This is the ninth year I’ve sat down to digest and meditate on the year in single cinematic images, and every time I do it, it’s an absolute joy. Happy accidents, intriguing intentions, strong visual thematic ideas and unique directorial vision can be found under every stone. You just have to enjoy turning the stones over.
This year things came together rather simply. I kept a mental tally throughout the year of the frames that spoke to me. In revisiting some films, however, I did find myself reacting unexpectedly to certain shots. That’s part of the fun, too, going back through and having the hindsight context to apply to this image or that.
And it’s always interesting to see how things turn out in the micro. For instance, my picks for the two best examples of cinematography this year — “Carol” and “Son of Saul” — aren’t featured on the list at all, though they certainly could have been. I always try to make the point that a director of photography’s collective work on a film doesn’t necessarily break down into single selections for this piece, and that’s perfectly fine. The moving image works in mysterious ways.
As for the overall year in cinematography, it was again part and parcel of a golden age for the form. The field could even be represented at the Oscars this year by a mixture of 16mm, 35mm, 70mm and digital photography, indicative of how our brightest minds behind the camera aren’t driven in a single direction, but rather are inspired by all the tools at their disposal.
These are the 10 single images that stood out to me this year. I’d be curious to hear yours. Let us know in the comments.
Director of Photography: Masanobu Takayanagi, ASC
“I think those moments are the moments that tell the emotion. We knew that sequence and those particular emotional beats. We wanted silent shots. We shot some reminiscing of his mother and a few more shots that aren’t in the movie. There was another shot, I remember, from the hallway of him on the bed. But I think just the one shot probably does it. Sometimes not saying tells a lot.”
Masanobu Takayanagi’s collaboration with filmmaker Scott Cooper continues to bear rich fruit. Their work on 2013’s “Out of the Furnace” yielded a chiaroscuro-like quality, the Appalachia steel country tragedy wrought with detailed and expressive lighting throughout. That quality extends to “Black Mass” and the tale of James “Whitey” Bulger. It’s evident from the moment Johnny Depp’s Nosferatu-like gangster peers up in the film’s first scene, light catching his chilly blue eyes in the drab darkness of a Boston watering hole.
But one image in particular felt, like many of Masanobu’s frames, like something worthy of hanging on the wall of a high art enthusiast. A quiet beat, as detailed in the DP’s quote above, it captures Bulger in a moment of gentle, quiet reflection following the passing of his mother. Even monsters have pain with which they know not what to do.
Director of Photography: Alwin H. Küchler, BSC
“Danny wanted to have some kind of foreboding of Jobs’ death. It was kind of like the legend at its peak and then a foreboding. So I had that in the back of my head in terms of, emotionally, what we were trying to create. But the focus pull just occurred. She’s almost in the private world, but he’s out there in the public world, and there’s this connection between them. It felt like a beautiful way of dissolving him out in that world. So it was something I spotted and I called out to the focus puller to push back to her, but that feeling of foreboding we wanted to invoke was discussed beforehand.”
—Alwin H. Küchler
It was a bold but wonderfully story-serving choice to shoot “Steve Jobs” in three disparate formats — 16mm, 35mm and digital. Each format conveys the idea of a computer pioneer pushing humanity toward the digital age, a particularly meta note for Boyle’s career when you think of his work with digital photography over the years, stretching back to “28 Days Later.” He’s always pushed the envelope on how to capture his story visually. Just look at the ingenuity of “Slumdog Millionaire” or “127 Hours” in recent years.
The final image of “Steve Jobs” told a different story, though, less concerned with technology than plumbing the central throughline for one last thematic flourish. In a subtle gesture, the focus racks from Jobs on stage during the introduction of the iMac in 1998 — flashbulbs popping, rock stardom at its zenith — to his daughter in the wings of the theater, finally having connected with her father, finally becoming something more than perceived baggage. The focus of Jobs’ life, if you will, shifts to her in this moment. It might not be true to life but it’s absolutely true to visual storytelling.
“MAD MAX: FURY ROAD”
Director of Photography: John Seale, ASC, ACS
“I think [second unit DP] David Burr did that. A lot of people would say to us, ‘You can’t use a long lens on 2D shooting if you’re going to go to 3D in post.’ But we were both shooting up in the 200mm, 250mm lens range. There may have been some special effects heat haze put into that shot to get the ripply effect, like “Lawrence of Arabia,” camel coming out of the desert, that type of thing. And the long lens, exacerbated by natural desert heat, just gave it that lovely shimmering feel, and also the feeling of, ‘Why is this coming toward us? What are these things waving around?'”
John Seale came out of retirement to shoot George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and he even turned 70 years old during production. Not only that, but he was up on top of those war rigs tearing through the African desert operating camera himself in many instances, grips hanging off of the sturdy sport sailer who got his sea legs long ago. He took to the film’s action-filled spectacle like a duck to water.
