Six leading lensers — including César Charlone, Natasha Braier, Rodrigo Prieto and Robert Richardson — discuss how to shoot an eight-and-a-half-minute take, when to create a digital sun and the shots that make movie magic: "We had to be invisible."
"You try to be as invisible as possible, because all this paraphernalia and lighting can be distracting for actors," says Rodrigo Prieto, 54, of working on Martin Scorsese's The Irishman. Also sharing their trade secrets in The Hollywood Reporter's Sept. 29 cinematographer roundtable in downtown Los Angeles was Roger Deakins, 70 (1917 and The Goldfinch), Caleb Deschanel, 75 (The Lion King), Robert Richardson, 64 (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), César Charlone, 61 (The Two Popes), and Natasha Braier, 44 (Honey Boy). Diversity (and the lack thereof) was discussed, with Mexico-born Prieto saying, "The seeds are being planted right now. I find that [what] I appreciate about the film business [is] that I don't feel the borders that might exist in other businesses." Braier reports that she's seeing more women who are navigating how to be "in that position of power directing the ship, but from a different, more feminine approach." Other topics covered were the impact of new technology and Quentin Tarantino's margarita-making skills.
Let's start by talking about your key relationships with directors. Bob, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was your sixth film with Tarantino. Tell us how that relationship works.
ROBERT RICHARDSON He was in remarkably strong and bright spirits, which is evident if you watch the film: It has a luminous quality to his direction. So this was one of my best years with Quentin, though I really haven't had a bad one.
What was the initial conversation or meeting like?
RICHARDSON I showed up at his house, and there was a margarita. He makes a fantastic margarita. (Laughter.) The script was 170 pages long at that point. I'm making notes because it was so far out of my league in terms of all the references to the past — television shows, entertainers, singers, pieces of music. Quentin never once left the room, and his eyes were on me the entire time, which is rather an uncomfortable position to be in. (Laughter.) When I finished it, I was like, "Uh, Quentin, could I have the last act?" He said, "No, you're not going to get that until later." And then we had dinner. I went home a little bit inebriated but also tremendously excited by the script.
CÉSAR CHARLONE [Fernando Meirelles and I] have a very close collaboration. A friend of ours visited us on City of God and said, "Is everything OK with Fernando? Because I don't see you guys speaking." We don't need to. Because we had talked so much that I knew what he wanted. We developed this habit of hours and hours of going through everything, references, and I bring books. Today, you bring links. We see this and that and do notes. In this film, we had a very long sequence in a garden, 11 pages, so we took dummies to the set and started doing storyboards — "photo boards," we called them. It's us in the garden with nobody asking questions, just time to think, play around and say, "How about if he comes from here?" and I love that. I try to have as much decided as I can before I go on set so I don't interfere with director-actor relationships so much.
RODRIGO PRIETO For Marty [Scorsese], the camera "writes" in a way. Every camera angle has a meaning to it. If the camera moves or doesn't, there is always a reason for that. He does extensive shot listings and diagrams and drawings and shares those with me. And he pretty much sticks to it. With The Irishman, he wanted it to have this sense of the routine of this man who is a killer, much less fancy camerawork. Also, he thought that this should be like a home movie, but not Super 8 or grainy 16 or handheld. So how do you do a home movie if you don't do any of those things, right? (Laughter.) But then that's how I thought to emulate still photography of the '50s and '60s and the emulsions of those different eras.
CALEB DESCHANEL I'd known Jon [Favreau] because my daughter Zooey had done Elf with him. But I was concerned about it being like taking some kind of calculus or analytic geometry class, because it's all going to be done in computers. And he assured me that he really was interested in me doing it because of the reality that I've brought to films over the years, from The Black Stallion on. Then I met with Rob Legato, the visual effects supervisor, and there were these tools that were very much like the tools I'm used to. There was a camera, it was a virtual camera, and there were virtual dollies; you would go into a 3D space, and it was like your reality. We ended up going to Africa for a couple of weeks and did a lot of background material to feed us on what the reality was like in Africa. We started looking at modern documentaries, like Planet Earth II and things like that, and the things that they do and how close they get to the animals. I have to say it was really so much more fun than I expected.
Roger, you reteamed with Sam Mendes to make 1917, and for The Goldfinch, you worked with John Crowley. Would you talk about those relationships?
ROGER DEAKINS When I first worked with Sam, it was on Jarhead . It was like I was back shooting documentaries again, and with Revolutionary Road  and Skyfall , it was totally different.
