There’s a common misconception that good cinematography is synonymous with a dizzying array of tilts, pans, and dolly shots. If that’s all that cinematographers did, however, productions would look identical.
The storytelling experience, skill and instinct directors of photography bring to the work is much more valuable than their ability to set a camera on a tripod.
On Alfre Woodard starrer “Clemency,” centered around a death row warden, DP Eric Branco purposely gave the prison an everyday feel since the setting is, after all, her workplace. As modern prisons are typically cinderboxes with flat, bland lighting, “we were very restrained in the cinematography” to present the prison as an office space, he says.
The crew lit the prison overhead with fluorescents to give it a much plainer and dystopian feel. “We were kind of purposefully trying to make the prison seem a little more mundane than I think a lot of prisons have been on screen,” he says. Branco also mentions a little-known aspect of a DP’s job. He notes that part of being effective in his role is “creating a comfortable and safe working environment for the director and cast.” That shows up on screen in the actors’ performances.
Oscar-nominated cinematographer Phedon Papamichael uses the camera to tell a very different story in “Ford v Ferrari.” In order for audiences to feel buckled into the race cars alongside the actors, Papamichael eschewed modern aerial technology such as drones and instead mounted cameras directly onto tracking cars.
“We [were] literally inches away from the vehicles,” says Papamichael, who frequently rode alongside the stunt driver. “We also [kept] the camera low to the ground and framed in some asphalt so you see the ground moving.”
Races on television track the cars with longer lenses from farther away, but that means audiences never get a true sense of velocity. By using a pursuit car and having stunt drivers “cut in front of the lens, sometimes just inches away, and having them accelerate away from us, all of that helps convey the speed,” he says.
A vehicle with camera mount equipment, dubbed the Frankenstein Car, was designed and built specifically for the film. “It was really the only car that was capable of tracking our picture cars, which were the Ferraris and Fords, and keeping up with them going around turns,” Papamichael says.
That also meant he and the stunt coordinator had to plan everything in meticulous detail. “It’s up to the drivers to put the cameras in the right position,” Papamichael says. “It’s like a choreographed ballet between all of the moving vehicles.”
The resulting footage reflected a real experience. “You’re telling a lot of the story through the driver’s perspective, what he sees out the windshield, what he sees through the rearview mirrors, and then a lot of that plays in the reactions.” Because all the other cars, drivers and spinoffs in the distance are real, the acting reflects that. “That’s very effective and immediate and very real feeling.”
Mihai Malaimare Jr., the DP on “Jojo Rabbit,” went through extensive camera tests to capture the emotions director Taika Waititi wanted to convey in an entirely different story.
The final look of the picture was “perfect for symmetry and horizons. The anamorphic [lens] gave us those amazing velvety skin tones.” Malaimare limited the extent to which he used new technologies. “I often think that the biggest danger is using too many of them, and that’s why I like to pin myself into a corner and impose restrictions so I can find interesting solutions.”
He varied lighting setups, camera movement, composition, lenses and color grading, among other options. It’s actually a transition shot that stands out to Malaimare the most.
“There is this dolly shot following Jojo along a blue wall and into the ruins after the city gets bombarded. That was just a transition scene, but it had so many elements, including [visual effects] set extension.” Malaimare feels the whole crew came together for relatively quick bit that really added to the story.
Branco sums up the role with an analogy borrowed from another crew department. “[It] is like a conductor is to a composer. The director comes with the gameplay and comes with an idea, and it’s [the DP’s] job to effectively translate that visually on screen.”