Conventional wisdom dictates that the dominant artist on any given feature is the director, but that dominance is at most an act of faith. A collaborative enterprise by nature, each film is stamped with the personalities of its principal participants — actors, writers, cinematographers, designers — who perform in unison to make sense of a director’s vision.
But the most sophisticated directors prefer their cinematographers to be artistic equals rather than mere technicians. The perfect example of this is Vittorio Storaro’s work with Bernardo Bertolucci. Regarded by many as an unsurpassed master of mobile camera work, Storaro not only helped elevate Bertolucci from an upstart Italian auteur raised in the shadow of Fellini and Antonioni (as exemplified by “The Conformist” and “Last Tango in Paris”), but he also raised the profile of cinematography to high art.
Other cinematographers linked with specific directors include Janusz Kaminski and Steven Spielberg, Michael Ballhaus and Martin Scorsese, Gordon Willis and Woody Allen, and Sven Nykvist and Ingmar Bergman.
“You develop a shorthand, not just by working with the same director but with the same crew,” explains John Schwartzman, director of photography on Gary Ross’ “Seabiscuit” in addition to megabudget projects such as Michael Bay’s “Armageddon” and “Pearl Harbor.” “Some of my camera crew have been with me for 11 years. All I need to say is ‘late afternoon sun streaming through the window’ and I know they’ll set up the shot.”
Yet as familiar as some directors become, d.p.’s often find themselves working with first-time directors. Gregg Toland, the most admired lenser of his generation, considered “Citizen Kane” the high point of his career. Orson Welles was so thankful for the veteran cinematographer’s help on his first movie that he gave Toland a conspicuous credit title — unusual for the era. “Kane” ushered in an age of flamboyant visual effects, thanks in no small part to a collaboration that integrated a variety of influences from low-key photography such as John Ford’s “Stagecoach” to many of the techniques associated with German expressionism.
“You can see with a new director how intense they’ll be with composition and coverage,” explains John Seale, d.p. on Anthony Minghella’s “Cold Mountain,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “The English Patient.” “First-time directors can sometimes be a lot of fun because they’re way out there, full of ideas and not clouded by tradition. Good or bad you are loyal to the director. I learned a long time ago to make the director’s film, otherwise you may as well be directing your own. They have their vision and it’s our job to help them bring it to life.”
Schwartzman, who lensed John Lee Hancock’s 2002 directorial debut, “The Rookie,” felt no fear with a rookie helmer. Ten weeks of heavy pre-production, five hours a day, erased any doubt in the cinematographer’s mind. Together the team explored different angles, lenses and lighting effects to best photograph each scene in the film. “John was a great student of movies,” notes Schwartzman. “He didn’t necessarily know how to get the shot but he’d communicate what he was thinking emotionally for each sequence.”
Painting with light
When cinematographers appropriate a look for a feature they generally focus on three elements: story, theme and mood. Russell Boyd, d.p. on Peter Weir’s “Gallipoli” and “The Year of Living Dangerously,” reunited with the director on “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.” The film exemplifies how the cinematographer can etch light on film like paint on canvas. Studying paintings of the era, Weir and Boyd brainstormed on how to capture the atmosphere inherent on a British frigate during the Napoleonic wars. Through the use of specific film and filtration, Boyd transports the audience to the cold blue light of dawn as naval warfare approaches.
“You do a lot of research on every movie,” insists Boyd. “You read the script, follow the theme and place yourself in the situation. Plus we were blessed with a lot of cloudy weather during the shoot that enhanced the look we were seeking.”
Often cinematographers are forced to shoot in tricky terrain: deep underwater or high overhead on precarious perches. They are expected to be resourceful under trying conditions. Seale shot “Cold Mountain” in the wilderness of the Carpathian Mountains in Romania, braving intensely hot weather, masses of mud, freezing temperatures in the mountains at night and daily thunderstorms during the shoot. “You’re a big family on set and deal with these things,” says Seale.
Boyd found himself amid the danger of torrential storms at sea, albeit created by special effects on the set of “Master and Commander.” The illusion of action on a vast ocean was captured in a huge tank containing 17 million gallons of water keeping the 120-foot-long ship afloat. Huge wind machines and two jet engines threw torrents of water, wind and carnage on the crew and actors as the cameras precariously rolled.
During the halcyon years of the Hollywood studio system, William Daniels had a prestigious reputation as a glamour photographer at MGM, recognized as Greta Garbo’s cameraman for many years. Yet he shrewdly chose to mix it up by photographing Jules Dassin’s “The Naked City,” a harsh, realistic police procedural. The film earned Daniels an Academy Award and newfound respect, and spawned a popular TV series in the ’50s.
Schwartzman believes such bold moves are equally as important in a cinematog’s career today. “I went from a $150 million movie called ‘Pearl Harbor’ to a $14 million movie called ‘The Rookie,’ which I chose to reinvent myself and to keep the challenge alive. That in turn got me ‘Seabiscuit,’ so you have to mix it up.”
“What people don’t realize is that we can turn our hand to any genre,” insists Boyd.
Some d.p.s have eventually gone on to become directors, most notably Nicolas Roeg, Jack Cardiff and Haskell Wexler.
As for Boyd, he’d rather not direct. “Personally, I’d rather be considered a halfway decent cinematographer than a hack director any day of the week,” he quips.
Schwartzman’s experience as a commercial helmer for big clients like Anheuser-Busch and the United States Army Reserve has served to make him a better cinematographer. “It allows me insight into the stresses a director experiences on a feature so I’m better equipped to support them,” says Schwartzman, who has turned down many offers to direct thus far. “There’s no hurry because the first feature I direct will be small and heartfelt — plus I love my job working with directors.”