From left: Robert Elswit, Janusz Kaminski, Rachel Morrison, Dan Laustsen, Hoyte Van Hoytema and Roger Deakins were photographed Oct. 1 at Mack Sennett Studios in Los Angeles.
From left: Robert Elswit, Janusz Kaminski, Rachel Morrison, Dan Laustsen, Hoyte Van Hoytema and Roger Deakins were photographed Oct. 1 at Mack Sennett Studios in Los Angeles.
Spencer Lowell

Cinematographer Roundtable: 6 Pros on Happy Accidents and Being "Fed Up" With the Film-vs.-Digital Debate

The lensing experts behind 'Blade Runner 2049,' 'Dunkirk,' 'Mudbound,' 'The Post,' 'Roman J. Israel, Esq.,' 'The Shape of Water' and 'Suburbicon' open up about their craft and finding a balance with their directors: "He does his thing, I do my thing. Somehow we both see this movie the same way."

On any movie set, the cinematographer often has a symbiotic relationship with the director — Janusz Kaminski, who just shot The Post, has been working with Steven Spielberg for 25 years. But that doesn't mean these pros don't have a lot of opinions of their own, as was clear when Kaminski, 58, met to talk shop with Blade Runner 2049's Roger Deakins, 68; Dunkirk's Hoyte Van Hoytema, 46; Mudbound's Rachel Morrison, 39; The Shape of Water's Dan Laustsen, 63; and Suburbicon and Roman J. Israel, Esq.'s Robert Elswit, 67. Whether revealing some of the happy accidents that resulted in unexpected and hauntingly beautiful images or bemoaning the challenges of filming in the pouring rain, they share a common experience and language. "It's so much about chemistry," says Van Hoytema, who just completed his second film with Christopher Nolan, about relationships with their directors. "In the beginning, you're very stiff and you're really feeling each other out and tiptoeing around each other. But then on the next project, you're very often the only two people that really know each other."

What are some of the happiest accidents you've had while shooting a film?

JANUSZ KAMINSKI Oh my God, there's so many. Getting an image out of focus into the movie. That's a happy accident. In AI, when we introduced a little kid in the elevator, it's looking through a long lens and was out of focus. And Steven [Spielberg] said: "This is great. Just let him come all the way out of focus, you know, into the shot."

DAN LAUSTSEN When we shot Solomon Kane, we had a lot of rain and we had fog on the rain deflectors. And the director kept that in the movie. It looks amazing. It was just a big mistake when we did it. But it looks really cool.

HOYTE VAN HOYTEMA We had some real accidents on the set of Dunkirk. We had one camera mounted on the wing of a mock-up Spitfire that we were going to catapult out in the sea. And the divers were all going to retrieve that camera. But the plane sank to the bottom, in a matter of seconds, and the film couldn't be retrieved for several hours. The camera was broken. Everything was soaked. But our focus puller, Bob Hall, and our loader, they came up with a plan, and they took the magazine [the casing in which the film resides] to the darkroom and poured fresh water over it and sealed it and sent it back to America in a container immersed in water. And it's a shot that actually made it into the film. It looked great. I'm kind of almost thinking I should treat all my images with salt seawater at some point.

ROBERT ELSWIT Paul Thomas Anderson, whom I've worked with a lot, loves accidents. On There Will Be Blood, we were burning a wooden oil derrick, which was supposed to burn a little bit and then we'd put it out. But it caught on fire and couldn't be put out, so we had to shoot the entire sequence kind of really fast in sort of a crazy way, and it ended up working out really well because of the chaos of that moment. It actually made the scene work in a much more interesting way — it came alive.

Janusz, you've said you wanted The Post to look like someone else shot it. What did you mean by that?

KAMINSKI In the past, I would visit Roger [Deakins] on the set and see his beautiful lighting, and Roger would say, "How's that backlight, Janusz?" I said, "No, Roger, on this movie, no backlight." The idea of deglamorizing the images, I've been always interested in that, though the work speaks against what I'm just saying. But I'm interested in the gritty aspect of things. In this movie, I wanted it to look a little bit different than what's generally expected from me. I didn't want that classical Hollywood backlight. I want it to look more like I've shot something with a limited amount of lights. I wanted to make a movie that feels contemporary, though it's set in 1971.

