Five Oscar-Nominated Cinematographers Reveal Their Biggest Challenges

Greig Fraser, James Laxton, Rodrigo Prieto, Linus Sandgren, and Bradford Young Talk About Technology and Creativity

Cinematographers 2017 Oscar Race
Courtesy of The Weinstein Co./A24/Paramount/Summit Entertainment/ TriStar

Here, five Oscar-nominated cinematographer explain the secrets to their success.

Greig Fraser
It’s been a busy year for the versatile L.A.-based Australian cinematographer — and one of extremes, with two very different films recently in theaters. He shot the billion-dollar-grossing sci-fi extravaganza “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” the first standalone film from the Lucasfilm franchise, in London for director Gareth Edwards, with classic Panavision 70mm lenses married to Arri’s Alexa 65 camera. Prior to that, he teamed with director Garth Davis on the small-budget true story “Lion,” which he shot partly on location in Kolkata, India, with Alexa 35s. Working in India was “quite a challenge,” he admits. “It’s beautiful and soulful and amazing, but the logistics are tough and you’re constantly fighting heat and pollution. Even so, I felt I could tap into the heart and soul of Kolkota.”

Fraser, who recently reteamed with Davis on “Mary Magdalene,” starring Rooney Mara as Mary and Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus, and whose eclectic resume includes Oscar winner “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Snow White and the Huntsman,” and “Foxcatcher,” adds that “even though “Lion” and “Rogue” seem so different, both films. Ultimately, all the films I want to do are about emotions, character, and family.”

James Laxton
The indie DP first collaborated with writer-director Barry Jenkins on his acclaimed 2008 low-budget feature debut, the San Francisco-set “Medicine for Melancholy” — and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. In reteaming with Jenkins on “Moonlight,” Laxton helped bring to vivid life the childhood-to-adulthood story of a young black man struggling to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami. At once a vital portrait of contemporary African-American life and an intensely personal and poetic meditation on identity, family, friendship, and love, “Moonlight” focuses on the particular, but reverberates with universal truths.

Laxton, shooting on Arri Alexa cameras, didn’t want to compromise the visual aesthetic, despite the low budget and a tight 25-day location shoot in Miami’s gritty Liberty Square area. “When working on a Barry Jenkins film, the word challenge takes on a different meaning,” says Laxton, whose credits include “The Myth of the American Sleepover,” “Camp X-Ray” and “Tusk.” “Because of our background as filmmakers, a challenge is also an inspiration. When a storm comes in off the coast to rain out our swimming scene we embrace it and allow it to influence the energy of the scene.”

Rodrigo Prieto
The Mexican DP, who was previously Oscar-nominated for Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain,” has recently become Scorsese’s go-to cinematographer, shooting “The Wolf of Wall Street” and the “Vinyl” pilot before reteaming on “Silence.” Designing the visual language of the austere, intense drama “meant imagining what the two priests felt in their hearts while facing seemingly insurmountable tests to their faith,” says Prieto who shot the Japan-set story in Taiwan. “We wanted to make the movie a subjective experience for the audience, aiming to capture the physical and emotional experience of these Portuguese priests in 17th century Japan.”

The DP and director took their inspiration from European Baroque painting and Japanese screen art. Prieto used Arriflex film cameras with Zeiss master anamorphic lenses – and Arri Alexas digital cameras for candlelit scenes. The team faced tough weather conditions in locations that were difficult to access, but, says Prieto, “we used the weather to accentuate the turmoil the villagers and priests are enduring.” The DP is also a frequent collaborator of Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Amores Perros,” “Babel,” “Biutiful”), has shot such diverse films as “Frida,” “Alexander,” “8 Mile,” “Argo,” and the recent “Passengers.”

Linus Sandgren
“La La Land”
To bring his retro musical to vibrant life, writer-director Damien Chazelle collaborated with the Swedish DP, known for his kinetic work with David O. Russell on “American Hustle” and “Joy.” Shooting with anamorphic lenses and 35mm film on Panavision Millennium XL2s, with one 16mm sequence — and lensing his first ever musical, Sandgren carried out Chazelle’s wish — “Make it look magical rather than realistic,” the director said – by continually pushing film’s technical and creative boundaries. “We let the camera act as both a curious character, with a very active movement, as well as a musical instrument, so we moved it to the rhythm of the music,” he says. “We also designed many scenes in three- to six-minute-long single takes that often included SteadiCam that had to step on or off a crane, and sometimes we needed to shoot the scene in a very limited timeframe of about 20 minutes.”

That approach is showcased in the bravura opening traffic-jam sequence in which the camera feels like one of the dancers and part of the choreography. Designed to look like one unbroken shot, it’s actually three seamlessly combined. It was shot on freeway ramps over a weekend. For another tour-de-force sequence in which stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone fly up into the stars in the Griffith Observatory planetarium, the team used wires and blue screen on a set, as filming wasn’t allowed in the real location.

Bradford Young
Best known for his assured but unshowy work on such smaller films as Martin Luther King biopic “Selma” and crime drama “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” Young may not have seemed like the obvious choice to shoot an ambitious sci-fi project jam-packed with aliens and visual effects. But helmer Denis Villeneuve had no doubts about Young’s capabilities for the film. “I love his work, the way he shoots ordinary things and finds something special,” he says. Our whole approach was, it’s just another ordinary day — and then suddenly it’s an alien invasion, but told from an intimate point-of-view, by this person who’s in mourning and dealing with strong emotions in her life. Bradford got that immediately — that it’s not your usual sci-fi story.”

Shot largely in Montreal on Alexa Xt cameras using vintage Ultra Prime lenses, the film combines a sense of the other-worldly with the mundane. Lighting was also key to the visual palette, with Young using available light for many scenes, and LEDs for the military tent sequences. The Kentucky native, whose credits include Ed Zwick’s “Pawn Sacrifice” and J.C. Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year,” is next shooting the standalone “Han Solo.”