Cinematographers Explain How They Created Their Distinctive Imagery

Rachel Morrison Mudbound Cinematographer BTS
Courtesy of Steve Dietl

The strong overall field in this year’s roster of Oscar nominees in the cinematography category bodes well for the art and craft of visual storytelling. Discussions of the craft often seem to focus on technology’s admittedly pervasive effects, but Academy members in the cinematography branch have chosen five films in which it’s readily apparent that the eye behind the camera came paired with the empathetic soul of an artist, to paraphrase Orson Welles.

Perhaps there’s something about creating a completely enveloping world that helps make visual artistry mesh most effectively with the other aspects of the cinematic arts. Of the five nominated films, three are set in World War II or its immediate aftermath: “Darkest Hour,” shot by Bruno Delbonnel; “Dunkirk,” shot by Hoyte van Hoytema; and “Mudbound,” shot by Rachel Morrison. “The Shape of Water,” shot by Dan Laustsen, is set in Cold War-era Baltimore, and “Blade Runner 2049,” shot by Roger Deakins, is set in a completely imagined, yet oddly familiar future dystopia.

“A period film is a gift for a cinematographer,” says Morrison. “In a way, it’s addictive. It’s hard to go back to shooting contemporary apartment interiors after you shoot something like ‘Mudbound.’”

Morrison fought weather and muck every step of the way on the project, and says that the struggle seeped into her imagery. She mixed older anamorphic and spherical lenses in the film as a predominantly aesthetic choice. The Louisiana locations are a vivid presence in the film.

“Our job is to visualize human emotions,” she says. “We lived and worked in that setting, and that was intentional. The goal was to juxtapose the American dream with the American reality, and to juxtapose scope with intimacy, what unifies us and separates us, in a single aesthetic.”

The nomination for “Mudbound” is Morrison’s first. Deakins, on the other hand, counts 14 nominations among his many accolades. On “Blade Runner 2049,” Deakins and director Denis Villeneuve had 92 shooting days and an extensive prep period. “How can you compare them?” says Deakins. “I’m actually in awe of what Rachel did on that film — it’s phenomenal.”

Deakins is the odds-on favorite. His angular compositions and bold lighting dovetail perfectly with production design, writing and acting, becoming more than the sum of its parts, and as good a definition of superlative filmmaking as any.

Delbonnel and van Hoytema both trained their cameras on depictions of war, but “Darkest Hour” is more of a dialogue-rich character study that illustrates the potential of the cinematographer-actor artistic partnership. “Dunkirk,” on the other hand, uses sweeping vistas, sparse dialogue and masterful editing to depict an experience shared by many thousands.

Director Christopher Nolan’s preferred medium, 65 mm film, helps van Hoytema imbue the images with old-school grandeur.
Laustsen, a Dane, is comparatively new to Hollywood, but he brings extensive experience in Europe. Like Deakins and van Hoytema, he has made a number of films with the director of the nominated film, in his case, Guillermo del Toro. Laustsen created the world of “The Shape of Water” through precise color choices and dramatic light.

“Especially with new technology, you can just switch on the ceiling light and shoot,” he says. “Everyone talks about shooting with as little light as possible — or even without any lights. But that’s not the way to great moviemaking. I’m not a low-light shooter. Light is a very powerful storytelling tool. I don’t miss film because digital is so good. When I was starting out, there were so many weird rules, and most of those are gone. But you have to know which way you want to go, because there are a million ways, and you can easily get lost as a cinematographer. So you need a specific plan.”