From happy accidents on set to visual effects completing a nighttime shot during the day, cinematographers from “Elvis” to “Nope” to “The Fabelmans” composited some of the best shots of the year.
As voters sit down over the holiday season to revisit films or catch up, Variety caught up with nine cinematographers behind films vying for awards consideration to tell us the story behind their favorite shots.
“All Quiet on the Western Front” – James Friend
The first is a shot of Stanislaus Katczinsky (Albrecht Schuch) by the farmer’s gate waiting for Paul (Felix Kammerer) to come back with his loot.
This was the second day of shooting. The crew were still getting into ways of working together and we were shooting in a remote location. 30 minutes after call time it started to snow heavily. This put production into a bit of a tailspin and decisions were being made about whether we should continue with the day.
For me, the snow bought a beautiful calmness and clarity and offered a poetic prelude to what was going to happen to Kat in the following scene. I found a frame and suggested it to Ed Berger, our director. He embraced it and it crystalized the tone of the scene going forward. It was a very happy accident and a shot both myself and Ed would not be without.
The embracing of the snow impacted the subsequent shoot. There was no more snow and it created enormous continuity decisions. The team shipped in fake snow from all across Europe and we were able to push on.
“Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths” – Darius Khondji
This film was made up of various chapters and the California Dancing Club is one of the greatest. Weeks before, we were scouting. It was this old club in Mexico and you could feel the atmosphere, the ghosts` and the music of what it was at the time. You could feel the bodies dancing and the lights that had been in the room.
The scene shows this couple going through, being questioned by the journalists and then they go into this room. It’s this beautiful monster where Silverio (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is getting swallowed colors and lights.
We discussed how we’d tell the story. We used a Steadicam with a crane. We brought in a special device that allowed us to go low and go very high. We had a great operator, Ari Robbins who followed Silverio.
At the end of the scene, he escapes the crowd and is called out by this political person who says he wants to talk to him. He escapes and goes to the toilet when he meets his father in the mirror. It transcends reality and goes into a dream.
“Elvis” – Mandy Walker
My favorite shot in “Elvis” is the one of Austin Butler for his first concert in the Hilton Ballroom in Las Vegas.
We built the whole thing from the backstage area, side stage, the actual stage and a third of the audience there. It was a huge set that took months to build and was a huge undertaking in creating the lighting of the concert from scratch.
We knew this was one of the scenes Baz called ‘trainspotting’ which meant there was existing footage of this performance that we had to match perfectly. Right down to the camera angles and lensing.
It replicates the doc, “That’s the Way it is” and that was a great challenge. We would see a lot of the lighting fixtures in the shots so I had to find period versions, such as over one hundred par cans and old rock and roll lights. When I could hide modern LED lighting fixtures because I have empire control over these with a dimmer board connected to an iPad. We shot a lot of the concert, including all the lighting changes. Sometimes my crew would be up ladders with colored gels as we would see them and they had to look real. We had decided to shoot Austin coming from backstage, tuning his guitar in the wings, his entrance on the stage and he went straight into the full concert and sang for 20 minutes.
Capturing this with 5 cameras and moving them for every take was an undertaking that was achieved by rigorous rehearsals and planning.
One of the requests to me from Baz early on was that the camera danced with Elvis, when he flew the camera flew, and when there was a quiet dramatic moment we would be elegant and observational.
My team had to learn the music and the choreography of Austin to perfection. We danced with him and he felt comfortable enough that we knew his moves that he didn’t have to be concerned with cranes hitting him, or Steadicam bumping him in his moves.
There is also an important piece of the storytelling that is drama happening during his performances. It had a different language that had to flow with the performance but feel a part of the world. Where the camera was connecting with the Colonel (Tom Hanks) as he is selling Elvis to the hotel for the next 5 years unbeknown to him as he sings the lyric “I’m caught in a trap”
‘The Fablemans’ – Janusz Kaminski
Our shots are difficult to do because of the technical aspect where the camera rotates, spins around and it comes up on a close-up. Those are big shots. Other shots that are of emotional consequence, sometimes don’t have to be very complicated shots, and those are some of my favorites.
One shot features Gabriel LaBelle as young Sammy and he’s projecting movies, and we have several instances of that. The camera stays on him and reacts to what he sees. He’s reacting to the power that he is learning to have. So, there’s this one shot when we start in the movie theaters and the camera is close on him, it pulls back to show the entire space.
And there are other instances when he’s watching another movie and the light portrays him in this, I wouldn’t say evil, but sinister, way because it’s got that shadowy light projected through the reel, and you have that moving movement of the light in his face and then you have another beam of light projecting towards the lens. He’s realizing that he can manipulate the masses, and you see his entire expression change.
I also love the shot when his mother played by Michelle Williams gives him the camera. I lit that in this very angelic way. She gave him the gift of life, not just metaphorically, but she give him a purpose.
“Living” – Jamie Ramsay
Focusing on the scene in the circus tent where Bill Nighy seems to come to terms with his fate and in a pivotal moment, upon seeing his mortality reflected on his new friend’s face, he starts his new journey.
I wanted this scene to feel like a rebirth, the circus tent being the womb needed to feel palpable as if they were stifled with amniotic fluid.
I wanted to key light source to come from outside the tent mimicking a womb, this would bathe them in a rich bloody light. Choking on the thick air, Bill’s character Mr. Williams is close to being sick, and he runs out. Only to emerge from the darkness, the key light source, a red and orange practical festoon running from the tent.