Did you tell Spielberg all that?

KAMINSKI No, because certain things you don't reveal. It's very tricky. Even after 27, 25 years [working together], you don't want to give too much information because then you subject yourself to being questioned. And sometimes I don't really have an answer. It just feels right. We actually do not have conversations. He does his thing, I do my thing. And somehow we both see this movie the same way. I hate to say that we're only as good as the directors, but to some degree, we're only as good as the filmmakers we're working for.

Roger, what was your reaction when Denis Villeneuve said he wanted to make a Blade Runner sequel?

ROGER DEAKINS I think he was terrified. And that made me feel even more terrified. You can't say no to the opportunity. And having worked with Denis twice, I had a really good relationship with him, and we have a very similar sort of sensibility. We spend a lot of time in prep, just talking things through. He likes to shoot with a single camera. You know, stuff like that.

Blade Runner 2049 is a sequel to a classic film with a very distinct look. To what extent did the original inform your decisions about what the new film would look like?

DEAKINS In all honesty, not much. Obviously it's got parallels because it's the same world 30 years on, but it's very much Denis' own take on the script. It's a film that could stand by itself. And I'm not [Blade Runner cinematographer] Jordan Cronenweth. I could not light like Jordan. I didn't even want to go there. I light in a more naturalistic and simpler way. And his style was so much more classic. I couldn't do that. So you know, I didn't even really want to go there, frankly.

Bob, how has your working relationship with George Clooney evolved?

ELSWIT The first time I worked with him [on Syriana], he was an actor, and I got to know him pretty well. His approach is really an actor's approach to directing. It is very different from someone who is a writer-director primarily or a director. He really looks at what's going on with the actors. They're his closest collaborators. And this picture [Suburbicon] is very different because he didn't act in it at all. He and Grant Heslov, his [producing] partner, rewrote a Coen brothers script, which I'm sure Roger would have shot had it actually gone 15 years ago, when they wrote it. And then George directed. He hired the same storyboard artist who does all the Coen brothers movies and storyboarded the whole film. It was the first time I've worked with him where that happened, and it helped a lot. He actually does focus on the visuals in a very specific way.

Hoyte, you've now made your second movie with Christopher Nolan, and the two of you actually went up in Spitfires together?

VAN HOYTEMA We had a tremendous amount of fun, yes, like two little boys. We wanted to know what the G-forces do to your body and how the light changes. And to understand what it is to sit in a small sort of Plexiglas-encased cabin and feel that claustrophobia. And at the same time, feel the magnitude and the space around. There's a lot of physics and things that really sort of directed how we were going to shoot it because we were very much interested in showing the difficulty of that very thing. Not only the beauty and the gracefulness of it, but the difficulty.

Shooting Dunkirk with Imax 65-millimeter cameras, what were some of the challenges you faced?

VAN HOYTEMA We did a lot of engineering on this because there are just no off-the-shelf solutions. So we did a lot of tinkering, coming up with mounts and rigs to put cameras in places where you normally wouldn't see them. Dan Sasaki from Panavision built us snorkel lenses so we could actually have an Imax camera vertically in cockpits — so we could literally operate it by just twisting the lenses, or we could have the camera straight up and we would poke out like a little alien. We also were on the beach the first two weeks in Dunkirk, where there's all that fine sand and the salt seawater. And keeping that out of the equipment is a huge challenge as well. So we built splash backs for the cameras that opened in certain ways so we could easily reload because an Imax camera has only two minutes of film on it. And then we wanted to go underwater, too.

Dan, you and Guillermo del Toro have worked together on several films as well. What was your reaction when he first showed you the script for The Shape of Water?

LAUSTSEN This was a love story between this girl who's not talking and a fish. And I was like, "What is this about?" It was so weird; how can that be interesting? And he talked about how this would be a black-and-white movie. Of course, nobody wants to pull the money out for that. Normally, you're shooting color, and you're making it black and white in post, and then you have both options. But we didn't want to do that. And then we couldn't find the money, so we decided to go color again. All the cinematographers in the world want to shoot black and white. Of course, I'm very pleased about the [finished] movie.

