Six top lensers — Linus Sandgren, James Laxton, Rachel Morrison, Matthew Libatique, Chayse Irvin and Lukasz Zal — discuss creating iconic scenes, from that casino fight in 'Black Panther' to "space" shots in 'First Man' to concerts in 'A Star Is Born': "When you have nothing but your instincts to work off of, truth becomes part of the image."
From the black-and-white romance of Cold War to the vivid nation-building of Black Panther, cinematographers don't just light the way, they also serve as visual translators — gauging a director's intent, working with production designers to bring spaces to life, and making room for actors to step into their roles. "I think it's different for each of us, of course, but it's that sort of magical collaborative environment," says If Beale Street Could Talk cinematographer James Laxton. To get to that point, these pros become not only seers but eavesdroppers. "There's a lot of listening that goes on," explains BlacKkKlansman's Chayse Irvin. When the process gels, adds Black Panther's Rachel Morrison, "You almost become a family, especially with the people that you have a shorthand with."
At the invitation of The Hollywood Reporter, Laxton, 37; Irvin, 34; and Morrison, 40, joined Cold War's Lukasz Zal, 37; First Man's Linus Sandgren, 46; and A Star Is Born's Matthew Libatique, 50, at a Los Angeles studio to talk shop, to describe their working methods and even spill some trade secrets — from how all those outer space vistas were captured in camera (as opposed to relying on greenscreen) for First Man to how they grabbed some of those concert shots in A Star Is Born. And while all those present admitted that they aim to create the best possible image for their movies' theatrical presentations, they also debated their mixed feelings about the undeniable reality that many viewers will ultimately see their work on iPads — and even iPhones.
What is still most misunderstood about being a cinematographer?
LINUS SANDGREN It's not only the visual storytelling or the camera moves and lighting, it's all the things around that.
JAMES LAXTON It's that collaborative process. I think it's different for each of us, of course, but it's that sort of magical collaborative environment.
Let's talk about the collaborative process in the case of If Beale Street Could Talk. James, you knew director Barry Jenkins and some key members of the crew from Florida State University.
LAXTON I call it a dialect. It's like a language that we all speak from learning the craft together at the same time. And I think within the dialect is when you have slang. You can speak rather specifically and rather uniquely. It's something that I think is unique to growing up and learning something together.
How do you develop it with someone new? Matty, how did you do it with Bradley Cooper?
MATTHEW LIBATIQUE You just have to spend time talking and getting to know them and being keenly aware of what they are saying. Maybe in some cases they're saying something, but they mean something else, and you just have to be in tune with it. And that's with every department.
CHAYSE IRVIN There's a lot of listening that goes on. And those conversations are things that you pick up. I don't really talk that much in prep. I just kind of consume as much as possible.
LUKASZ ZAL It's a lot of watching and talking. With [Cold War director Pawel Pawlikowski], we spent a half of a year preparing, every day at his apartment, just watching films, talking, going through the script. Not only talking about film but talking about life. Later on, when we were on the set, we exactly knew what we wanted. We had a shorthand.
IRVIN The prep is a process of the collaboration and those conversations becoming a part of your DNA. And then during the execution of the film, a lot of these things are coming out of you unconsciously because you've spent so much time consuming and discussing and debating certain ideas.
RACHEL MORRISON DNA is a good term for it because you almost become a family, especially with the people that you have a shorthand with and have grown up with. I feel like [Black Panther's] Ryan [Coogler] is my brother and Hannah [Beachler], the production designer, is my sister. You start to think intuitively in the way that they would [think].
SANDGREN Going from La La Land with Damien [Chazelle, we had] a base of our collaboration. [For First Man] he wanted to do a realistic film basically that happens to go to locations that we couldn't possibly go to for real. Damien wanted to do this all in camera as much as possible, which we then discussed with the production designer, Nathan Crowley, and Paul Lambert, the visual effects supervisor. It obviously took a great deal of planning but also a great deal of time to prepare visual effects in preproduction.
You're talking about creating space sequences with LED walls.
SANDGREN Yes, exactly. We didn't use any greenscreen. We built a huge LED screen, on which we were doing basically rear-screen projection. It was a very bright LED screen that was a huge half circle that we put the [space] crafts inside. [By playing CG-created imagery of space on the screen], we could use it as in-camera [effects] and as lighting. That took time for visual effects people to create, so we were planning together with producers and the first AD, Scott Robertson.
