Janusz Kaminski on ‘Lincoln’

Eye on the Oscars 2013: The Cinematographer

Janusz Kaminski and Steven Spielberg’s long collaboration has ranged from WWII (“Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan,” which both earned Oscars for Kaminski) to special-effects blockbusters (“The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”), sci-fi (“A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” “Minority Report,” “War of the Worlds”) and period pieces (“Amistad,” “War Horse”).

This time around, for “Lincoln,” Kaminski relished the opportunity to shoot an actor-driven slice of history that kept the focus on portraiture and human drama. The results brought Kaminski his sixth Oscar nomination.

In their decisions about the images, the filmmakers were always balancing a sense of reality with how audiences imagine the period and the need to elucidate narrative and character.

“I think if people connect with the cinematography, it’s because they feel transported to that time period,” says Kaminski.

“Hopefully they are taken with the strength and painterly quality of the images, which are designed to support the story.

“The biggest challenge was finding the right language, the right level of brightness and darkness. That has so much to do with having a director who is not afraid to take it dark. To what extent do you stylize the movie without going too far and becoming noticeable? That is always the biggest question, and you are answering it every day on the set.”

Daniel Day-Lewis’ bravura performance in the title role gave Kaminski an enviable subject. The actor was often top-lit to accentuate the deep set of his eyes, adding impact to scenes in which his eyes are fully revealed.

“Seeing Daniel transform into that character was amazing,” says Kaminski. “The whole photographic and blocking style was shaped by that. When he is in the frame, you are captive to his performance.”

Spielberg allowed Day-Lewis many takes, and often cleared the set for his scenes. Kaminski says that the emphasis on performance also affected editing — shots linger more, and cutting is generally more graceful — and blocking, with wide shots more preponderant than normal in the director’s work. He notes that the cinematography works in interactive harmony with these aspects.

The lighting, done with modern equipment despite the oil-lamp era depicted, was designed in part to give the audience a visual representation of the complex issues Lincoln was facing.

“He was living a life in darkness and shadow, and his problems were not back and white,” says the cinematographer. “I wanted to evoke that while being as naturalistic as possible, given the reality of making a film with modern movie lights and equipment. Still, occasionally, at the right moments, you can feel the light to a degree.”

Eye on the Oscars 2013: The Cinematographer
Cinematographers in tight race
Roger Deakin | Janusz Kaminski | Seamus McGarvey | Claudio Miranda | Robert Richardson