Six top cinematographers from 'Silence', 'La La Land', 'Fences', 'Arrival' and more reveal the secrets that take their craft beyond "beautiful pictures" — and their off-duty camera of choice ("Yeah, I use my iPhone").
What's the biggest misconception about what cinematographers contribute to a film? "It's not just making beautiful pictures. People think it's good cinematography because it's beautiful. And it's not that. We're really trying to express the emotion of the story," says Rodrigo Prieto, 51, who shed light on both the mystery of faith in 17th century Japan in Silence and a futuristic outer space romance in Passengers. Prieto's fellow directors of photography nodded knowingly and laughed in agreement as they sat down on Oct. 29 to discuss the alchemy behind their recent work — not just the technical decisions they made but also their critical role in helping a director bring a scene, and a world, to life. This season, that meant Linus Sandgren, 44, forging a modern-day musical look for La La Land; John Toll, 64, experimenting with Ang Lee to shoot the 120-frames-per-second Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk; Charlotte Bruus Christensen, 38, wading into the emotional waters of both Fences and The Girl on the Train; Bradford Young, 39, discovering a new visual language, quite literally, in the alien encounters of Arrival; and Caleb Deschanel, 72, bringing vintage Hollywood back to seductive life in Rules Don't Apply.
When you're working with a director for the first time, what kind of initial conversations do you have?
LINUS SANDGREN I like to listen a lot to the director, to hear him out and find out what his vision is. And that usually builds images and ideas in your head. With Damien [Chazelle on La La Land], we met at his office, and he played me the music, which was very emotional. I was surprised how I reacted to it, actually. And he was like a volcano in how he talked about the film and how he saw it. So it was very easy for me to get inspired by him. To me, that's the best — when you work with directors who have a strong vision and who want to inspire the crew.
CALEB DESCHANEL The reality is that you really want to go in and meet a director and have him draw you into their excitement and enthusiasm for the project they're doing. You need to have that because to make a movie, you have to have an incredible drive and enthusiasm for something.
CHARLOTTE BRUUS CHRISTENSEN Sometimes that conversation also starts one step ahead of the story. It's just about, do we get along with each other? Do we connect in terms of understanding a visual language? And then that whole part of listening. I've had a couple of interviews where it's been about three hours of, "Who are you and where do you come from?"
BRADFORD YOUNG I kind of got into this as a venture in community building. So my requirement is that after we go through this, can I break bread with you at my table with my kids and my wife?
What do you mean by community building?
YOUNG My entryway into a lot of things is music, especially jazz. So I always thought that filmmaking would be as collaborative as that. I was looking for an opportunity to freely associate myself with other artists who are interested in a certain, particular result, and who are really more interested in the process of coming up with the result. I'm interested in working with folks that are trying to explore their craft in the same way. For me, the community building thing comes out of the desire to collaborate. But at the end of the day, I want — I know this may sound lame — I want to be your friend, your comrade.
So what was it like working with Denis Villeneuve on Arrival?
YOUNG I was a big fan. I felt like I knew his writing on the wall really well, so I felt like I had a brother there, a kindred spirit. The difficult part was just really us as two individuals — who have our own sort of taste and our own sort of temperament around telling a story — finding a way to be ourselves in this heavily visual effects environment. We've made very low-fi films. I had never even shot a bluescreen before, so to know that I would have his support was really important to me.
What's it like working with a director who's also starring in the film like Denzel Washington in Fences and Warren Beatty in Rules Don't Apply?
DESCHANEL Warren has been a movie star for I don't know how many years and then started early on being a producer and then a writer and then, of course, he directed Reds, which is an amazing movie. With Warren, I used to joke that if I would disagree with him about something, I'd say, "Let me talk to the writer Warren instead of the director Warren." I just found it really exciting to work with him. When he would perform in front of the camera, he would never take the time to look at it played back. He would just do the scene, three or four times, and then he'd go, "That's it," and we'd move on. He was really respectful of all the other actors in the film, and it really helped them that he was not taking time with himself. He knew this story so well because he had been working at it for so long.
BRUUS CHRISTENSEN I'm not totally sure that Denzel ever stepped out of character. Having done the play, he knew it so well. Sometimes I had the feeling that because he knew the character so well, it was almost his character watching, because his character knew exactly how that was going to be. So it was very intense work. And even though he wanted to go back to the monitor and get a feel for it, he wasn't in and out [of character]. He was staying with it. For certain scenes, we stepped back, placed the camera in a wide shot where the audience [would have seen it] at the play. Let's not put everything into making it cinema. Let's just once in a while go back and look at that angle.
