How Cinematographers Captured the Emotional Scenes in Contenders From 'Moonlight' to 'Lion'

10:30 AM 2/10/2017

by Carolyn Giardina

Five masters of the image captured charged dramatic moments — from a brutal crucifixion to a teary-eyed village homecoming.

  • Moonlight

    James Laxton

    David Bornfriend/A24

    "There's a precision and thoughtfulness that I'm very proud of," says Laxton of the way he used the camera to create tension in a pivotal scene in Barry Jenkins' coming-of-age film Moonlight, in which the adult Chiron, played by Trevante Rhodes, nervously visits a Miami diner to reconnect with his childhood friend Kevin, portrayed by Andre Holland. "There's a tension to the scene. Are they still the same people? That mystery was something we were looking to express with various techniques — handheld shots, telephoto lenses. When I see a shot with a telephoto lens, it's almost a study of a face; you see the twitches and small movements that make emotional performances. I think that's what they are doing in that scene — asking questions and trying to find out about each other. So the lens expresses what they are doing — the study of each other."

  • Silence

    Rodrigo Prieto

    Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

    Martin Scorsese's 17th century epic Silence, about Jesuit missionaries risking all to spread the word of God in Japan, was shot mostly on film in Taiwan. "The crucifixion of three Japanese villagers on a rocky shore is a very powerful moment in the film and was very challenging to shoot," notes Prieto. "Scorsese wanted to have the crosses placed in a spot where the waves crashed against the rocks, resulting in a very dramatic image, but it was way too dangerous to film with actors. We came up with the idea of shooting the low-tide scenes at the actual location with the crosses at the edge of the rocks and then the high-tide scenes in a water tank that had been used by Ang Lee [on Life of Pi] in Taiwan, where we could create the waves that crash into the crucified villagers safely and then add the background with the help of VFX. I think the result is stunning."

  • Arrival

    Bradford Young

    Paramount Pictures

    One source of inspiration for Denis Villeneuve's sci-fi film was Scandinavian photographer Martina Ivanow, specifically her nearly monochromatic Speedway series about speedway racing. "The photographs are stylized in some ways, but very subdued and natural and dark and mysterious. Not darkness as not seeing, but darkness as pathology. The darkness is deeply psychological," Young has said, adding that he and Villeneuve wanted Arrival to be "dark in a way that makes us a little uncomfortable." Color was used strategically as a contrast to that darkness. "It was never really a striking palette — like, these are the colors you're working with," said Young. "But one of the main colors in the film that really stands out is the orange of the hazmat suits. We surrounded the hazmat suits in colors that would allow them to become objects within their own [right]." Arrival was photographed with the Arri Alexa using "different kinds of lenses throughout the film. Even within a scene we'd switch. Different lens manufacturers have their own particular personality," he said. "That brings that imperfect, massively naturalistic feel to the film."

  • La La Land

    Linus Sandgren

    Courtesy of Lionsgate

    Sandgren used magic hour (that brief period of soft light that happens at both sunrise and sunset) in several scenes in Damien Chazelle's musical, including the two-minute uninterrupted Steadicam shot of Ryan Gosling singing "City of Stars" (one of two Oscar-nominated songs from the film) on the Hermosa Beach Pier. "We wanted to be out there a little ahead of time and started rehearsals around 6 p.m.," says Sandgren. "Between 7 and 7:50, we did about 15 back-to-back takes without a break. And we dressed the pier with streetlights with a green light. By doing that, we could clean up the skin tones and add magenta to make the sky a little more pink." A tricky aspect of the shot is that the camera moves 360 degrees. Notes Sandgren, "There were at least seven people on the crew behind the Steadicam trying not to cast shadows or disturb the actors!"

  • Lion

    Greig Fraser

    Courtesy of Mark Rogers/ Long Way Home Productions/The Weinstein Company

    As Garth Davis' film draws to its conclusion, a now-adult Saroo (best supporting actor Oscar nominee Dev Patel) returns to the village in India where he lived before becoming lost as a child, and there he is reunited with his mother. Fraser says the emotional scene was filmed over two days on location in India, with the aim of creating an almost documentary-like look. "We wanted it to feel very spontaneous," says the cinematographer (who also shot the 2016 release Rogue One: A Star Wars Story). "We did a lot of handheld because it felt more immediate and interesting than a designed camera shot. You are experiencing it the same way the actors are experiencing it. The extras were mostly local villagers. We had an AD telling them what was happening so that we got a lot of genuine, emotional reactions. We also tried to use as much natural lighting as possible and remove as much equipment as possible. We used very small, inconspicuous LED lighting."