'Two Popes' to 'Joker': How Cinematographers Captured the Sistine Chapel, Joker's Dance and More

11:59 AM 12/13/2019

by Carolyn Giardina

These pro DPs found the best way to capture knockout performances from Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, Joaquin Phoenix and Christian Bale.

Lights-Camera-Character-cinematography-inset -Warner Bros. Entertainment Publicity- H 2019
Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Entertainment (2)
  • 'Ford v Ferrari'

    James Mangold's longtime collaborator Phedon Papamichael (Oscar-nominated for Nebraska) helped create a thrilling, high-octane ride in Ford v Ferrari, the story of auto designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) as they work to build a race car for the Ford Motor Co. to take on Ferrari at the 24-hour Le Mans race in France in 1966. Papamichael stuck to the classics when it came to lensing the film. "Mangold decided that our film language should consist of more classic, traditional ways of capturing the action — no drone or aerial shots, no fancy crane or wraparound tracking shots," says the cinematographer, who also took inspiration from racing films such as Grand Prix and Le Mans. "We preferred to show the race through the perspective of Ken Miles."

    It was shot with ARRI Alexa LF (Large Format) cameras paired with Panavision anamorphic lenses — C-Series and T-Series, both "expanded" to cover the large-format sensor, Papamichael says, adding that he believes this might be the first time this was done for a motion picture.

    "We hard-mounted multiple cameras for close-up coverage of Bale and choreographed the action to unfold through his perspective," he says. Plus, they chose not to use vibration isolators for the cameras. "All the shaking camera in conjunction with the sound design helped to up the intensity of the race experience."

    To capture the thrill of the race, Papamichael also created point-of-view shots from the cockpit, through the windshield and as seen through the rearview mirrors. "All this helps the audience experience what it's like to be in the middle of the action," he says of the film, which was lensed primarily on locations around Los Angeles, plus in Georgia, with a day each near Monte Carlo and Le Mans. "It keeps you emotionally involved with the main character — and, by the way, it helps our actors' performances, since almost none of it was done onstage with a greenscreen."

    And while a "pod car" was used (in which the main car was rigged with a pod on the roof so a stunt driver could be in control of the car), Papamichael says that "all the actors got to go through the roller-coaster ride in our pod car, experiencing the actual G-forces of the Ford GT40 and Shelby Cobras taking turns on the track at 90 miles per hour."

  • 'Joker'

    For this character study, which centers on Joaquin Phoenix's Arthur Fleck as he transitions to the Joker, Lawrence Sher wanted to "shoot closer." The DP aimed for "really intimate proximity to the actors, which I think psychologically is subconscious, but it really matters to an audience. The audience senses differently, I think, when you're shooting an actor from 20 feet away versus if you're three or four feet away or closer even still." He adds of Phoenix: "When you have somebody performing at the level he's performing, you want to be close. You want to see the nuances."

    Sher, who has been collaborating with Joker helmer Todd Phillips since they teamed on 2009's The Hangover, took the approach to "light spaces, not faces" in order to give Phoenix full freedom to perform. "There probably won't be a rehearsal, and let's just discover it as we shoot," was his rationale.

    There were plenty of times when Sher had to be prepared to change the plan on the day, such as for a scene in which Fleck, who has just attacked some subway riders, runs into a bathroom. It's a pivotal point in the character's transformation. "He's supposed to run in there, see himself in the mirror and kind of digest what he just did and then hide this gun in a little hole inside the bathroom," says Sher. "And we're prepared to do that and that's fine, and Todd said, 'Nah, we're not going to do that.' "

    Instead, they lit the space, put A-camera operator Geoffrey Haley on the set with a handheld and basically without direction and played a piece of music by the film's composer, Hildur Gudnadóttir. Phoenix decided to dance. "It was not anything like what was written. It also was part of figuring out what this character is, how Joaquin's going to portray him. Does it need to be said or spoken or traditionally photographed, or can it be more expressive? And in this case it's an expressive, almost metamorphosis dance that he's doing, like a butterfly shedding its cocoon."

    Sher reveals that "most of that continuous take is in the movie. And once we did it once or twice, we did a tiny piece of coverage just with another angle or two, but effectively, that was it."

  • 'The Last Black Man in San Francisco'

    Made on a 25-day shooting schedule for just $2.5 million, the film follows two San Francisco friends, Jimmie (actor-writer Jimmie Fails) and Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), who attempt to reclaim the former's family home. "The visual style needed to be romantic, elevated and magical but at the same time very grounded and human," says cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra, who prepped for the production in just 10 days. He notes that "we tried to intercut [the dialogue scenes] with something that was flowing and elegant using montage." The opening scene, in which the leads are skateboarding, is used to establish the "romance" connecting Jimmie to the city and the house as well as his friendship with Montgomery. "While it's not postcard-beautiful all the time, the way they see the world is really beautiful, so there's a lot of slo-mo shots mixed with sunrise and vistas of the city."

  • 'Motherless Brooklyn'

    "It isn't black and white, so you could say it isn't pure noir, but we didn't really want to do that," says DP Dick Pope of filming Edward Norton's 1950s New York-set drama. The two-time Oscar nominee says he drew inspiration from still photos of New York in the period. "We took about eight quite famous stills of the era, and we reproduced them. It gives a real reality to the look of it, to reproduce something that was a part of 1958 — never as a scene, as a passing moment." A tricky sequence to light was an intimate one during which Norton's Lionel dances with Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in a jazz club. The location, notes Pope, was a tight space. "I couldn't get any big lights in," he recalls. "I had a lighting desk [outside the club]. Myself and the gaffer and a desk operator made something like 20 lighting changes as the camera goes around them to keep the mood. It was really complicated."

  • 'The Two Popes'

    César Charlone, an Oscar nominee for Fernando Meirelles' City of God, reteamed with his longtime collaborator on The Two Popes, an intimate story based on the transfer of power from Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) to Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce). The key to the film was the dialogue between the leads. "With Fernando, we had a tendency to say, 'Let's find a different way.' So, when you think of a film with churches and popes, a typical thing would be shafts of light, smoke coming through the windows — stuff like that. So, we said, 'OK, none of that.' "

    Instead, Charlone and his team looked at the works of painters such as Michelangelo. "How do they light? They don't — they flat-light. So I said, 'OK, how about we go in that direction?' " That was the approach to scenes shot on the Sistine Chapel set and for an 11-page sequence in a garden.

    But when it came to the flashbacks, Charlone went in a different direction. "I received a lot of archival footage and had to emulate the look. And then the flashbacks had to fit into that," he says. "So basically you had a fresco look for all the dialogue parts and then black-and-white and stuff for the flashbacks."

    For much of the film, the clerics are at odds, debating their perspectives on the Catholic Church, until at one point they find a way to connect in a scene that features a piano. "This is the harmonic part. So, how do we play harmony with two characters who have been fighting all night? Put them to colors that are opposite, to blend together," says Charlone, who used red and green light "blending softly in that piano sequence. So that's playing a little bit with light in order to tell the story."

    Overall, the focus was not letting the camera distract from the stars' performances. "With this dialogue and these two actors, we could just put one camera on a close-up on each one of them and we would have the film. It's very powerful dialogue and monster actors," he says.

    "When you think of dialogue, I think it's eyes, nose and mouth that tell the whole story. I know that body language is important. But in this triangle here, you have the whole story. So it was an option to do the tight close-ups, especially in certain moments where they were looking at each other. What they were saying with their eyes was as important as what they were saying with the dialogue."