This was the proverbial umbilical cord. As bill emerges from the dark he is washed with red bloody light, as if newly born. The rich contrast between light and dark represents the paradox of realizing life only once faced with death.
“Nope” – Hoyte Van Hoytema
This film is very much about spectacle and most of those scenes get the attention. But when I really watched the film in this raw and distant way, I gravitated to the smaller things.
As a cinematographer, I always tried to define the film and what it embodies. So, for me, it was the close-ups and showing the actors.
These are the most effortless shots. It’s not about technology or putting the lighting in the right place and we don’t often talk about those close-ups enough. I loved those little moments when we are in a room. The cameras are there shooting Daniel’s or Kiki’s face and those closeups are the heartbeat of the film.
I love the scene where Kiki’s character is asleep with glasses on her face and she’s got this Garfield shirt on. There’s this beautiful level of scruffiness and atmospherically, I remember thinking this is exactly the tone of the movie and the vibe that this movie is.
I also love the closeup of Kiki at the end of the film, and I love the scene when she gathers the family, and it’s those scenes that capture what the film is about.
We had created lenses that allowed us to mix those big scenes and also come very close in with the camera. We realized that unleashing that gave the film a whole new landscape, you could say it was almost an emotional landscape to photograph the human face with a format like this. It gives a face depth and this outlook that you could almost touch it.
“Tár” – Florian Hoffmeister
I decided to go with the final shot of the film, which sees the camera track along the audience members of Lydia Tár’s first conducting assignment in South-East Asia, after having lost her position in Berlin.
The shot was already scripted, and I vividly remember my reaction when reading. I laughed out loud.
Todd Field seemed to turn the screen around pointing to all of us, and he did it with warmth and humor. When we shot this, it was not only the last shot of the film, it was also the last set-up of the production. We had planned it meticulously.
Days before we had set up the Technocrane in a parking lot, marking the different rows with boxes to make sure the movement was only going to be lateral, as well as the length of the track lasting for the length of the voice-over.
On that day, the former theatre was filled with the sticky humid air of South-East Asia.
Due to the lack of oxygen, the beautifully dressed extras were having a hard time staying focused (and awake), so we had to give it a few runs. I remember that Cate Blanchett joined Todd and me at the monitors. She was getting ready to leave that very night, and I noticed it was the first time she was there as herself and not as Lydia Tár.
When we finally achieved the shot, I yelled out loud. It is this moment of bitter-sweet relief that everybody knows who has embarked on the journey of making a film. Todd joined in.
And for reasons that will remain forever mystical to me all the extras (who most certainly were oblivious to the journey that we had all been on) stood up and applauded.
“Top Gun: Maverick” – Claudio Miranda
I used to be a gaffer for Tony Scott, and I did three films with him, so the whole movie was special to me.
But the opening sequence is a little bit special because in the first movie they weren’t allowed to turn the boat, and then I was given permission to turn the boat to the light. That is what made that opening sequence so great. It was me and this small camera team that shot that scene at the time, and Joe wasn’t with me because he was dealing with the script.
The reason we spent all this time getting the cameras in the cockpits was to give the audience a visceral sense of being in there with him than being against a blue screen.
We worked really hard to get this so much in-camera. The sailing sequence with Tom and Jennifer was meant to be shot in two days, but we shot it in once because we had great wind. But again, that was nowhere near the effort that we did for the aerial sequences.
I’m biasing things to the amount that went into the effort and payoff as a story point. When Maverick’s banking left or right, you see the shadows and how close he is to the ground because you see the shadows.
So, I’m proud of all the aerial work that we did. The months we had to get there and to bring Kevin LaRosa on and work with him and how things would be shot.
“The Woman King” – Polly Morgan
This scene is so important because it’s a combination of these women’s relationships coming together.
We spend the whole movie getting to know these women and building their relationships, and here they are united in this energy to go to battle to protect each other and the kingdom that they love.
We worked very long and hard in pre-production to make sure that that Kingdom of Dahomey was not only built, you know, but would work perfectly for how it needed to be lit. The three scenes of the battle dance, the war speech and Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) getting ready were shot within a 10-hour window.
Those scenes were scripted as three different sections.
But Teri Shropshire, our editor, did an incredible job to build up the energy and the ferocity of these women. The lighting, for me, was all about creating an ambiance with the moonlight in that environment, and then shaping and modeling it with the warmth of the firelight.
We were shooting the battle dance with many different cameras. I had one camera on a crane, another camera on a gimbal and we had some handheld cameras. And the actors had prepared the dance and the singing for a long time, so I had to do it justice, but we only had three hours to shoot that part.
I was making sure everything was organized. I had to get the crane in there as LAshana comes out and walks through that group of people, while the other cameras are getting the details of the other women and capturing close-ups.
While all that was going on, I had to light the palace square for Viola Davis to do her battle speech. I would spend another unit doing plates which the visual effects department would use for crowd replacement. Due to the budget, we didn’t have a lot of background extras to feel like the full tribe of warriors. So, the visual effects department had to multiply the crowd.
To finish the war speech and we had to bring the warriors through the gate, and the sun was rising and the sky was blue.
We did sky replacement in visual effects because the sun had risen. While that was going on, we had another unit for Naw, which again, was such an important element in the story of this young child that had been sort of given away by her family. She’d been adopted into this family of sisters.
At this moment, she was going from being a young girl to being a woman and becoming the warrior that she is.