John, you had never worked with Ang Lee before. What convinced you to take on Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk?
JOHN TOLL I had never worked in 3D prior to Billy Lynn. I had never been interested in 3D very much, because I had been disappointed, primarily in the way it's projected and displayed. The projectors are usually too dim. The 3D glasses can desaturate and make the images darker. I felt it was a distraction more than it increased the value of the images. But I went in for an interview with Ang Lee. He is a great filmmaker, and I highly respected his work, but I was curious what his intent was. He had a lot of great ideas, and everything he said made a lot of sense. Life of Pi was his first 3D picture. And he said he really enjoyed the process, but there were things about 3D he knew could be improved — like the fact that the process itself actually created issues and strobing and smear. He had always been interested in the idea of high frame rates, and he really wanted to explore that. But it was primarily as an enhancement of the story — as a way to become a little more intimate with the story and the characters and the actors. It was all based on enhancing the story and involving the audiences more emotionally. He did not want to imply that the technology would create more spectacle. It would be creating more intimacy. Somehow everything becomes more accessible. That comes out of the clarity of the high resolutions and the high frame rate.
The new technology allows you to capture more information in a frame, but there are a lot of classic movies that use shadow to withhold information. Caleb, a lot of Rules Don't Apply uses shadow very intentionally. How do you feel about this push toward more information in an image?
DESCHANEL Well, I think they can use it sparingly — the way you light it and the way you photograph something. I've used lots of filtering under things at times. And put things in the shadow. In the case of Warren's movie, it was just the reality that the character that Warren played, Howard Hughes, was always in the dark. And that creates its own kind of problems. Over the years, we've had film develop from 35 millimeter, and then there is 65 millimeter film. And films like Lawrence of Arabia in 70 millimeter, and it was really phenomenal. We've always been striving toward making things much clearer and much sharper, bigger and more exciting so you see more detail. But I think you have to use it sparingly and think about how you want to use it. A problem I have with digital is photographing faces, because you have to be really careful about how sharp an image is. But John shooting [Billy Lynn] at a high frame rate and projected at high frame rates and 3D — that's what artists do, they take a technology that somebody brings to them and they explore it and see what they can do with it. And sometimes you succeed remarkably. And sometimes you fail. But that's the process.
YOUNG The conversation around digital versus film, this idea of pixels information, how much is there, how much isn't there? One of the things I often say to aspiring, up-and-coming filmmakers is that it's not the medium. It's what it's anchored in. Where is your culture in that film? Have you shot your grandmother's hands? If you're going to shoot your grandmother's hands, what's going to be the appropriate format to shoot your grandmother's hands? I can't tell you that. The gatekeepers of film can't tell us what that is. Only you can tell yourself what that is. In the 21st century, that's where the conversation needs to go. They give us instruction manuals on all these cameras. You can literally go online, pull down the instruction manual, read it and be off on your way, right? Finding your voice, your language — that's the real struggle, the real universal struggle for kids of color all over the world, from Asia to Latin America to Compton, California. I'm not interested in having a conversation with them about the pixels or the resolution. I'm interested in having a conversation about why a film could be a revolutionary adventure in our evolution as human beings.
How do you decide whether to shoot on film or go digital?
RODRIGO PRIETO I did two movies that are coming out at the same time, Passengers and Silence. And they couldn't be more different thematically, but also visually. Passengers was shot on digital: a 65 millimeter digital camera, the Alexa 65, to get a very clear image. And for Silence, I shot most of it on film. For me, it's all about how it feels. When I'm shooting tests, how does this image feel to me? Is it accurate to the movie, the story we are trying to tell? In Passengers, we were in a spaceship 600 years in the future. And it's a luxury ship. So I felt that the image should be clean. And for me, [film] grain gives you a texture that didn't feel that good for Passengers. Whereas on Silence, a lot of the film was about hiding. And that's a very different thing. We needed clarity in Passengers, clarity of the air. And in Silence, it's priests that are in Japan, most of the time hiding because if they are found, they will probably be killed. So a lot of darkness, candlelight. I used some digital for that. I used Alexa anamorphic lenses because of the low light capability. But I was able to shoot most of it on film because there are a lot of exteriors, and I felt that I'd push the film for certain scenes where I wanted the texture to be a little rougher. And then for the night scenes with candles, I used digital. So it was kind of using the best of both worlds, and it's very exciting to be able to do that.