On 1917, it was totally different again because of the style of the film [to appear as one continuous take]. We didn't do storyboards or anything, but we shot rehearsals on a little run-and-gun video camera, and we started doing it with the camera [to] get the sense of timing and the flow of the whole film. So every film that I've done with him has been very different.
With John, the biggest problem was the translation of the book. There's been quite a bit of criticism because some people seem to have never liked the book, but we weren't making the book. The film has to stand on itself. So that was our first discussion.
Natasha, what was it like to work with Shia LaBeouf as lead actor, but also writer?
BRAIER Shia is method. So a month before we started shooting, he was living in a motel and channeling his dad. He would come on set just before we started shooting; sometimes we wouldn't even have a rehearsal and we'd just roll the camera. We couldn't prep, because we could not tell him what to do. We had ideas like he should be here and the kid should be there and the window is there to have a good light, because [director] Alma [Har'el] wanted something very real and raw, but she also wanted me to bring my emotional lighting to the equation. But I didn't know where he was going to go, so I had to be ready for 360 and at the same time not go super flat.
You used dimmers so that you could adjust the lighting?
BRAIER Yes, because also we had to be far away from Shia. As he's doing it, he is understanding his father, he is forgiving his father, there's so much going on. We had to be as invisible as possible. All the money we had, which was nothing, we put in wireless devices. So I was outside the room on a monitor with my dimmers, like a deejay. I had to make the decisions in the moment, and most of the time, he would just do it once without rehearsal.
Roger, in 1917, there's what looks like one continuous shot to capture a sense of real time. How was that done?
DEAKINS The longest take was about eight and a half minutes, pretty long, and the camera is always moving. There were some very complex setups. The whole key to it was preproduction. I think we actually came in under schedule — which is probably the first film I've ever been on, apart from a Coen brothers movie, that's been under schedule — because we were so prepped. We shot a lot of tests early on with different pieces of equipment and figured which equipment we wanted for each particular section of the film, and did a lot of rehearsals technically and with the actors. The key was how you're going to join it up from location to location and move to move without everything just being a wipe on a tree or something. Some of it is Steadicam, quite a bit is this Arri Trinity rig — a stabilized system but an arm, so the operator can move it, but part of it is remotely operated.
Rodrigo, you used a specific rig for Irishman scenes involving digital effects work on Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. Can you describe it?
PRIETO There was this requirement that the actors for maybe half of the film had to look younger, requiring CG face replacement and things. ILM developed this way of achieving it where each angle, each camera, would need two witness cameras. That meant that every camera set up had three cameras on the head or remote head or Steadicam, whatever it may be. So we had to figure out how to make that nimble and lightweight enough to function and to not limit in any way the style of the movie. In scenes where we're shooting with three cameras, that actually meant nine cameras, and each camera with a focus puller. So it became a big rig. As Natasha was talking about, you try to be as invisible as possible, because all this paraphernalia and lighting can be distracting for actors. Scorsese really respects the actors' opinions and choices, so you just have to be ready.
RICHARDSON Now I understand why you had three ACs for each camera. So you're changing your lenses for each one?
PRIETO Yes. Then pulling focus for each one.
PRIETO [to Deschanel about Lion King] I have a question about the lighting. I know you can place the sun wherever you want, but it's always been my dream to be able to light the place, do you know what I mean? You might have the sun, but then everything else is bouncing off of furniture and grass and trees. Is there something you use as tools when …
DESCHANEL Absolutely. Lots of times when you do a movie in live action outside, you're shooting over a whole day a scene that takes place in five or 10 minutes. So you'd think it would be a perfect opportunity to be able to put the sun in and leave it there. Well, when we would change shots, we would always move the sun. We were literally doing what we all do in a real-life situation, where I would turn around and I would see this flat light and wouldn't like it and I would move the sun around. One of the things is that the tools within our virtual space would respond to anything that was in there. So if you had the sun in one place and a tree, it would cast a shadow. Part of my job was to sit with the lighting director and pull trees out until we got the shadows and light we wanted.
César, you took inspiration from Michelangelo and other artists. How did that apply to shooting the Sistine Chapel set?
CHARLONE We had a big chunk of the movie in the Sistine Chapel set. The art of that period was very present in other things, like the film starts with the camera going through a slum painted with graffiti that look like frescoes, they are flat.
