‘Joker’ Cinematographer Lawrence Sher Breaks Down Shooting Two Pivotal Scenes

Framing the Scene: How the camera work brings the character's inner life to the screen

If you’ve seen “Joker” you’ll know one of the key scenes is when Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is on the subway and in a “defining moment” transforms into Joker. The entire sequence is like a “fever dream moment,” as cinematographer Lawrence Sher describes it. From the camera angles to the lighting and colors, even the technology used, all added to the tensions of that scene.

Sher breaks down the stair dance that comes towards the end of the movie, once Fleck has fully transformed into Joker and does his “Victory dance,” “descending into his own darkness.”

The D.P. takes a deep dive into the key scenes, framing the scene below and breaking down the main elements.

THE SUBWAY SCENE 

There was definitely an intent on this movie to try to create frames that were tension-filled. I placed certain rules on myself and the camera operator for that scene that was to never shoot him at eye level. We could shoot him high or low. We could shoot him at a fractured level. We’d find a way to dissect the frame. We’d be jammed between people, as you see in the bus scene at the beginning. Or, you’d see him lost in a sea of humanity early in the movie.

In scenes where he was alone, we’d show him in isolation. We wanted as much as possible to find a frame that spoke emotionally to the moment. Todd and I like to mix in a bunch of different stylistic things in our movies. We have scenes that are very specific with slow-moving precise camera dolly moves. There are scenes that are intentionally static. Other scenes are handheld.

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The subway scene was all handheld. In part, it’s also one of those transitional scenes in which Joker and Arthur are by himself. There are scenes where he’s with a lot of people. This is one of those scenes similar to his interaction with Thomas Wayne in the bathroom which is seemingly one on one. In this case, it’s one on three.

It’s meant to be in a similar place as it starts in that scene. So, in the bus scene at the beginning; he always feels isolated from society, and in small ways, he’s trying to reach out. Even at his lowest point, when that scene starts and he’s just been fired from the job that he really likes, he’s trying to connect with the woman across from him. He’s trying to be compassionate as he watches the woman being taunted.

How camera work reflected Joker’s point of view:

Everything we tried to do there is to try to draw the audience into Arthur’s point of view.

The shots of Arthur are very close but on wider lenses. They’re intimate within very close proximity to him. Even the shot of the boys is from him sitting in his seat. We had the camera in proximity where he would be, so it’s what he would see.

From a compositional standpoint, we tried not to be at his eye-level. The flexibility of the handheld camera work allowed us to be on that train and give it the feel of being live on that train even though we shot it on a stage, but also be able to fluidly move around as the boys taunted him.

It was all shot single camera. Our camera operator Geoffrey Haley is one of the best in the world and he was on the train by himself with the actors.

The environment we set up was a 360 one. That’s one of the reasons we set it up on a stage. From a lighting standpoint, we had a lot of needs. Todd said the idea behind this scene was a fever dream.

In the world of “Joker” where there are a lot of things that could be questioned as to, “Is this real or fake?” this is a pivotal moment in his life where he crosses the line into the violent act. It serves as a wake-up call to his most chaotic and violent self. It’s an alternative path that his life will now take.

We wanted it to build in such a way that it felt like such a confusing array of lighting. We wanted the attack to feel like what it is to be surrounded and to feel what he’s feeling.

How LED technology helped overcome challenges:

From a tactical standpoint, it was one of the more technically challenging scenes in the movie. We looked at shooting it on a live track. We looked at shooting it on a bluescreen. We looked at doing it with lighting against black, and in the end, we came up with the solution. We used these 15-feet tall LED panels that ran the length of both sides of the subway car, so we could put in the moving environment of that subway.

On the stage, we could have the subway stop at platforms, we could leave platforms and it could pass through different environments that would allow the lighting to change.

I was sitting in a dimmer board and I’d layer out all these elements on the panel that I could control at the push of a button. I could have a station with hot white light, I could pass a station with blue warm light and I could pass another subway car. All of those things, I could then choose to shut all the lights off and create a flicker inside the car. I could create this blast of light from a train passing by or a station passing by which created this silhouette.

The colors in the movie are a heightened reality sense of what the city felt like back then and the way they photographed on film, even though we shot digitally.

If we were outside, we would use sodium vapor lights with orange and a bit of green. If we were shooting inside; we’d have all these mixtures of fluorescents which were never clean white light. They were always filtered with a bit of green.

The subway cars were dirty, and so we had a lot of green spike in them. The look was motivated by the authenticity of what the subway cars looked like and photographed like back in the day. You can color-correct out the green spike, but we liked the dirtiness of Gotham City to always be present. We used a lot of uncorrected cool white fluorescent which is that cyan that you sometimes see in the kitchen and other places. This was meant to replicate a warm white, so it’s a bit of a yellow-green.

When they pull up to the station, it goes from the green of that interior to the sodium vapor warm orange of the platform where he gets the final guy.

We spent a large portion of prep with the intention of shooting on film. We ended up shooting in digital because we could shoot large format which allowed us to have the intimate shots, we could be on a medium lens and that didn’t have the distortion. What can sometimes happen with a wide lens is that distortion can suddenly be off-putting and distort the faces and features. We wanted all of that to feel normal, but we wanted that proximity to be present to the psychology of the audience.

When we decided to shoot on digital, I wanted to maintain a film look as much as possible. All that green that exists on film stock back then. It really brings out strong color variations with a bit of green in the high end and low end. We had to bring all those things back into the image to replicate that look, including adding green.

THE STAIRS DANCE

The stairs are such a part of Arthur’s world and his ascension of the character and where he’s going. There’s this idea that the stairwell is something arduous that Arthur had to endure every day just to get home because of what it represented. You can think about his ascension going home — the movie is a lot about dichotomies and about two sides of our own self. We are all good, and we all have the potential to be bad. Every time he goes home, he’s trying to be the better part of himself. He’s fighting to be the most human and at the end of the movie when he’s finally taking on Joker and the truest part of himself even if it’s the most chaotic and violent and filled with rage. He’s doing it in celebration. It’s easier to go downstairs than upstairs.

He’s not just going down the stairs which are symbolic of him going down into the darker part of himself, he’s celebrating himself.

The main thing here is that the early shots of him walking up the stairs are slow. The camera work at the beginning of the movie is methodically slow and so is his walk. The shot at the top of the stairs is static, and there’s no camera movement.

In the end, we put a crane so we could move back and forth with him. As he dances and gives it that energy, it’s a celebration. It’s a dance scene and it’s not done in the same brooding fashion as the beginning of the movie.

There is a lot of imagery we repeat, but you see the arc of the character just by juxtaposing those two scenes.

With that scene, he’s at his most joyful. It’s not like he gets joy out of killing people, there’s always a sense of pain associated with it. It’s truly him at his most joyful sense outside of maybe once he’s on top of that police car at the end. Even that is an operatic moment. The blood smile he puts on doesn’t have that same sense of joy as in that scene.