
The twice Emmy-nominated James Chressanthis’ credits include the TV movie “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows” and the series “The Ghost Whisperer.”
Phil Meheux on Xavier Grobet for “Buried”
One of the films that impressed me this year was, “Buried,” starring Ryan Reynolds, directed by Rodrigo Cortes and photographed by 28-year-old Spaniard, Edward Grau, a relative newcomer to the ranks of cinematographers who did a superb job last year with his first U.S. feature, “A Single Man.”
One of the films that impressed me this year was, “Buried,” starring Ryan Reynolds, directed by Rodrigo Cortes and photographed by 28-year-old Spaniard Eduard Grau, a relative newcomer to the ranks of cinematographers who did a superb job last year with his first U.S. feature, “A Single Man.”
“Buried” opens on a black screen: no light anywhere, no sound but the muffled breathing of a man slowly coming awake and the bumps and noises he makes as he realizes he is trapped inside a coffin. He splutters in panic and fumbles with his lighter, clicking again and again until it ignites. By the thin yellow light of its flame, we see one panicked eye, taking in the small dark world that contains him.
We never get outside the coffin except in a surreal sense, and it’s all played on one man in mostly tight close-ups: eyes, mouth, fingers and some interesting camera moves. It is an amazing piece of work to keep an audience riveted to the screen inside a coffin for 90 minutes with one actor and only two main sources of light: his Zippo lighter and his cell phone.
Every set-up has the camera in a different position, sometimes moving and sometimes in such long focus that only an eyelash is in focus, all in anamorphic widescreen. Expertly done.
The former president of the British Society of Cinematographers, Meheux’s credits include “Casino Royale” and the recent “Edge of Darkness.”
Claudio Miranda on Wally Pfister for “Inception”
Despite the complexity of “Inception’s” story line, Wally Pfister was able to deliver scene after scene of beautifully crafted images to differentiate the various time paradigms. This is an exceptionally difficult task for the cinematographer, when you are creating so many different “worlds” in one film. His work was essential to helping viewers follow the narrative.
Wally’s ability to use camera movement and composition is astounding. He has a natural sense of balance between the artistry and the technology. Even when a world is shifting its gravity, he can keep can keep our feet firmly embedded in the action.
Claudio Miranda, the d.p. behind “TRON: Legacy,” is currently shooting Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” in Taiwan.
Wally Pfister on Vilmos Zsigmond for “Louis”
Remember the days of cinema before the talkies? Remember when the simplicity of a moving photographic image, the subtleties of an actor’s facial expression and the power of a well-composed musical score were enough to tell a story?
OK, I don’t either. But the experience of watching “Louis,” a silent film based loosely on the early life of Louis Armstrong, is enough to transport you to that era through vivid imagery and lively jazz. As photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond, “Louis” employs a unique style that encompasses both the filmic language of the silent era and a stunning, original look that Vilmos created.
The film has the feel of an old, hand-tinted still photograph. Desaturated colors, added tints of sepia and red, and subtle hints of blue and green are the ingredients that Vilmos used. Strong contrast and moody lighting complement these subtle colors and round out the film’s unique look.
“We wanted to evoke that era with black and white images,” says Zsigmond. “The best way to do that today is to shoot color film and remove the colors in post, which also gave us the opportunity to enhance the images by adding touches of color back in here and there, like a hand-tinted photograph from that time.”
That black-and-white lighting style consists of harder, more directional light, with sharper edges and strong shadows. The filmmakers also decided to use a variety of frame rates (silent era films were generally shot at 16 frames per second, as compared to today’s 24 fps standard) to re-create the feel of a silent film. These choices translate into subconscious visual cues to the audience, bringing that time and place to life.
On Louis, Vilmos used the latest technologies to produce images that take audiences back to the dawn of cinematography. But he succeeds because of his artistry: bold choices, impeccable taste, and a thorough understanding of the history of moving images and how they affect people.
Wally Pfister shot “Inception” for director Christopher Nolan, with whom he’s collaborating on the upcoming “The Dark Knight Rises.”