DESCHANEL It's great to have all the tools. It's great to have film. It's great to have digital. It's great to have different size formats, you know? Each one gives you something different. And how you use it is what you bring to the film that makes it exciting and interesting.
BRUUS CHRISTENSEN Fences was right to shoot on film. Denzel wanted to stay very truthful to the play. For him, it was so much about that texture and staying true to the feelings that he had about this story. With Girl on the Train, it was a point-of-view story because we have a girl, played by Emily Blunt, observing people and thinking her thoughts. So there are a lot of things that we had to express just through the images. And we had to be so close to her. And there were other reasons why we felt film was right. [Emily's character] Rachel is drunk a lot of the time. We wanted to add something in the visual so it wasn't just relying on Emily Blunt going, "I'm drunk." Just a feel of being drunk without overdoing it. So we had a lot of the scenes when I said, "Let's skip some frames. Let's shoot six or eight frames per second," and then we step-printed. We duplicated those frames, and it gave a more staggering kind of feel, which adds to a feeling [of being drunk].
Do you ever watch a finished film you've worked on and think, "Gee, they picked the wrong take there. I would have gone for something else"?
DESCHANEL It's really interesting about the right take. Initially, a director will pick a certain take. And then you get in the editing room, and as the scene evolves, you find that actually another take has a certain kind of emotion that you want more. And you didn't realize it at first. It's a very fluid process.
Since images can be changed dramatically in postproduction, when the digital intermediate is created, how involved are you in post?
DESCHANEL That's a really important part of the process, especially today. In the old days, when you just had film, you basically had three printer lights, and that was it. And you would always light something as perfectly as you could possibly do it. But now, when you go into the digital medium …
BRUUS CHRISTENSEN It's not so simple. (Laughter.)
SANDGREN You want to capture it in camera, and I'm very nervous about the DI [digital intermediate] because I don't want it to look different from what I intend. To me, the DI is one-third of the possibilities of what you can achieve with the look of the film. The DI is an amazing tool versus printing the film. You have the ability to fix things that you have screwed up. So that's good. You could light up faces or you could tweak things. But I think the general look of the film is always created with your choices of lenses and film stocks. And in La La Land, it was very important for us to have a lot of color. And to me, adding color in the DI does not always look very good because you have a very limited amount of color to work with if you don't have it already in the beginning. So when we came to the DI, in the dailies already I really wanted to try to stay with print lights as much as possible.
PRIETO The digital intermediate is like a two-edged sword. I'm a big fan of it. I love the possibility of continuing the creative process into postproduction and being able to tweak the image to a certain extent. But I agree with Linus — I try to put it all on camera because, contrary to belief, you can't relight a movie even in the DI. Certainly you can do a lot. You can change the character of a scene, but not the position of the light. Right now I'm in that process for both Passengers and Silence, and I've turned down work to be able to do that, because it's such an integral part of the whole process.
TOLL The only way that cinematographers can guarantee their original visual intent is to carry it through to the completion of the picture. And we have to be there to basically participate in that process. Sometimes there are well-intentioned people who get involved in that process who feel they have better ideas about how the film should look. But we as cinematographers need to be there and guarantee that what people are seeing at one point is what was intended. You can't phone it in. You have to be physically sitting there. Because you have other layers of producers, other layers of studio people — their job is to basically finish the picture. So it's good to have a clear distinction of who's doing what.
When you're not working, do you carry a camera with you or do you pull out an iPhone for quick shots?
YOUNG Yeah, I use my iPhone. I have a few cameras, but they all seem too cumbersome nowadays. I'm shooting my kids a lot, so that for me is the quickest way to get close to them.
TOLL I still use cameras, but I probably don't carry them around as much as I used to. And I will whip out the iPhone and use it.
DESCHANEL On the last film I did with Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, [Werk ohne Autor], he wanted me to take stills that were then used as paintings in the movie. And I started using my Leica camera again with film. I hadn't used it in [a long time] and there are places you can still get [the film] processed. It's really exciting because it has that mystery, you know?
PRIETO I use my professional cameras only for work — for scouting and for when we are shooting some things. But actually in life, I do use my phone to take photos. I've become kind of a fan of Instagram, because it has become a hobby.
This story first appeared in a January standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.