Because you have a lot of options in post and then some people will be watching on mobile devices, not just in the theater, is it more difficult to maintain creative intent?
SANDGREN People are going to watch it on a bad TV, or whatever, later. You can only aim for how it actually looks in the perfect way. I'd rather try to make it look, as much as possible, great for the best release.
IRVIN But I'm not really mad at what's happened, with people watching it on iPads and iPhones. I actually really like how it looks.
MORRISON I don't know that I would agree that I love the idea of people watching it on an iPad, but I love the idea of people watching it. Mudbound [for which Morrison earned a 2018 Oscar nomination] had a very limited theatrical release, but more people saw it by virtue of it being streamable than ever would have seen it in a theater. Would I have preferred for them to have a theatrical experience? Very much so.
IRVIN There is a really specific cinematic emotion that you experience in the theater that can never be re-created.
LIBATIQUE I agree with Linus. I shoot for the premiere; I shoot for the release. And after that, you just go through that process where you're doing every version after that, because you know it's going to be on an iPad or it's going to stream, and you just have to monitor it all. … I think that there are a lot of different obstacles in post now. Maybe not obstacles, but opportunities, for us to get disconnected to the final result because of all the stages, especially when you're doing a lot of visual effects. So it has become harder for us to stay in touch. It's incumbent upon us to stay in it and make sure everybody knows that we're still interested in every single thing that's going to happen so that when we get to the DI [digital intermediate], we're finishing the movie properly.
SANDGREN With First Man, [VFX supervisor] Paul Lambert was sending me links and footage to review. I asked to be involved. If you tell them, "I'm going to prioritize being part of your postproduction," they're usually just happy, I think.
IRVIN I did a film in Italy a few years ago, and when I got off the plane and was headed to the DI they told me there was a different colorist than who I had hired. After three days, I pulled the plug on the whole thing. About two months later, I came back and colored the whole thing myself because they wouldn't hire anyone else. I feel doing Klansman totally cleansed. (Laughter.) It was very respectful.
Rachel, in Black Panther, the fight that breaks out in the casino is shot to look like one take. How did you pull that off?
MORRISON Originally, it was one continuous take. Ryan had a very clear vision of what he wanted. And Marvel was nervous about it, not even about whether we could pull it off — because I think they had faith that we could figure that out — but rightfully, they're used to "cuttier" movies. Panther, by all accounts, was not that. But even we realized that we had so many characters that we needed to know where they were going to be at different points, that it couldn't really exist as a one-r [one continuous take] because you had to understand their relationship to one another in the space. There's a version where the whole scene is one shot. And in the end, it was probably six or seven cuts in the edit, and that was just out of necessity for better storytelling. But the nice thing about this — and this is probably the only time I will ever get to do this in my life — is we designed the set around the one-r. So we built columns to support cable cams and figured out the stunts first and literally designed the set so that we could make the camera moves work within it, which is pretty unusual.
IRVIN Did you spend a lot of time rehearsing?
MORRISON Yeah. It was several days rehearsing, and then we had one initial day where we went in with a cable cam and kind of just figured it out.
IRVIN Is that all in preproduction or is it in production?
MORRISON That was in production; the set wasn't built in preproduction. I think that was maybe on a Saturday after shooting for five days. There was a lot of that. We would end up leapfrogging — sets get built concurrently, you wrap for the day and then you go scout the next set, and you spend a Saturday figuring things out.
IRVIN Wow. How do you have the stamina to keep going ?
MORRISON Well, thankfully, Marvel does 10-hour days. For me it was never 10 because we would do things — scouting or whatever — after, but it was not a 12-hour shoot day plus scouting. I really appreciated that, because on some days I actually made it home to tuck my son in at night. It was French hours. So there was a working lunch.
SANDGREN I did it in London and found it more efficient.
Let's talk about a few more movies. Chayse, what was the most challenging scene in BlacKkKlansman to shoot and why?
