Cinematographers use a different light

D.p.'s known for epic visions go intimate, and vice versa

The year in cinematography included a lot of shooters doing what they do — but doing more of it. For instance, the ever-lyrical Roger Deakins getting positively poetic with “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” Or “Brokeback Mountain”-eer Rodrigo Prieto heading indoors and exploring an interior landscape of cruelty and intrigue in the ornate “Lust, Caution.”

Elsewhere, however, some d.p.s seemed to have changed horses entirely — Harris Savides, moving from the meditative canvas of Gus Van Sant to the roiling, drug-saturated streetscapes of “American Gangster”; Tom Stern, abandoning the war-torn panorama of the South Pacific (“Letters From Iwo Jima”) for the intimate battleground of the human face (“Things We Lost in the Fire”), or even Ed Lachman, mimicking a variety of styles within Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan film “I’m Not There.”

And yet, what looks like transformation from one side of the camera isn’t always the same from the other.

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“I would be tempted to say big and small films are the same,” says Philippe Rousselot, whose filmography includes such epic hallucinations as “Constantine,” “Planet of the Apes” and “Big Fish,” but who gave “The Brave One” a grimy, indie texture and desaturated pallor. “But it’s only, of course, partly true. One can line up a long list of obvious differences, but what kills any attempt at classification is the fact that every film is different in essence, big or small. Each film’s own uniqueness dictates one’s attitude, and colors the director/d.p.’s relations.

“I know that when starting a film,” he adds, “I’m entering a completely unknown territory, even when working with a director I have worked with. And I try to leave behind all preconception and, what is probably the most difficult, old habits and routines.”

The season has seen d.p.s moving in both directions — Oliver Wood (“Fantastic Four,” “Talladega Nights”) getting gritty with “The Bourne Ultimatum,” or Janusz Kaminski moving off his regular beat — capturing Steven Spielberg’s often oceanic vision — and into the squinting, one-eyed perspective of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”

Julian Schnabel and Ronald Harwood’s acclaimed adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir, “Diving Bell” would seem an extraordinary challenge for any cinematographer — inhabiting the persona of a stroke-damaged protagonist, paralyzed in everything but one eyelid — but especially for a d.p. whose work includes “A.I.,” “War of the Worlds,” “Minority Report” and the upcoming “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”

And Kaminski would disagree.

‘This is the quintessential movie that I want to make,” Kaminski says. “That’s why I became a filmmaker. Later on I discovered the pleasure and beauty of making high-budget movies, but really I went to school to make artistic movies.”

“It’s usually directors I like and want to work with,” Savides says about choosing a project, “and a combination of the script. Schedule plays into it, too. I try to have a life.” Savides considers himself, like most first-rank lensers, chiefly a collaborator as well as a student.

“On ‘Gerry,’ for instance,” he says of Van Sant’s Beckett-like drama of 2002, “I really learned how to tell a story. Even though that story was very simple, it kind of broke film storytelling down to the bare bones. I think I became a stronger filmmaker through that experience.”

Pared down to the essence

Becoming not just a better filmmaker but “a better person” was Stern’s hope when he signed on to do “Things We Lost,” with Susanne Bier, whom Stern says works in much the same way as his longtime boss, Clint Eastwood. And demands a lot.

“Susanne, who’s a fantastic person, really tries to transcend the technical stuff and go to the essence of the story,” Stern says. “Clint always tries something similar.” With either director, he adds, “there are enough one-take scenes to make your hair fall out.”

Ultimately, it seems to be the people, as much as the nature of a project, that draws a top d.p. to a particular film.

“I’ve been fortunate to work with people that when you make that mistake, you’re able to go and shoot it again,” Kaminski says, “and you’re able to work with people who are interested in pushing the boundaries, even in a movie like ‘War of the Worlds’ or ‘Indy 4,’ where you can be very conventional — and to some degree it is. But we are making an artistic statement in that movie as well … walking those boundaries. That’s what makes it exciting. It’s in the middle that gets boring, and I work with people that are interested in not being in the middle.”

In the end, says Rousselot, one cannot measure quality or satisfaction, not even the level of difficulty, by the size of a film.

“I like to go back and forth between small and big,” he says. “But it’s rarely a choice. I try to grab the most interesting projects, regardless of size.”

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