Five cinematographers reveal how they shot key scenes in their films, from an emotional phone call in 'Three Billboards' to a face-off between a prime minister and a king in 'Darkest Hour.'
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
This frame shows the key moment when Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) meets with King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) for the first time, as he is about to become prime minister. "[The year] 1940 had the sunniest spring of that decade in Europe. And Buckingham Palace was totally blacked out, so the windows were boarded up and only a sliver of light [was] shown in the room," says Delbonnel. "Here the sliver is bigger than the actual one. It was important to show the room, which conveys a turning point. In order to see each other, they have to be near the windows." Delbonnel says director Joe Wright wanted to have each leader standing in a window, facing one another. "Churchill was trying to hide in some way — he wanted this position as prime minister but, on the other hand, didn't want it. Being in the light, facing the king, it is as if he has nowhere to hide. And they are equal in some way; they are both lit the same way in an equal position."
It was a cloudy day when this pivotal scene in Luca Guadagnino's film about first love was shot at the World War I memorial in Pandino, Italy. It's the moment when Elio (Timothee Chalamet) for the first time hints to Oliver (Armie Hammer) that he's romantically interested in him.
On the day of the shoot, there was concern that it'd be difficult to match the lighting from shot to shot. Mukdeeprom suggested laying a long dolly track across the square to capture the scene in one take. "Sometimes flexibility is the thing you need most, and it can even be the most important thing at times," says Mukdeeprom. "To get this scene in one shot was far more superior than what was planned." He adds that the longer take provides "a flow of emotion" that a cut scene could not. "It was even better when we placed Armie far away to another side, to be closer to Timothee, at the right exact moment, and then we let them meet again."
To follow the story of 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who lives in a motel outside of Disney World, "we wanted the film to look like ice cream, to see the world through the eyes of children," says Zabe. "The intention was to have the look and feel of the movie reflect the innocence, optimism and imagination through which kids view their world, even in the most dire circumstances." He says that focus allowed him to "concentrate on the essential subjects of the movie — love and friendship — without a distracting layer of a more complex and contextualized adult life clouding them." Zabe shot primarily with 35mm film for an "organic" look. As far as narrative style, the cinematographer and his crew used whatever tools he thought worked best for the scene, including handheld, lock off shots, pans, tilts, dollies and Steadicams. He says, "The only constant was keeping the camera low, in tune with the kids' point of view, looking up at the world."
Aaron Sorkin's drama follows the rise and fall of "poker princess" Molly Bloom, played by Jessica Chastain. In this shot, Molly faces the skyline of New York, where she'd built her poker empire. "She is faint, pale, merging into the sky," says Christensen. "This image supports the state of being that Molly is facing at this point in the story. The second after, she lets the blackout curtain drop." Chastain was filmed on a Toronto stage, and the window is the set of her character's New York apartment. "Outside is a greenscreen, underexposed slightly to not give any green spill on skin tones," says Christensen. The reflection was achieved with a 5K tungsten light through a light grid frame, overexposing two stops, to give enough light to capture Chastain's reflection. VFX house Mr. X was then able to merge her reflection with the Central Park view.
In this key scene, Mildred (Frances McDormand) receives a call from Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), in which he tells her that the man whom he thought was her daughter's murderer is not in fact that person. "Mildred is at the billboards, and it's a very emotional beat in the film," says Davis, who got the shot at twilight, on location in North Carolina. He adds that the hour was important because it's a very melancholic scene. "Twilight is an emotional time of day. I like the quality of light on Mildred's face; there's a softness," he says. "And we felt the camera needed to be in close proximity to her, so you can read exactly what is going on. As an audience, you need to be very present and feel what Frances is feeling."
Adds Davis, "There was only a brief window to get the shot while the sun set." He notes that it was filmed in a single evening, grabbing just a few takes in about 20 minutes. "For a scene like this, you do a rehearsal and have a specific plan. We tried to deliver something that is very natural, but that actually takes quite a bit of work."