IRVIN It was the very first scene in the film with Alec Baldwin. We shot that in preproduction. I was still testing ideas. I had collected a bunch of different things. I brought in some 16 millimeter stock, black-and-white, I found some Ektachrome that was in somebody's garage in L.A., and we had all these toys to play with on the day. And I hadn't really worked with Spike [Lee] on the film until this point. And we were just doing a lot of improvising. It's such a racist scene in the film, and it was a very weird energy on the set. At one point, I remember Spike being like, "Let's do him up against the projector," and I found a tinted print of Birth of a Nation, I think we got it from MoMA, and so I had done a bunch of tests with it and really loved the colors that were expressed in it. So Spike knew I had the Ektachrome there; he's like, "Let's shoot this on Ektachrome." But I hadn't tested anything and had no idea the condition of the stock. And I knew we were only going to get one chance at it, but I did it anyway.
So you had Alec for one day?
IRVIN Yeah. I thought it was going to be my last day, too.
LIBATIQUE That's the beauty of film, right? (Laughter.)
IRVIN But I'm thankful we did it, and, thankfully, Tom Poole, the colorist, is a master at scanning, and he collaborated with Efilm to scan the Ektachrome in a really specific way. It's beautiful, I think.
James, for certain sequences in Beale Street, you used close-ups of the actors looking directly into the camera. Would you discuss that approach?
LAXTON That's something Barry and I have done a few times. There's a few moments in Moonlight that we do that. We choose them sparingly, and much of the decision-making process as to how we go there happens in the moment when we're on set — whether that's just the emotion that the actor is giving us or whether the context brings us to a level of emotional intensity. It comes down to a real, immediate engagement with the audience.
MORRISON Were you ever nervous that breaking the fourth wall was going to take the audience out as opposed to putting them in?
LAXTON I don't know that I ever balked at it. I try to be as sensitive as I possibly can to performance. I already feel like I'm part of that scene as a cinematographer. And so in a weird way I've never even thought of it as breaking the fourth wall because I've always felt like my camera has already been there.
Matty, were the concerts the toughest scenes in A Star Is Born?
LIBATIQUE Yeah, I would say so. We shot so many performances in different places. Bradley wanted to keep the camera on the stage, and he didn't want to see the audience's perspective. I said, "Great — but that's how I light a stage show." So I set an overall design from the proscenium view and then re-engineered it so it would work on the stage.
When you shot at Glastonbury, is it true you only had three minutes onstage and didn't know that until you got there?
LIBATIQUE Yes. We had enough time to shoot two takes of just the first verse and the chorus. So it was a little harrowing. But the interesting thing is [Metallica drummer] Lars Ulrich was with us. So I'm sitting at dinner the night before and Lars Ulrich says, "If you need another camera operator, I'm down." I look at him, I'm like, "What? You operate a camera?" He's like, "Yeah, I could do it." And I had two cameras because I knew I didn't have a lot of time. I said, "OK, I'm going to do the first take on my own, but when I come back I'm going to give it to you like it's a guitar and you're going to follow me out there, but just don't bump into me." The first thing he does is he goes left and I go right and he bumps into me. (Laughter.) And then we shot the thing and I said, "How did you do?" And he says, "It rocked." That was fun.
SANDGREN I once shot a music video with Lenny Kravitz when I was on the stage with a fisheye [lens] on a Hi8 camera, believe it or not, but this was a long time ago. I was running around him and I bump into the guitarist in his solo. It was really embarrassing. But I was so immersed in the scene.
MORRISON But when you have a limitation, for whatever reason, sometimes it's the most organic work that you do because it's so instinctual. I have documentary roots, probably a lot of us do, and you start telling a story with one camera really fast. Sometimes that's the thing that's so transportative for an audience. Whether people realize it, there is an artificiality to a wide shot and then two close-ups because, on a subconscious level, you know that an actor is performing the same thing three times or that you have three cameras on it.
IRVIN The constraints are really important, for sure. They say an artist reaches their apex when they stop doing anything voluntarily and instead do everything necessary. I feel like when you're slammed into that situation and you have nothing but your instincts to work off of, truth becomes part of the image. It's just whatever is coming out of you, you have no choice.
ZAL We had one scene in Berlin. It was hard because we decided to shoot it in the magic hour [just before sunset]. I think everybody has this, directors and also DPs, that under pressure you really make decisions [quickly]. There's no time to stop.
LAXTON I've become quite addicted to this level of gambling. It's in those moments of being so unsure of what's going to happen — whether it's the sun going down, trying a new film stock or a new technique — it's through all that energy and that kind of conflict that stuff happens that makes the movie the best thing you could make it.
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.