Rachel, Mudbound was your first film with Dee Rees. How did you meet, and what sort of first conversations did you have?

RACHEL MORRISON Dee and I sort of knew each other from the indie circuit. We had both been mutual fans of each other's work and knew each other a little bit socially. Mudbound was a book originally, and so the script that she sent me was sort of the first pass and then she was going to be doing another pass that was putting a little bit more of herself into it. But from that very first script, it was so relevant on so many levels. It's sort of my dream period. I came up in photography, and Dust Bowl-era photography is a lot of the reason that I got behind the camera in the first place. So she had me at [the mention of the] 1940s, and then everything else was kind of a bonus. From the first conversation, it felt like this was a good one to do.

You shot for just 29 days in Louisiana during the summer. What conditions did you face?

MORRISON It was brutal. We had initially set out to shoot it in January and, of course — between financing and casting and all those things — the next thing you know we're in the South in July and on a plantation with no respite from the heat. The two interiors had no windows. There was no way to air condition them, even if we hypothetically could. "Mud" was in the title. If it wasn't raining — in the South in the summer, you get one or two thunderstorms a day — we were creating mud. So you're in the middle of a sunny scene, and two minutes later it's pouring and then you're cleaning off all the gear and shuffling through and trying to find some continuity with what you've been doing before.

Were there instances where it would start raining and you'd just decide, "OK, this scene's going to be in the rain"?

MORRISON There was actually a lot of scripted rain. And we had this idea of almost a reverse cover set — that if it started raining, we would go and grab the scenes that were intended to be in the rain. The problem is that it rains there for 20 minutes and then stops. So there was a lot of starting something and then having to figure out ways to match to the thing that you had started. The logistics were really tough.

Dan, you had a 60-day shoot but just a $20 million budget. How did you handle that?

LAUSTSEN It's a pretty small movie moneywise, but it looks pretty big. Of course, it was challenging because we couldn't afford all the stuff. We had to fight for all the equipment, so we shot with a very small camera pack. And we had to fight for every crane day. Ninety-five percent of the movie is in the studio, and when we were outside, we were in the rain all the time. We were doing artificial rain — big night setups with a lot of rain. And because we were shooting in the wintertime, we had to heat up the rain because it was so cold. We had a lot of problems because it was so cold and the actors could not stand it. Poor Sally [Hawkins] was standing there with a small jacket on. It was pouring down rain for hours.

DEAKINS It was almost like he was talking about Blade Runner. We had a different budget, but the more money the budget has, then the more expectation and the more you push yourself to do stuff. We had the same issues. We were shooting outside on the backlot for some scenes, and both Denis and I said that we're not shooting outside unless it's gray, overcast and raining. We shot some work on a tank that we built on a backlot in Budapest. It was about 160 feet by 80 feet, quite a big tank to shoot this night exterior, with wave machines and this storm sequence. And of course, the water had to be heated because it was the end of October or November. It was almost freezing. But it was really kind of nice — you would get a happy accident because all the water started steaming. You got this fantastic steam. So every evening, I had to stall before we started shooting so I could get this steam so everything matched.

You also used water in some of the sets to create reflections and movement. How did you do that?

DEAKINS There's this one character that Jared Leto plays — I wanted his interiors to always be about moving light as though he had this sunlit interior in this world that's full of fog and snow outside, but he's created this artificial kind of world. So I just started trawling the web, looking at different architects and the way they used light, discovering things like, if you have water on a ceiling and you put light through it, you get wonderful acoustics. And so it was all kind of a progression.

Bob, both of your movies — Suburbicon and Roman J. Israel, Esq. — were shot in Los Angeles.

ELSWIT I feel terrible because everyone's had a struggle. Everyone's in the mud and it's raining and it's cold, and I just had a great time. It was like 80 degrees, and we were outdoors. We had these wonderful sets that were air-conditioned. It was the opposite of a struggle. We had all this money. I'm being serious, actually. They were very simple. Both movies were done in L.A.. I got to go home at night. Didn't have to live in some other country. So, yeah, I was very lucky.

MORRISON That's a good moral to the story. Shoot more in Los Angeles.

But even though they were both shot in L.A., they have very different looks. How did you achieve that?

