Oscars: 'Birdman's' DP Reveals Most Challenging Aspect of "Single Take" Shoot

The four other nominated cinematographers also reveal how every frame mattered, from memorable scenes of fire to re-creations of the quiet calm of a nunnery.
'Birdman'

This story first appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Birdman
Emmanuel Lubezki

By design, director Alejandro G. Inarritu's 119-minute Birdman looks as if the entire movie was filmed and edited in a continuous, uninterrupted take as it follows Michael Keaton throughout a Broadway theater. To pull off the feat, each shot had to be planned and choreographed meticulously. Emmanuel Lubezki, last year's cinematography Oscar winner for Gravity, shared camera operating duties — mostly a combination of Steadicam and handheld shots — with Steadicam operator Chris Haarhoff. But the cinematographer says more challenging than the choreography was the lighting, which had to stay natural: "We were moving lights; we were moving diffusions. There were grips moving with me. Every time you see a shot, there were eight people moving with me."

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The Grand Budapest Hotel
Robert Yeoman

Shooting on film, director Wes Anderson and Robert Yeoman used whip pans and framing to convey the whimsical style of The Grand Budapest Hotel, set at a luxurious resort in a fictional Eastern European country, the Republic of Zubrowka. Because the movie shuttles among three periods — a colorful version of the 1930s, a grim, totalitarian visit to the '60s and the present — they used different aspect ratios to suggest each era: anamorphic widescreen for the '60s scenes, the more square 1.37:1 format used during the '30s and 1.85:1 for the present. Explains Yeoman: "The aspect ratio would visually reflect the time period and gave us the opportunity to compositionally use the frame in a way that would have been done during those time periods. We quickly embraced it and used a lot of headroom for the actors so you see the ceiling. And it gives them a sense of space."

Ida
Lukasz Zal, Ryszard Lenczewski

Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski's austere drama about a novitiate nun who discovers family secrets — also nominated for the foreign-language feature Oscar — is set during the 1960s and filmed in black and white. It also uses a static camera on a tripod and lots of unusual framing. Cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski initially was in charge of filming, with Lukasz Zal as his camera operator, but when Lenczewski became ill during production, Zal stepped in to handle the remaining cinematography. "We have a lot of air over the characters' heads," says Zal. "We saw that we create a feeling of being lost, a feeling of isolation, that it was not a strange mannerism — but it conveys much more. We [with Pawlikowski] were working very close together; every frame was a mutual decision. We found our visual ideas matching the story."

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Mr. Turner
Dick Pope

Mr. Turner marks the 10th feature collaboration between director Mike Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope, who found plenty of reference material — and inspiration — for their latest film in the Romantic landscape paintings of its title character, J.M.W. Turner. "I saw everything," says Pope of how he approached re-creating the look of Turner's world. "The work at The National Gallery [in London], and I read books about him. After studying his paintings, it became clear to me how the film should look to evoke the period and pay homage to his work. I also wanted to give the audience a taste of what inspired him to paint. We put Turner in the landscapes, often looking toward what he was looking at and giving a taste of what made the man tick. I also wanted the best light possible for the film — either indoors or outdoors, almost everything is lit."

Unbroken
Roger Deakins

One of Unbroken's most technically complex scenes was the night raid at the Omori POW camp, during which the prisoners go on the roof to put out fires. "We had a layer of smoke that we blew through the near background," says cinematographer Roger Deakins, "and we had probably 50 Maxi Brutes [and other lights] lined up in the back on dimmers to backlight the smoke to give the effect of the firelight outside the prison-camp perimeter so that I could silhouette the guys on the roof. The side shots became the light on their faces, and we could play with the intensity of the light depending on the angle we were shooting at. We added some searchlights, and there were practical lights. It looks so naturalistic, but it was a huge job."

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