For cinematographer Lawrence Sher, the focus has always been on the director. That philosophy has carried Sher’s imagery to millions of filmgoers, including his latest work set to hit screens this year: “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” directed by Michael Dougherty, and “Joker,” directed by Todd Phillips, who has also collaborated with Sher on all three “Hangover” films. “Whatever success I’ve achieved comes from the fact that I care as deeply about the movie as the director does,” says Sher. “My No. 1 job is to take some of the burden and stress off of their shoulders, and I do that with thorough preparation.”
Sher took an unusual route. An economics major at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, he bypassed film school, moved to Los Angeles and started out as a camera assistant on commercials and music videos. He took any opportunity to shoot, took thousands of stills using motion picture stocks, and found his first paid jobs on D movies including “Shark Attack” and “On the Border.”
His next goal was to make a film people could see in a theater. He lensed fest success “Kissing Jessica Stein” and “Garden State,” the first of several projects with Zach Braff. Then a studio film became the goal.
“Growing up, my interest in films really came from popular movies like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Jaws,’” he says. “I never looked at them as selling out or not being artistic enough. I approach films the same, whether it’s a comedy like ‘The Hangover’ or ‘The Dictator,’ or a drama like ‘Joker.’”
He adds: “In a comedy, you don’t want to tie yourself into very intricate camera moves or some very complicated, technical shot that is going to suddenly like halt the movie, when what you really want to do is allow the comedy and the freedom of the actors to drive the scene.”
Sher sees a throughline connecting his films. “For me, a movie like ‘Godzilla’ was not that fundamentally different from ‘The Hangover 2,’” he says. “I let the scene and the emotion drive the camera work and the lighting, and take it from there. I always try to create images that are as cinematic and authentic as possible, regardless of the content.”
Sher’s simpatico with directors was enhanced by his own experience at the helm for “Father Figures,” a comedy-adventure featuring Owen Wilson, Ed Helms and Glenn Close. “It was an amazing experience, and while I’d love to direct again, it definitely made me a better director of photography,” says Sher. “So much of my job as a DP has been concerned with the actors’ performance, giving them freedom to work at a speed that allows them to keep the energy going. But as a director, you’re working with them more intimately, and I loved that. And I learned more in the editing room — that was the hardest part.”
“Godzilla” was reportedly made with a $200 million budget on large-format Arri Alexa 65 cameras. The stakes were high, but Sher says he wasn’t sweating it. “Most cinematographers are going to place more pressure on themselves than they feel from an outside force. This is the greatest job in the world. You’re in the center of the storm, and I love the storm. In filmmaking there’s no right choice creatively. You can give the same problem to ten different director-DP teams and they’ll all come at it in a different way.”
“[being a cinematographer] is the greatest job in the world. you’re at the center of the storm, and I love the storm.”
So how do you choose? “If you get caught up in trying to make the one right choice, you can get that analysis-paralysis and creative anxiety. You just have to go with the choice you believe is the best thing and then move forward.”
That said, one thing Sher admires in directors is “the ability to turn on a dime when something doesn’t feel right. You can’t just barrel ahead simply because you have a plan.
“Making movies is really hard,” says Sher. “When you watch a great movie, it looks so easy. But when you watch a movie that doesn’t work, making any movie looks impossible. And you work just as hard on the ones that don’t work as you do on the ones that work, which is a little disconcerting. But that’s why it’s still magical. You get it all together, and then you put it in the oven and sometimes it tastes really, really good. And sometimes you have to throw it out.”