Steven Poster on Matthew Libatique and Wally’s Pfister for “Inception”
How are Wally Pfister and Matty Libatique alike? It’s not the photographic styles they created for “Inception” and “Black Swan,” respectively. It’s definitely not their backgrounds.
After seeing “Memento,” I felt the same way about Wally. I wanted to know more about how he did it and how he made it look so effortless.
What I did realize was that both of those projects were the beginnings of long and fruitful relationships with directors who would continue to make terrific movies with these cinematographer partners.
“Memento” was Wally’s first co-venture with Chris Nolan.
I’ll let you in on the secret: They both make it look simple. In other words, their cinematography never gets in the way of the story; it only enhances. Yet if you look closely, you see shots all through their work that take your breath away.
Here is what I mean when I say they make it look easy: When I first saw “Pi” in the theaters, I didn’t know that it was a movie made for $60,000 in Super 16 mm film format. I walked out of the theater with my head spinning, not only from the story, but also from the quality of the images that told the story. I wanted to know who Matty was, and how he could create something so great with so little.
Matty began his collaboration with Darren Aronofsky while they were students at AFI. “Pi” (1998) was their first collaboration on a film made for the cinema. Wally shot Christopher Nolan’s Sundance debut, “Memento” (2000).
These long relationships can become fruitful, because you are comfortable enough to challenge each other’s ideas. I know from experience that is the most rewarding kind of filmmaking.
“Inception” and “Black Swan” couldn’t be more different in terms of everything ranging from the stories, budgets and production techniques. But what they both have in common is that they are products of visceral storytelling that is enhanced by the work of two master directors of photography.
Poster’s credits include “Donnie Darko,” “Southland Tales” and the recent “Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore”
Owen Roizman on David Boyd for “Get Low”
What David (Boyd) always impresses me in doing, and what he did so well in “Get Low,” was he captured the period, the mood of the story especially, and he transported you subconsciously to that place and time. I felt like I was immersed among those people. To an untrained eye, you would just accept it and feel it.
It’s stylized with a very natural feeling. He uses a technique that I absolutely love, where he would back-cross light and then wrap the light around from the same side as the main light, which is a back cross light, and then let it fall off at the shadow, continue it around into a deep shadow and then have an interesting background to play it all against. The light and the dark playing against the background is very interesting but subdued.
He’s great with faces and mood so that whenever you’re in a scene — if it’s night, if it’s day, if it’s dusk, if it’s the morning, whatever it is, pitch of night — it always feels right. It just puts you in the mood with great lighting.
Working along with somebody like (director) Aaron Schneider, who is also a great cinematographer, you’re going to be inspired to do better work. The fact that Aaron would choose David to shoot his film says a lot because Aaron is a very discerning and very critical eye.
An ASC Lifetime Achievement honoree, Owen Roizman, now retired, boasts a resume that includes “The French Connection,” “The Exorcist” and “Tootsie.”
Nancy Schreiber on David Boyd for “Get Low”
From the very first images that come up on the screen, one knows immediately that “Get Low” is going to be a visual treat for the senses.
A period film set in Tennessee in the 1930s, David Boyd’s work is masterful and accomplished. Each frame is carefully and classically composed in the widescreen format, with nothing left to chance.
Camera moves are slow and deliberate, matching the pace of Robert Duvall’s aging character and emotional state. These sweeping and elegant dolly moves are so different to the quick cuts so prevalent today.
Whether it’s day exterior or day interior scenes, Boyd doesn’t shy away from incredibly bright highlights and deep, deep shadows where the viewer can see just what the filmmakers deem important to the story. There is a luminous quality to the light, which pushes the limits of the expanded dynamic range. This is something that only film stock can handle at this point in time. Powerful shafts of light in the day match the emotions of Duvall and Bill Murray. The night interiors lit by hurricane lamps and firelight are realistic, poignant, exquisite.
Boyd’s palette of earth tones is sometimes muted and sometimes rich, depending on the emotions expressed. And the emotions in “Get Low” run the gamut from great humor to intense pain and regret as one nears the end of life with burning desire to make amends for past actions.
