In the beginning there was the team of D.W. Griffith and G.W. Bitzer. Griffith started directing shorts in 1908 and Bitzer, a former newsreel cameraman, was his lensman. During the next 16 years, they invented much of the grammar of visual storytelling, including the close-up, soft focus, fade-outs and back lighting.
Their alchemy (and chemistry) would foreshadow some of the great director-d.p. partnerships of today such as Steven Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski, the Coen brothers and Roger Deakins, and Martin Scorsese and Michael Ballhaus.
For first-time directors with no formal training in the medium, the cinematographer — the one pro on the set who might be capable of doing everyone’s job — is akin to a mentor at the very least, and a one-man crash course in filmmaking at best. Orson Welles never would have pulled off the groundbreaking techniques and stylistic panache of “Citizen Kane” without seasoned vet Gregg Toland to map out the wunderkind’s crazy schemes. Likewise, the late Oscar-winning d.p. Conrad Hall, who passed away earlier this month and stood as a pillar of wisdom for everyone from scribe-turned-helmer Robert Towne (“Tequila Sunrise”) to stage director-turned-helmer Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”). It’s no coincidence that some of these familiar pairs are back in the Oscar hunt this year.
Sam Mendes & Conrad Hall
Road to Perdition
Before “American Beauty,” Mendes was known primarily for his stage work and as the artistic director of London’s Donmar Warehouse. It’s no surprise, then, that the new filmmaker went back to working with Hall — who helped Mendes win a directing Oscar as well as claiming his own for lensing “Beauty” — on his sophomore feature, “The Road to Perdition.”
They envisioned a film noir look in a modulated dark world, suggesting looming tragedy and a sense of claustrophobia. “The film is populated by people who know they aren’t going to heaven,” says Mendes. “There is a deep sense of regret they can never articulate, but you can feel it. That’s a tribute to Conrad, because so much of this film plays out as images.”
One example: Hall used hard light smashing down on fedora hats to create slashes of shadows on faces that reveal and conceal what is in the characters’ hearts.
“The art of cinematography is about where to put the camera, when and how to move it, what to light and what not to light, and if it’s better to move in or pull back,” Hall said in an interview last year. “If I felt really strongly about something, I’d tell Sam and he’d usually listen.”
& Janusz Kaminski
Catch Me if You Can
Kaminski’s first film with Spielberg, “Schindler’s List,” for which both won Oscars and, like Bogie and Claude Rains at the end of “Casablanca,” signaled the beginning of a beautiful relationship. They have teamed up on six films since, including “Saving Private Ryan” and “Amistad.”
The two latest works on which they’ve collaborated, the sci-fi thriller “Minority Report” and the breezy cat-and-mouse caper film “Catch Me if You Can,” are contrasting statements that indicate the considerable range with which the two have mastered the language of film.
“Janusz is a great artist and a beautiful person,” Spielberg says. “He’s a master at painting with light. ‘Minority Report’ is much darker film noir. ‘Catch Me if You Can’ is more like a Norman Rockwell painting or a Life magazine picture from the 1960s.”
Adds Kaminski: “Steven wanted an almost authentic look of reality with just a hint of fantasy reflecting the dreamlike lifestyle created by Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio). In an early scene, Abagnale comes into a bank to cash a forged check. We shot from a high angle with a wide lens and bathed the lobby in angelic light. The audience sees him as a tiny figure walking through a giant lobby that feels like a temple.” It was a simple scene that defined the main character for the audience.
Phillip Noyce & Chris Doyle
Although their working relationship doesn’t run as deep, director Phillip Noyce and d.p. Chris Doyle had known each other more than two decades before collaborating on two recent films in succession: “Rabbit-Proof Fence” and “The Quiet American.” The two met when Noyce was prepping a film in Taiwan in 1979. Doyle, an Australian who speaks fluent Mandarin, was assigned to be his interpreter.
“Chris was the perfect person to convey the intoxicating sense of Asia in ‘The Quiet American,’ ” Noyce says. “In a lot of scenes, he has the camera on his right shoulder and a small reflector board in his left hand bouncing a little light onto an actor’s face. It was like watching him paint. So much of what a cinematographer does is instinctive.”
Doyle comments: “The look is based on Phillip’s memories of a visit to Hanoi in 1995. It’s his interpretation of reality. Our collaboration was based on friendship. We knew other’s strengths and weaknesses, and there was a lot of mutual trust.”
& Michael Ballhaus
Gangs of New York
The Scorsese-Ballhaus partnership — from “GoodFellas” to “The Age of Innocence” to the current “Gangs of New York” — is based on instinct and trust, much like the director’s collaborations with Robert De Niro.
“We had a conversation about his intentions for the story,” says Ballhaus.
“But there are never any discussions about lighting or which lenses I should use with Marty. He trusts me to translate his ideas into images. That’s what makes our relationship so wonderful. I watched him rehearse with the actors and I knew exactly what he wanted.”
Ballhaus, whose relationship with Scorsese dates back to 1985’s “After Hours,” says everyone in the cast and crew understood that “Gangs” was a dream come true for the director. It was a labor of love, with Scorsese’s passion for the story embedded in every frame.
Chris Nolan & Wally Pfister
Director Chris Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister met at the Sundance Film Festival in 1999. That their first film together, “Memento,” generated such a positive buzz from critics and audiences alike is testament to the level of artistry they inspire in each other. Their second collaboration, “Insomnia,” takes place in Alaska, where the midnight sun saturates the landscape 24 hours a day during the summer.
“Chris brings a lot of soul to his films,” says Pfister. ” ‘Memento’ allowed me to play with light and shadows and experiment with colors and tones. We took it to the next level in ‘Insomnia.’ Chris told me to push the boundaries. I showed him what I wanted to do and he decided if it was pushing it too far.”
Pfister suggested using menacing light as a visual metaphor for guilt. In one scene, Al Pacino’s character is hiding in the shadows. Pfister brought a beam of sunlight through a window, slicing through the darkness. Pacino intuitively stepped into the light and instantly cowered back into the shadows. There are no words, and it happens in seconds, but it’s tactile. The aud feels the character’s emotions, which sets the stage for all that follows.