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Danny Cohen on ‘The King’s Speech’

Cinematographer talks about his work on the drama

From his previous period film work (“John Adams”) with director Tom Hooper, cinematographer Danny Cohen knew what would be called for in “The King’s Speech” to keep the focus on the characters and not the 1930s time frame.

“Tom likes to give the actors lots of time to pull out fantastic performances, (plus) as much authenticity as you can manage,” he says. And for Cohen, that meant creating the light and image of a movie set “with as little of the carnage of a movie set as possible” around them.

Per his director’s charge, Cohen utilized a combination of wide-angle lenses, carefully planned close-ups and lighting that avoids drawing attention to itself and keeps the emphasis on King George VI (Colin Firth) and Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), as the royal struggles with a debilitating stammer, with Logue’s help.

Cohen was inspired by the work of German-born photographer Bill Brandt. “He did a lot of very stark black-and-white photos that transcended the classes,” explains the d.p. “He shot with a forensics-type police camera with an amazingly wide lens,” an approach that easily found a home on the film.

“It allows you to really bring the actors close to the camera and get these fantastic close-ups,” Cohen explains. “And because you have a wide lens, you can then see a great deal of the background where they’re standing and the context they’re in.”

Cohen credits a consistent crew of skilled technicians with the success of the film’s cinematography, particularly his focus pullers, who carefully executed the many foreground-to-background focus adjustments. “Those shots help keep the audience engrossed in the film and with the characters, instead of jumping with cut after cut.”

The close shots allow the focus to remain on the King’s emotional challenges. “I wanted you to feel his breath on your face,” the d.p. says. “Because ultimately, it’s not as much about the history, but essentially about a guy who’s got a stammer (and) overcoming that issue.”

Oscar pedigree: “King’s Speech” reps Cohen’s first nom.

2010 awards to date: N/A

Camera and film stock: ARRI LTs and Fuji 500T Vivid and 160T Vivid. “The Vivid gives you a little bit more contrast, a slightly punchier image than their standard negative film. And if you shoot tungsten film in daylight, you get a cold image, perfect for the London winters we were depicting.”

Key scenes: “All the stuff inside Logue’s consulting room, which was shot in an old Georgian house in the middle of London. We lit it from outside the room, lighting through a skylight. It frees up the actors, and also lights the room in a vaguely naturalistic way. The warmth, then, comes mainly from the warmth that Geoffrey brings.”

More from Eye on the Oscar: The Director
Jack Cardiff: Painter’s eye view
The nominees:
Danny Cohen | Jeff Cronenweth | Roger Deakins | Matthew Libatique | Wally Pfister

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