That was the image approach. There is a period of painting when Botticelli and all of them, they were not worried about light — light comes 100 years after with Caravaggio and Rembrandt. So we go to the 1400s, 1500s, where it's a flat reality. You are shooting a film in temples and churches, so the temptation is shafts of light with smoke and harsh light. And we said no, it's not about that, it's about them integrating to this flat reality.
RICHARDSON Postproduction is pretty important — we are all driving more and more toward postproduction.
CHARLONE Yeah, I had an excellent colorist, Harriet Hick. We started six months prior, playing with every color. Every location, I'd shoot a little and we'd go into the color suite and do this dialogue with the production designer. Because we are not going to paint with light, we are going to paint with a mouse. (Laughter.)
DESCHANEL It's part of our lives now.
Bob, tell us about creating 1969 Hollywood.
RICHARDSON I'd sort of been in that path a bit before with The Doors . If we have a great production designer and production design, we're going to shoot the best-looking film we can possibly shoot. Barbara Ling did a phenomenal job in creating that time period. And along with Quentin's mind in terms of the details, it was all provided to you. It's more about putting the camera in the right place to try to capture that.
Some areas you couldn't control, like Spahn Ranch.
RICHARDSON Yeah, I had no control over Spahn Ranch. It was very difficult. I got three or four days on a set and the weather is shifting between hard sun, side light, top light, backlight.
DESCHANEL Fooled me. I love that Spahn Ranch sequence. It's one of the great sequences in the movie.
RICHARDSON It's hot and white, very California light.
Natasha, there's still a limited number of women as directors of photography. How did you break in?
BRAIER Things are changing a lot. I was in film school in England — the same school as Roger, actually [National Film School] — at the end of the '90s, when there weren't so many women. There weren't many role models for me to see. I knew Ellen [Kuras] was doing stuff and Agnès Godard, but I didn't have access to see them doing this job. Everyone was trying to find how do you do it. Not so much in the artistic expression of the job, but more in terms of how you navigate a set that is organized in such a patriarchal, military paradigm and how can you be in that position of power directing the ship, but do it from a different, more feminine approach. It took a long time to be able to find my voice and free myself from trying to prove that I could be very strong and do handheld and all those things. The women that are just starting, they get people like me and Rachel [Morrison, of Black Panther] and all my colleagues to come to their film school and talk to them. And they get to see our work out there, interviews. They might navigate it in an easier way. It's going to be interesting to see what happens in 10 and 20 years when we're really more 50-50.
DESCHANEL When you came out of film school, did you start shooting right away?
BRAIER Yes. We were six students, and everyone was a focus puller that wanted to become a DP and went to film school.
DESCHANEL To me, that's an interesting change because now there are film schools where they're training people and they come out of the film schools and are already shooting movies — it makes a big difference than people having to work their way up within a union structure that existed in the past. Which I think is great.
BRAIER Yeah. When you are going up the ladder, it's amazing because you get to learn from other DPs. I never had the experience to be on any of your sets, and I would have loved that.
PRIETO Talking about diversity, I think the seeds are being planted right now. We're Latin America, Europe, United States, right here in this room. I appreciate about the film business that I don't feel the borders that might exist in other businesses. I feel a huge camaraderie: We're constantly traveling, working with crews in different countries and realizing how much the same we all are.
RICHARDSON Also, everybody at this table has grown out of a history of film. A generation now very rarely goes backward in time to look at films. I don't know if I could be a filmmaker if I hadn't seen the work of Bernardo Bertolucci or Orson Welles.
DESCHANEL The French New Wave was certainly what influenced me. You looked at it and you can take a camera and go anywhere in the world. If you have a story to tell, you tell it with just a camera.
CHARLONE I see the new generation researching and going back. The other day, kids 16 years old were talking about Battle of Algiers and [saying,] "I saw it on YouTube."
DEAKINS I was at a film school not that long ago, and some of the students had never seen Dr. Strangelove and didn't know who Andrei Tarkovsky was. I found that actually chilling.
What do you think about the quantity and quality of stories that you have access to these days?
PRIETO With streaming, there is a greater variety of possibilities for filmmakers. I never imagined that I would do television. Now, it's a very interesting medium. I have done a couple of pilots, and the scope is broadening. But I'm disconcerted because the type of movies I like to do has been reduced enormously.
RICHARDSON It's interesting: Amazon and Netflix are three of us here. But with Once Upon a Time, Quentin was able to hit over $100 million in the States on an R-rated film. That to me was a nice sign that people are willing to come for a good film.
Roundtable edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.