Cinematographers Heed John Huston’s Advice to ‘Shoot With Your Gut’

Lensers prefer to capture as much content as possible, adding visual effects only for those elements they can't acquire on-set or on location

Roger Deakins Denis Villeneuve Blade Runner
Courtesy of Stephen Vaughan

The 23 directors of photography recognized by the American Society of Cinematographers with ASC Award nominations represent a sprawling range of sensibilities and approaches to the job of visual storytelling. The list of projects to be recognized is similarly varied, but together, they reveal continued growth in the use of feature-film tools and techniques — and in some cases, schedules and budgets — in the world of television cinematography.

The list of feature nominees mirrors exactly that of the Oscar cinematography nominees: perennial entrant and 2011 ASC Lifetime honoree Roger Deakins for “Blade Runner 2049”; 65mm master Hoyte van Hoytema for “Dunkirk”; Guillermo del Toro’s frequent collaborator Dan Laustsen for “The Shape of Water”; fellow first-time nominee Rachel Morrison for “Mudbound”; and Bruno Delbonnel, for “Darkest Hour.”

What they share with their fellow nominees in the television categories is a mastery of the ever-evolving toolset, but perhaps more importantly, an acute sensitivity to tone and a talent for visualizing and executing their intentions, and those of their comrades in the director’s chair, with the help of experienced and efficient crews.

According to Deakins, “John Huston said that you shoot with your gut — not with your head. You have to know a lot technique, and be up on the latest technology, but cinematography is instinctive.”

Despite today’s astonishing freedom to manipulate in post, most of the nominees still prefer to create the image as much as possible at the moment of photography, in the camera, thereby setting parameters for their collaborators, meshing their efforts more directly with those of the actors, director and production designer, and ideally maintaining a creative freshness and spontaneity.

“I do very little in post in terms of changing colors or contrast,” Deakins says. “As soon as you start altering the image, even with the great digital cameras we have, you are actually altering the quality of the image. If you shoot neutral and add a color later, it wouldn’t look the same. Using gels in ‘Blade Runner 2049’ gave me a subtly different color shift across parts of the frame. You just can’t do that in a computer. To me, making the image in post is an abrogation of responsibility, in a way.”

Laustsen’s precise control over color in “The Shape of Water” was also accomplished almost completely in the camera. “The final movie looks 99% exactly as it did when we shot it,” he says. “That’s important because it sets the look for everyone else through post to the final image. Changing colors in the DI changes the whole color palette, in my opinion. Things can begin to slide away from the original intent.”

Achieving the desired look on the spot can take more time, and some television schedules are beginning to reflect that. “Shooting shallow focus can really slow things down,” says Adriano Goldman, nominated for “The Crown.” Episodes of the first season were shot over the course of 15 to 20 days — rare even for a Netflix series.

“You need more time to rehearse the focus pullers, and the actors need to help by hitting their marks precisely,” says Goldman. “Our philosophy regarding coverage was ‘less is more.’ It was a very feature-like method and rhythm. We wanted it to be classic and beautiful and romantic, but we always wanted to deliver something new.”

On “Gotham,” Crescenzo Notarile says creating the look on the set means artistic personality and intent will reach and move the audience. “‘Gotham’ is a very disciplined, old-school way of filmmaking, meticulously designing each shot with prime lenses,” he says. “We’re not running and gunning on a zoom lens and just hosing the scene down. The visual dramaturgy is very classic — no heavy cutting, very disciplined writing. We try to achieve as much as possible in camera — that’s just discipline. And beyond that, we rely on our own hearts.”

Notarile adds: “To me, quality comes down to your footprint, your heart and soul. The more we put inside the camera, the more individual it will be, representing our own aesthetic.”

Gonzalo Amat, nominated for an episode of Amazon series “The Man in the High Castle,” says: “Our intention is to make it more cinematic, in part by committing to an idea and seeing it through. All of our references are from film. It’s about making bold choices, with the goal of giving the audience a physical reaction through the use of darkness and light and depth of field.”

Instead of lingering on a big visual effects shot, we want to make this world so real that you don’t need to show everything — we deliberately leave some things out using light and focus. Hopefully these feature-film aesthetics help the audience connect more with the story.”

(Pictured above: DP Roger Deakins and director Denis Villeneuve on the set of “Blade Runner 2049)