Much of the imagery in the film was admittedly massaged into its look with a significant color correction process, but that doesn’t make it any less glorious. It’s a film fueled by narrative and visual madness, and this image, an objective view of far-off insanity, felt rather heart-stopping for its removed implications, more so than anything captured in the thick of the chaos. What fresh hell approaches?
Director of Photography: Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC
“I said to Denis, ‘My problem with this sequence is I don’t really feel like we can shoot moonlight. We can’t do objective shots of what’s happening because these characters are wearing these night vision systems because they can’t see. So if we show the audience an image that they can see, it doesn’t make any sense.’ So Denis said it would be interesting if we just shoot it completely through their enhancement systems. But what else can we use? So that’s when I thought we’ll have infrared. He said, ‘That’s great, because we can mix the two systems. Alejandro can have the thermal imaging device and everybody else can have night vision.'”
You can’t have this column without an image from a Roger Deakins movie, it appears, and in Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario,” the celebrated cinematographer cranked out yet another stunning digital opus. Deakins going digital was like Dylan going electric, I like to say. He hasn’t looked back, except in the case of “Hail, Caesar!,” which demanded celluloid per the Coen brothers’ analog preferences. His collaboration with Villenueve has been particularly rewarding; the mouth waters at the promise of their upcoming “Blade Runner” sequel.
But the shot from “Sicario” that really stood out was captured through a Flir thermal imaging camera rather than the Arri Alexa digital camera Deakins has come to swear by. And it tells an interesting story beyond the unique visual quality. Ahead in a tunnel stretching to Mexico, you hear the sounds of struggle as the various agents make their way through, before coming upon the body left behind. It’s an eerie and creative visual moment.
Director of Photography: Masanobu Takayanagi, ASC
“When we went to Boston, we always kept an eye on the church being incorporated. And it’s really amazing how many churches are there. This one was actually planned. I think we wanted to shoot on a different location, but it belonged to the church or something, so we couldn’t shoot. So we found another parking lot or something, we took the camera there and put Brian [d’Arcy James] on this balcony. The zoom was Tom’s idea. We did a zoom in and a zoom out and I guess they used the zoom out. The church is a powerful image.”
Between “Black Mass” and “Spotlight,” Masanobu Takayanagi put in his Boston time this year. And there’s connectivity there, as the cross on the wall of Whitey Bulger’s home in “Black Mass” feels like foreshadowing of the specter hanging over Tom McCarthy’s journalism drama throughout. But much of this film was visually meant to put you on the beat with the reporters, lots of Steadicam employed toward those ends, much of the look as unfussy as the characters’ work and workplace.
That having been said, one thing you can’t escape visually in Boston, as noted above, is churches. McCarthy has even noted that in the edit, they cut a few shots featuring them out, lest it appear too heavy-handed. But they are a vital ingredient in the visual storytelling nevertheless. This image pretty much nails the idea, though, that the institution seems inescapable, looming over the investigation like a cold, big-brother-like monolith.
Director of Photography: Mike Gioulakis
“That shot is one of the first things David and I talked about when we met, trying to do it in a oner. I think it was a page and a half on the script. It was trying to find a way to do something that would set the visual and emotional tone of the movie in a kind of cold opening, and in a graphic way. Establishing the 360 motif was part of the idea there, too. It works because it’s mysterious and you don’t know what’s happening, and you don’t need to know. You also question, ‘Is this girl not all together?’ It may have been the last shot we did, too. I think it was our last day of photography.”
The look of David Robert Mitchell’s “It Follows” was inspired by the creepy suburban work of photographer Gregory Crewdson. Mitchell and DP Mike Gioulakis also looked at films like Wim Wenders’ “Paris, Texas” and Brazilian drama “Neighbouring Sounds,” and of course they were influenced by Hitchcock thrillers such as “Rear Window” and “The Birds.” All of that made for an intriguing visual soup that further established a unique directorial voice.
The film’s opening shot sets up its internal mythology without the audience even knowing it. It follows (no pun intended) a terrified young woman as she bolts out the front door of her house, backpedals up the street for a bit, rushes back into the house for her car keys and then peels out, all in a single, ominous 360. What is she doing? And why? You find out in due time, and when you do, the brilliance of this shot comes back to you in a flash.
“THE HATEFUL EIGHT”
Director of Photography: Robert Richardson, ASC
“It was one long crane shot and relatively simple, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the heavy wind that day. So I, of course, have problems with my shot, because I see where my crane is not where I want it to be as I’m riding it. I see real time. You see movie time. I see faults. But when I watched it in the film, with the music, I lost the sense of the errors. And I agree with your note. It sets a mood. This is a film that takes its time to tell a story and that shot definitely reflects the attitude with which Quentin approached this film: letting time play.”
