Five DPs reveal how they captured emotion and character journeys, from 'Cold War's' turbulent black-and-white love story to an intense look at Vincent van Gogh in 'At Eternity's Gate.'
For their six-part Western — which was the first movie from Joel and Ethan Coen that used digital cinematography (an Arri Alexa) — the brothers reteamed with five-time Oscar-nominated French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, with whom they had worked on 2013's Inside Llewyn Davis. "The difficulty of this project was that we needed to do six different looks," Delbonnel says of working on the anthology.
"It was about this visual that we have of the American landscape based on paintings and illustrations," he explains, in keeping with the film's structure, done as if the viewer is paging through an illustrated book. "It's a vision of someone telling a story."
The 45-day shoot — mostly on location in Colorado, Nebraska and New Mexico — encountered bad weather, which made consistent lighting a challenge. Actors were featured in one chapter apiece, so they'd drop in only for a limited amount of time. For example, the chapter "Near Algodones," featuring James Franco, was shot in seven days.
"The Mortal Remains," which follows strangers stuck together in a stagecoach, was the trickiest chapter to light. "We decided to do this sunset through the whole thing," says Delbonnel, who programmed a computer to change the light. "We started with the orange light, and through the course of the scene we drifted to the moonlight." But even though the chapter was edited, it was shot as a continuous take. "For every take, we ran the entire length of the short film, 20 minutes."
Contrast was fundamental to the cinematography of Pawel Pawlikowski's black-and-white period romance (Poland's foreign-language Oscar entry), which in November earned Polish cinematographer Lukasz Zal the Silver Frog at the Camerimage cinematography festival. "[Contrast] is present in every layer, starting from the construction of the shot and the frame, all the way to the emotional temperature and the dynamics between the characters," says Zal, who also worked with Pawlikowski on the Oscar-winning Ida (2013). As the story progresses, the contrast increases, the lenses are longer and the camera moves more often, becoming more emotional and present."
Contrast also was a consideration in the choice to create the "iconic glamour" of black and white. "The reality is, Poland in the '60s was very gray. There was no color, and we wanted to draw from that," Zal says. "It was a much simpler time, less cluttered with distractions."
The shots are composed with a lot of headroom, Zal explains. "We often told the story in just one or two shots, having the camera up high, so that we could work with an in-depth composition and have many layers of what is happening onscreen, like in Citizen Kane. We wanted our images to tell stories about people and places, but at the same time we needed to find the best balance between them in every frame."
Words couldn't be relied upon to deliver the story in John Krasinski's A Quiet Place, which follows a family that must live in silence to avoid detection by predatory creatures that hunt by sound. And so Danish cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (Molly's Game) and Krasinski started off their discussions by considering how to tell a story where the visuals and (lack of) sound would be so critical.
"We discussed how we would photograph for sound," she says, explaining that close-ups would require the sounds of breathing or clothes moving, while wider shots would effectively be silent.
There were a lot of storytelling elements that needed close-ups, specifically with daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), who is deaf. "They required a certain closeness because we had to tell the story as she tries a new hearing aid," says Bruus Christensen. "We needed to jump into her head so we understand her disappointment when it doesn't work."
The film is shot in 35mm to capture the "epic" feel and the "soft, poetic, warm world" of the loving family. And anamorphic lenses were used for wide shots while spherical lenses were applied for interiors and sequences filmed at night.
To chronicle the later years of post-impressionist Vincent van Gogh, French cinematographer Benoit Delhomme (The Theory of Everything) lensed Julian Schnabel's At Eternity's Gate on location in Paris and Arles, the French village where van Gogh (played by Willem Dafoe) painted near the end of his life and created some of his most famous works. The movie offers a contrast between large scenic landscapes and close-ups of faces, mostly shot handheld with natural light, all taking inspiration from van Gogh's artwork.
Delhomme used camera movement to convey the painter's state of mind, particularly when he was confused or distraught. "We need to experience life as van Gogh did, so very early on I realized I needed a camera that was very mobile," he explains. "I didn't want the camera on my shoulder, because you can't walk as freely. I wanted to have the camera in my hands so I could see the world around me, so I could plan my next move. I wanted to be like Willem Dafoe's shadow."
To be mobile, Delhomme, who also operated the camera, used a lightweight Red Helium that was stripped of unneeded accessories. "I wanted to be able to carry the camera for five hours, in the field," he says. "I wanted to run with it. I worked with natural light as much as I could. When I was shooting inside, I would light through the window, as van Gogh would do."
To photograph this outrageous dramedy set in 18th century England, helmer Yorgos Lanthimos turned to Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan (2011's Wuthering Heights), who says the director recommended that he watch numerous films for inspiration. Those included Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract, Ingmar Bergman's Cries & Whispers and Milos Forman's Amadeus. "These all have strong visuals, and we were just watching stuff to get a sense of where we might go with our visual language."
The Favourite was shot on 35mm film and used ultrawide fish-eye lenses. "Yorgos had used wide lenses in shooting The Killing of a Sacred Deer and was keen to explore using them on The Favourite," Ryan says. "So we researched wide lenses and discovered the 6mm, which was a lovely piece of glass that helped illustrate the distorted, absurdist world of the queen's court."
He adds that Lanthimos referenced the convex mirrors that are in certain paintings, such as Jan van Eyck's portraiture "where you see the whole room distorted in the mirror. We loved the look they gave. It seemed the right choice for the language of this story."
Lanthimos also didn't want "conventional" coverage. "He's very keen on creating a specific language using unexpected angles. We shot from either extremely high or extremely low angles, with the camera's view wide enough to show all the action occurring in a room at once."
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.