I will always remember the shot of Duvall riding his mule and buggy into town, emerging from an intense sun flare that emphasizes the mythical and mysterious nature of this reclusive man. And there are many such memorable images in this film; in fact, viewing “Get Low” is like watching a painting come to life.
I knew that this powerful team of visual masters, David Boyd and director Aaron Schneider (also an accomplished cinematographer), would provide eye candy. They have certainly succeeded with this moving and delightful story.
Schreiber’s d.p. credits include the doc “The Celluloid Closet” and the features “Serious Moonlight” and “Your Friends and Neighbors.”
Harris Savides on Jeff Cronenweth for “The Social Network”
I’ve always loved and envied Jeff Cronenweth’s work as a cinematographer; it’s technically flawless, beautifully achieved and expertly conceived and executed. Jeff’s versatility of style and approach — which is always and invariably based on the needs of narrative — is an enormous and boundless virtue. And he’s peerless in his command of narrative instincts.
What Jeff has in spades is knowledge of story and mood and composition, and a remarkable sensitivity to how to tell a story in a rigorous and exacting way. Working hand-in-hand with (“Social Network” director) David Fincher — who has more technical and visual skill than any director working today — Jeff and David have, together, made the best film of each of their careers. It’s demanding to work for a director who knows so much. David is lucky he found Jeff Cronenweth. Jeff is up to and maybe even better than the task.
His own career trajectory — working his way up the chain over a period of many years, for people like his father, the great cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, and Sven Nykvist — has given him ceaseless skill and expertise. Jeff comes from a great tradition, and here he has modernized it without ever for a minute sacrificing the virtues of classicism.
Savides’ recent credits include “Greenberg” and “Somewhere.”
Haskell Wexler on Rodrigo Prieto for “Biutiful”
Talking about photography is a really difficult and weird experience for me, sort of like when people write music criticism. Words don’t seem to work, really, so we end up with what can be called cliches. And even though the cliches are from the heart, this is how it comes out of the mouth. I don’t know (“Biutiful” d.p. Rodrigo Prieto), but I was knocked out by the film. And the photography is so integral and so inventive that while I was seeing it I never thought about anything photographic, even though I am a photographer.
Afterwards I did realize how (the photography) didn’t call any specific attention to itself, but it went right from my eyes into my heart, into subjective engagement. I think that is the desire of everyone who tells stories with the camera, and I think that this is an extremely successful demonstration of victory for that cause.
The camera allows us to see (parts of Barcelona) that we normally do not see in films. There’s a lot of fucked up things going on in the world now that we don’t see in our normal lives. And because of the drama itself, we have empathy, we have understanding and we have emotional response.
You’ll see closeups, for example, of characters who are not saying anything or doing anything, but the sequence of images add up to where you see that closeup, the way it’s lit and framed, and feel what that person is thinking.
Framing and camera moves are integral to complex storytelling, and allows an audience to empathize with feeling and understanding of complex human problems.
I’m sure no director of photography can do that well without really having a really strong, good relationship with the director. One in which there are no words, no frame ideas, no color or film-stock ideas that need to be spoken. And when you have that situation, you can function with a director — and the actors — on a higher level. And (Prieto) does it.
Haskell Wexler is an ASC Lifetime Achievement honoree and two-time Oscar winner (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Bound for Glory”).
Jo Willems on Claudio Miranda for “Tron”
In regard to Claudio Miranda’s cinematography in “Tron: Legacy,” I had to think about Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who wrote: “Perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away.”
It may be an odd quote to describe a gigantic visual fx extravaganza like “Tron,” but I hope I can make clear what I mean. His attitude in photographing this film seemed to be “less is more.”
Claudio paired his lighting down to the essential and restrained himself; nothing is redundant or unnecessary. It is never garish. I never felt as if he was showing off in his work. That is a great virtue in a cinematographer. He managed to create a dark, brooding mood and give the film an ominous feeling. His visual style adds weight and honesty to the story. He brought the right amount of Zen to this film.
