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Dark shadows envelop ‘Lincoln’

Eye on the Oscars: The Cinematographer

For “Lincoln,” his 14th feature film with Steven Spielberg, director of photography Janusz Kaminski turned away from the grand, John Ford sweep of “War Horse” and created a more intimate look with rich, dark interiors and subtle portraiture, especially of Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role.

Kaminski says he and Spielberg looked at mid-19th century period paintings and photographs for inspiration, and even recreated the poses and angles of two well-known photos. The first is the only known photo of Lincoln making a speech, and depicts the 16th president’s inauguration, and the second shows his deathbed scene. But the two-time Oscar winner insists that when it came to the overall look, they didn’t take literal cues from period sources.

“We wanted the film to feel true to how we imagine the period, as opposed to a documentary faithfulness,” he says. “Images from that period helped us determine the right way to shoot the movie, but more in terms of general inspiration. There’s nothing in those old photographs that we could use in terms of lighting — the lighting in the movie comes from my interpretation of the material.”

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Kaminski says he tried in his lighting to give the audience a sense of the complex issues Lincoln was facing. “He was living a life in darkness and shadow, and his problems were not black and white,” says the cinematographer. “I wanted to evoke that while being as naturalistic as possible.”

Locations helped communicate the period, like the town of Petersburg, Va., which offers a 360-degree period-accurate exterior, and the statehouse in Richmond, Va., which also stood in for the U.S. Capitol.

As they have on all their collaborations, Kaminski and Spielberg shot on 35 mm film, using Panavision cameras and Kodak film stocks. “It’s the best medium in the world,” Kaminski says.

Based on photos of the Great Emancipator, Kaminski lit to accentuate the deep set of Day-Lewis’ eyes. The actor often played scenes looking down, toplit, lending emphasis to shots in which he does look up and reveal his eyes.

“We made some beautiful shots for Lincoln’s climatic monologue,” says Kaminski. “We used a Technocrane to slowly push in from the wide shot toward his close-up. The movie is not very ‘cutty’ — it plays in wide shots and graceful edits simply because that’s what the story and the performance called for.”

Lighting was similarly naturalistic, and often done through windows, although at times Kaminski took small liberties. “Occasionally at the right moments, you can feel the light to a degree,” he says. “It was a relatively simple movie to make, and extremely enjoyable.”

Eye on the Oscars: The Cinematographer
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