Why shoot a chamber drama in Ultra Panavision 70mm? What about landscapes? That’s the question posed by many on Quentin Tarantino’s latest, “The Hateful Eight,” and the answer is rather simple: staging. Visual storytelling with character placement is crucial to the narrative. It’s a film as inspired, visually, by the ensemble blocking of something like “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” as much as it is, say, Sergio Corbucci’s Revisionist Spaghetti Western “The Great Silence.”
But OK, let’s go outside for this one. And really, it’s the shot of the film. After a quick series of shots, the film shifts gears to this long, floating image, set to a spooky and foreboding Ennio Morricone suite. And it completely sets the tone for the rest of the film: This is a movie that is going to make you sit there and pay attention to this screen, and we aren’t going anywhere any time soon. Settle in, get comfortable, and watch.
Director of Photography: Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC
“In this shot you can see most of the ideas of how we shot the movie. We wanted to have a movie that was very immersive and have a certain naturalistic foundation. We didn’t use artificial light for that reason and we used very wide lenses for that reason, to show the intimate together with the environment, to capture close-ups and surroundings at the same time. What Leo goes through when he’s shook around, it’s so powerful that if you’re not in very good shape and very strong, it will break your back. I think it was probably two takes because you cannot put Leo through that. It’s like putting somebody in a washing machine at full speed or something.”
Like Deakins, Lubezki is a fixture on this column, and why not? They are the two greatest living cinematographers (if you’re asking me). Both have embraced digital wholeheartedly, but Lubezki has really been pushing technical limits, whether with the light box wonderment of “Gravity” or the single-take aesthetic of “Birdman,” each of which earned him an Oscar. And when he goes back to work with, say, Terrence Malick, he settles right back into more traditional approaches.
The latter was more akin to what he and director Alejandro G. Iñárritu were going for in “The Revenant,” though “traditional” is almost a dirty word on this film. Shot on the large-format Alexa 65 camera, it’s a visual marvel. And one five-minute take of Leonardo DiCarpio’s Hugh Glass being mauled by a bear might have been the most stunning and visceral moment of the entire experience. What’s more — per Lubezki’s note above — it mixed the objective with the subjective in captivating ways felt throughout the film.
Director of Photography: Lol Crawley, BSC
“It’s much more respectful to an audience to not direct their gaze, instead inviting them to explore the frame. I don’t think there was ever a moment when we didn’t conceive of the final shot being this way. I’m a big advocate of ‘less is more’ and often approach a location or a performance thinking, ‘OK, how do I protect what we have here, the reason we responded to this space, the existing light whether daylight or artificial? How do I not screw this up by imposing a ‘vision?'”
In talking to cinematographer Sean Bobbitt for this column a few years ago, he mentioned that the most important job of a DP is simply capturing performance, providing a frame in which an actor can captivate. It’s a philosophy “45 Years” director Andrew Haigh (and obviously his DP Lol Crawley, as evidenced by the quote) takes to heart. It’s important to him to let drama play uninterrupted, ironic given his beginnings as an editor in the industry.
All of that comes to a gasp-inducing, Platters-accompanied crescendo in the film’s final scene and shot. Over the course of three or four minutes, the audience watches Charlotte Rampling put on a show, slowly losing her grasp on what her marriage of 45 years has been, who her husband is. It’s an existential crisis on full display, and frankly, the moment — and image — that could seal an Oscar nomination for the actress.
Director of Photography: Maryse Alberti
“The movie talks about Adonis having to make his own legacy, to get out from underneath the name of Creed and make it his own. For this shot, I had to find a projector that could produce the clarity and intensity of light to record it. Home projectors look very cute but they don’t have the power necessary for a camera to record. So we had to bring in a big projector and cheat a little bit to show that this young man is immersed in the idea of boxing. That’s what he wants his life to be, and the ghost of his father is right on top of him. He fights the image of his father in trying to find his own path.”
Ryan Coogler has hired female cinematographers for both of his feature films to date. It’s important to him for female filmmakers to be given the opportunity. “Women are better filmmakers than men,” he once told me in a moment of candor. “They’re infinitely more complex.” In these collaborations, Coogler has found fascinating visual grammar, first for “Fruitvale Station” with Rachel Morrison, and now for “Creed” with Maryse Alberti, whose work on “The Wrestler” really sparked him to her propensity to capture what he was aiming to achieve. (He was also inspired by his favorite film, Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet”).
If you’re choosing an image from “Creed” for a column like this, you might be tempted to select the dazzling oner that captures an entire boxing match in a single take. To say the least, that was an amazing feat of choreography and storytelling. But I wondered about iconography. I wondered about thematic potency. I wondered about an image that told separate stories, one of a character shadowboxing the projected image of his father and what that meant to the narrative, but also of a young filmmaker with a fresh and vital voice looking to put his personal stamp on a century-old medium. I found all of that in this image, the single greatest shot of 2015.