It is both a dream and a curse for a cinematographer to create a world that is not based in reality. There is no right or wrong. You create your own reality and set your own rules. The film feels very real, and I must give credit to director Joseph Kosinki, Miranda, the production designer, the costume designer and the visual fx team to make these action sequences so seamless.
Which leads me to the action: The Grid, the playground, the colosseum.
I am usually not a fan of 3D, since it makes me so aware of technology; wearing glasses and trying to get the right angle seems always a hassle, but I must admit to being mesmerized the imagery in “Tron.” Particularly in the game, where vehicles travel through space and spiral across different levels of depth. You truly get to experience it in a third dimension. The integration of the live action with the CG is stunning. It was smart to make the costumes and vehicles luminous and to incorporate the lighting into them. It gave Miranda the choice to go to the right side of dark with this film.
I was hypnotized by the flowing light trails across the screen. It was part psychedelic art piece, part hallucinogenic action sequence.
Willems’ d.p. credits include “Confessions of a Shopaholic,” “30 Days of Night” and “Hard Candy.”
Dariusz Wolski on Ben Seresin for “Unstoppable”
Tony Scott is a very visual person. I have done two movies with him in the past, and I’m very familiar with how he operates and I would say Ben Seresin’s contribution to “Unstoppable” is tremendous.
And it’s very unique compared to what’s going on right now in the movies, because it’s a straight-forward action thriller done in a very conventional way, with a minimal use of CG effects. It’s all done for real. And it’s using an old craft of cinematography, which translates into “Where do we put the lens to make it look real?”
Often writers come up with stories that are completely impossible. Because you can do them digitally, many people think “OK, it looks great,” but at some point you ask yourself, “Wait a minute, do I really believe in that?” That’s the power of this film.
The whole thing happens on a train: two men inside the engine. Basically that’s what it is, and everything else is exterior shots. There’s no blue screen. They just they put a train on the track with three cameras — so then it’s just roll performance, you know, while the train is really moving. Again, it just makes it look real.
Dariusz Wolski’s credits include “Alice in Wonderland” and the just-wrapped “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.” Next year he’ll start the prequel to “Alien” for Ridley Scott.
Vilmos Zsigmond on Anthony Dod Mantle and “127 Hours”
Aron Ralston’s journey in “127 Hours” begins with a bicycle ride through the amazing scenery of Canyonland in Utah. This ride captured my attention with panoramic shots suffused with glaring sun and saturated color.
Back-lit by the sun on the crest of a hill, Ralston’s talking shadow intersects with two hiking girls. The three of them continue through twisting rock formations, orange colored canyons — three people looking very small inside the vast over-powering scenery. Compositions mix long lens shots with significant details. The camera continuously moves with the characters through narrow canyons, sliding into a pool of water surrounded with rocks. A minimum of dialogue with images telling a story. As we watch Ralston gradually take leave of civilization, he goes through even narrower canyons until he gets trapped by a falling boulder.vAnthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak use a mixed bag of cameras: 3-perf super 35mm film for wide angle panoramic shots, digital SI-2K mini and Canon DSLR in the limited space of the canyon sequences.
The impressionistic images are telling the story. The cameras are mostly handheld, using gyro stabilization to avoid unwanted shakiness. A lot of unusual angles and many extreme close-ups add interest and suspense to the ordeal. In many instances, the smallest things — ants, a drop of water, a single eye — fill the screen, conveying a fearfully claustrophobic perspective.
One of the challenges in making a film about a man who is stuck for 127 hours is obvious: how to keep the story moving when the protagonist isn’t. The filmmakers solve this by opening up the hero’s head — we see a succession of memories, dreams and visions artfully imagined and visually stimulating.
As Ralston begins to physically weaken, the visions become more vivid and surreal.
The successful blending of the natural beauty of the Canyonlands landscape with the inner visions of the trapped hiker take on a mythic quality. We are reminded of the vision quests undertaken by native Americans. This becomes a story about man in nature and against nature.
An Oscar winner and recipient of the ASC’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Zsigmond recently shot “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” and “Louis.”
More from Eye on the Oscar: The Cinematographer
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