ELSWIT Well, the film versus digital discussion is one I don't enjoy having very much. But on the Denzel Washington movie, he wanted to shoot on film. So did the director [Dan Gilroy]. And George wanted to shoot [Suburbicon] digitally. And they do have a distinct look. And I actually hope to talk to somebody here [who can] explain how to do it because my digital work seems a little bit homogenized and a little clinical looking. And I sort of fight against that a little bit. When I shoot film, it sort of automatically happens. But that's really, I think, the real difference. They're very different movies. Suburbicon was a stylized period film with naturalistic light. And Roman J. Israel, the Denzel movie, was a little more theatrical and a little bit different in terms of lighting. But I think when I look at them, I have no style. I have no idea what I'm doing usually, and it just sort of grows out of conversations with the director and whomever the production designer is. I still have a real hard time figuring out how to work digitally in a creative way where it doesn't seem — "clinical" is the word that keeps coming to mind. I was thinking, the original Blade Runner had such an effect on me when I was in film school so long ago. And I haven't seen the [new] movie yet, but the trailer, the scale of it … (To Deakins) I think somehow you've figured out how to [shoot on digital].

DEAKINS I'm fed up with this [film versus digital] conversation. I think it's what's in the frame and …

ELSWIT … It always is, isn't it? But do you approach it at all differently?

DEAKINS No. Actually, the first film I did digitally was In Time. And we made the decision to shoot that digitally because of the kind of film it was. We wanted it a bit synthetic, but we were only going to use it for part of the film. And then we just thought, "Well, I don't see any difference." And I just thought at that point that the time had come to start shooting digitally. I don't really do anything differently.

Switching gears, Rachel, there is still a limited number of females shooting Hollywood movies today. What has your experience been as a woman in this business?

MORRISON My hope is that it's changing and changing fast. There's a real sort of palpable momentum out in the universe. Not so much politically right now, but at least in the Hollywood universe, where there's a real push to get more women directing and better roles for women and certainly for cinematographers. There's still very few of us. I think it's mind-blowing that there's 51 percent women [in the population] and 4 percent female DPs. Probably .05 percent female gaffers, female key grips. And it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. Our world is dealing in emotion, which is something that I think women are known for doing quite well. It's really about channeling empathy into visual imagery. My experience: I'll never know what happens behind closed doors or why I don't get hired for something, but I've never had an experience that made me feel any less than. The big trick is just to get to a point where we're just considered DPs, and we're not female DPs. When you think of the word "doctor" or "teacher," you don't think gender. And it would be nice to get to a place where "DP" meant either and "director" meant either and "gaffer" meant either.

Are the rest of you seeing more women on crews?

LAUSTSEN I always try to get some women in the camera department. And in the lighting. For me, it's a very big deal to get some women in departments there.

ELSWIT It's a big change in the past 10 years. I think I have three women electricians right now working on the show I'm on. Two of the loaders and one of the assistants are women. And it isn't just the traditional roles. It used to be the script person, all the hair and makeup people, were women. It's all different now. Now it feels more of a community, and I really like that.

VAN HOYTEMA I totally agree. We have, in the camera department, a little bit over 50 percent women now, and it feels good.

Could each of you to name a director, living or dead, with whom you've never worked but would like have liked to, and why?

DEAKINS Andrei Tarkovsky. He was a great director. I love his films.

MORRISON Oh, there's too many for me. Tarkovsky's one. Kurosawa. Sofia Coppola. Wong Kar-Wai. Emir Kusturica. Sofia has a really incredible sense of visual language in conjunction with really different storytelling. Every film she makes is quite different but beautiful in its own way.

LAUSTSEN Bernardo Bertolucci. Really classic moviemaking, telling the stories for the cameras and not afraid of that.

ELSWIT Truffaut, I think. Or Jean-Pierre Melville. Either of those guys. That era of French film is sublime.

KAMINSKI I would go with David Lean. Definitely.

VAN HOYTEMA It's difficult, though, because your agent will ask, "Who do you really want to work with?" And the people that you very often love, that make the most beautiful films, you kind of feel unneeded or unwanted. It's like, "Can you add to that?" So maybe you should choose to work with the people that you don't respect to death but just think are good filmmakers, and together you can maybe do something more interesting.

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.