'Nocturnal Animals,' 'Cafe Society' Cinematographers Reveal How They Up the Emotional Ante With Their Art

8:30 AM 12/14/2016

by Carolyn Giardina

From the swank nightclub in Woody Allen's period romance to 'Moonlight's' sexually charged Miami Beach, these masters of photography spill secrets of their craft.

Nocturnal Animals and Cafe Society - Split-Publicity -H 2016
Courtesy of Merrick Morton/Focus Features; Lionsgate



  • Nocturnal Animals (Focus Features)

    Tom Ford's psychological thriller weaves together three stories, each given a distinctive look by two-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Atonement), who shot on film.

    The first part of the movie follows Susan (Amy Adams), a lonely art gallery owner. "We see sparseness, loneliness. It had to have a symmetry, [be] colorless, [with a] low-contrast, anemic aspect to it," says McGarvey. "We photographed it initially in a grand big house in Los Angeles with very little camera movement, until the manuscript from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives. That lack of color is broken when she cuts her finger on the package. Suddenly there's this vivid red — a harbinger of doom. Within the three sections are talismanic, graphic elements."

    Susan begins reading the story within the story — about a family taunted by three punks while driving on a stretch of empty road — which was shot in the Mojave Desert. "We opted to go for a consciously chromatic look: colorful, more primaries," says McGarvey. "For the night, we increased the contrast; we wanted to make it really inky." McGarvey says he took cues from Richard Misrach's photo series, Desert Cantos, a framed work of which hangs in Susan's house (above).

    In the third section, also shot in L.A., Susan recalls happier times with Edward. "We looked at some Nouvelle Vague films, not for color but the levity and momentum of the camera — something that had a bit more optimism."

  • Cafe Society (Amazon/Lionsgate)

    For Woody Allen's 1930s-set story of Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) — who seeks his fortune in Hollywood, where he falls in love with a secretary (Kristen Stewart) — three-time Oscar-winning Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now) created various visual styles that give movement to each of the film's chapters.

    "For the first part, set in the Bronx, I tried to use a monochromatic, desaturated color with a low tonality of light, inspired by the photography of Alfred Stieglitz and some work from Georgia O'Keeffe that she did about New York," he says. "My inspiration sometimes is just the beginning of something. You don't reproduce it, but [maybe it's] a feeling to stay in a visual aspect."

    There's a warmer look as Dorfman arrives in Hollywood. "I always loved that relationship — it's like winter and summer," says Storaro. "I applied that concept in this project. In this part, I was inspired by the photography of Edward Steichen and the German expressionist painters. Once we established that this is the Bronx and this is Hollywood, when the leading character goes back to New York, we find another New York. This is the cafe society. We were showing that New York wasn't just the Bronx and the poor people; there was a social class that was going to dinner in tuxedos. So the luminosity became much higher, and it had a more sophisticated color tone inspired by the [art deco] paintings of Tamara de Lempicka."

    Toward the end of the film, shot with a Sony F65, Dorfman returns to L.A., circa 1940. Storaro says this time the tone was inspired by the work of Edward Hopper, "who pushed the light."

  • Moonlight (A24)

    For Barry Jenkins' Moonlight, which follows Chiron, a gay black man, through three stages of his life as he grows up in Miami, cinematographer James Laxton (Tusk, Medicine for Melancholy) says he wanted to create an immersive first-person experience for the audience. On various occasions, he achieves that by letting the actors speak directly into the camera and in close-up, giving the audience an intimate connection to the characters. In other instances, he lets the camera follow the characters from behind.

    When the camera moves, "we chose different approaches — Steadicam, dolly, handheld — based on the emotional chord we wanted to hit in keeping with what each character is feeling," says Laxton. "That's something Barry and I paid close attention to."

    Among his favorite scenes, Laxton cites the one in the final act when an adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) reunites with his childhood friend Kevin (Andre Holland) in a diner, as well as an earlier scene during which the two, as teenagers, meet on a beach one fateful night. Laxton says lighting the beach scene was a particular challenge: "There was just no light; we had to provide all of it."

    He shot Moonlight with an Arri Alexa, using anamorphic lenses, on location in Miami.

    Hollywood may just be discovering Jenkins, but Laxton has known him since the two were roommates at Florida State University. "He's always had a similar voice," says Laxton.

  • Live By Night (Warner Bros.)

    Ben Affleck wrote, directed and stars in the crime thriller, based on Dennis Lehane's best-seller of the same name, set during the '20s and '30s, about a World War I vet turned gangster.

    "We didn't want a period film. We tried to shoot a contemporary story, with the energy of a contemporary story, but inside a period," says three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson (JFK), who shot the movie with the Arri Alexa 65 large-format digital camera.

    The film begins in Boston and moves to Tampa, Fla. "Ben felt it was necessary to differentiate; he wanted a closer to black-and-white feel for Boston. He wanted to reduce the amount of color in Boston and give it an overcast sensibility, so that you are always within clouds. And then once you find Florida, there's an opening of brightness, the sun; the colors are more vivid. But those colors slowly shift back to the same Look Up Table [a blueprint for how colors will be processed] as we used for Boston, but now with more color. So what you are doing toward the end of the film is looking at something that had a lot of color, but reducing more color to a lesser palette so that the sensibility is that you are coming back to Boston, the earlier stages of his life."

    Another characteristic of Richardson's work, enabled by the Alexa 65 and his lens choices, was his approach to lighting: "I altered the way I lit sequences, reducing larger instruments with smaller instruments, like light bulbs. I tried more heavily to reduce the amount of obvious lighting." He also tells the story with some longer takes. Says Richardson, "Ben and I would consider how to shoot a sequence and map out the staging. They are not supposed to be noticeable; it's about making it invisible."

  • The Jungle Book (Disney)

    After deciding that making a movie with a small boy in an actual jungle would be impractical and near impossible, director Jon Favreau and the team behind this mostly computer-generated filmmaking feat employed the latest "virtual production" techniques used on such films as Avatar and Gravity and cranked them up a notch to make a naturalistic movie set in a photoreal CG jungle. "We'd first light the film in a computer. I put in the lighting, chose the lenses, camera moves — it's the same as live-action filmmaking; it's just done in a digital world," says cinematographer Bill Pope (the Matrix and Spider-Man trilogies), who shot the movie in native 3D with Arri Alexa cameras on a Cameron Pace 3D rig. "Once you have a pretty good idea of the movie in the digital world, we'd shoot Neel Sethi [Mowgli] on a bluescreen stage and match the photography of Mowgli with what I did in the computer.

    "Jon and I approached it so the viewer would feel like they were watching a movie made in India during this period," he continues. "We looked at a lot of outdoor-set movies and documentaries. We wanted the viewer to feel visually like they were there; we wanted the lens flares and human error in the camera movement — the immediacy so you were caught up in Mowgli's world. We only did shots that we could have done with conventional movie equipment to make the viewer really believe it. It has to have a realness — we didn't want it to look like a picture book."