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“I Get Emotionally Involved in Telling a Story”: DPs From ‘Avatar: The Way of Water,’ ‘The Fabelmans,’ ‘The Woman King’ and the THR Cinematographer Roundtable

Whether working side by side with cinematic masters, giving often-overlooked women’s stories a place of prominence or conjuring the exotica of Pandora, these directors of photography were motivated to tell compelling tales

Gather together a group of award-winning cinematographers, as THR did on Nov. 6 when it assembled a virtual roundtable that represents some of the year’s most visually striking films, and you might expect a lot of shop talk about lenses and camera rigs, or about the relative merits of live-action filmmaking versus the newest virtual production techniques. But while there was some of that, these lensers were most excited about discussing the emotion their work evokes. “I do the job because I get emotionally involved in telling a story and helping a director tell a story about a real world, a real situation that has something to say,” explained Roger Deakins, the director of photography on Sam Mendes’ semi-autobiographical memory piece Empire of Light. Other DPs this year were involved in similarly personal stories that reflected their directors’ experiences: Janusz Kaminski shot Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, while Darius Khondji lensed both Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths and James Gray’s Armageddon Time. Polly Morgan served on two films that put women center stage — Olivia Newman’s Where the Crawdads Sing and Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King. Mandy Walker reteamed with frequent collaborator Baz Luhrmann on Elvis, and Russell Carpenter traveled to the imaginary world of Pandora with James Cameron for Avatar: The Way of Water. Each used their craft and art, as Khondji put it, to steer the eyes of the audience in the right emotional direction.

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Many of you reteamed with directors you’ve worked with, while others were working with a director for the first time. What do you talk about when you first sit down with a director?

MANDY WALKER Well, [Elvis] is the fourth time I’ve worked with Baz Luhrmann. And he always is a stickler for preproduction and planning. We started talking about the movie really early on, in 2019, about the visual language of the film, and did a lot of research together. We wanted to reproduce the concerts, the ’68 [comeback] special for NBC in particular, and [Elvis’] first concert at the Hilton [International Hotel] in Vegas, meticulously. So we studied the camera angles and the lighting to reproduce the lighting as closely as I could get it, and even the lighting fixtures in that footage. And then we rehearsed with Austin [Butler, who plays Elvis] and the camera operators and the dolly grips and all the lighting department. We spent a good eight months in prep.

DARIUS KHONDJI That’s a long prep.

WALKER Yes. And we had COVID in the middle. A lot of the test footage that we did before we shot principal photography ended up in the movie.

Mandy Walker (left) frames a shot, alongside Baz Luhrmann, on the set of Warner Bros.’ Elvis.
Mandy Walker (left) frames a shot, alongside Baz Luhrmann, on the set of Warner Bros.’ Elvis. Courtesy of Hugh Stewart/Warner Bros.

Janusz, I’d imagine there was a lot of testing on The Fabelmans as well, since you had to create the different looks of not just the movie itself, but the films that Sammy, the movie’s young protagonist, is shooting.

JANUSZ KAMINSKI Yeah, we talked about how we’re going to put a Super 8 film on the little upright Moviola. We didn’t have that much prep, I think we did it in six weeks. The biggest issue was the size of the sets. Since this story deals with [Steven Spielberg’s] life and his actual homes where he grew up, the production designer meticulously designed homes that would resemble his — so, narrow, narrow hallways, small bedrooms, small living rooms, impossible effectively to film, right? Everyone was very strong about, “Well, it’s reality, it’s authentic.” But I would just say, “Did you have two dolly crews in the hallway? Did you have a sound man and all that stuff?” So we ended up making the sets a little bit bigger. And that was a very good choice. You know, the prep with Steven is really simple. He does his stuff, I do my stuff. We don’t talk much about the aim and approach. It’s all in the script. I need to be inspired by the script, I need to be inspired by the location. And I need to be inspired by the moment of the day. We talked about certain things, but really, the script was so clear. And the period was well stated in the script, [so] we didn’t really talk about it. And we’ve covered that time period so many times through so many movies. There are certain thematic and coloristic and compositional elements in this movie that we’ve done before.

Janusz Kaminski on the set of Universal’s The Fabelmans.
Janusz Kaminski on the set of Universal’s The Fabelmans. Courtesy of Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures And Amblin Entertainment

KHONDJI And you shot on film, Janusz?

KAMINSKI Yeah, we shot on film. A little bit on Super 8, but I shot on Super 8 more as a reference to what the Super 8 looks like. And we shot on 16 millimeter, and through manipulations I degraded the image to look more like 8 millimeter. It was a nice exercise in terms of trying to make that material look authentic.

KHONDJI Sounds really exciting.

Gabriel LaBelle as an aspiring filmmaker in The Fabelmans, shot by DP Kaminski
Gabriel LaBelle as an aspiring filmmaker in The Fabelmans, shot by DP Kaminski Courtesy of Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures And Amblin Entertainment

Darius, tell us about the visual style for Bardo.

KHONDJI The visual style for Bardo was so many things. It was all triggered by my first conversation with Alejandro [G. Iñárritu]. He was in Mexico and I was in Paris. He talks very much in depth about the character, the people, the feeling of the whole film. He was very articulate and intense, and you could tell it was a very important film for him. I just jumped on a plane and went to Mexico, and we had this long walk and more conversation. And then, like Janusz and Mandy were saying, we started doing the camera tests and lenses and stuff.

Left: Daniel Giménez Cacho as a filmmaker in crisis in Netflix’s Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths. Right: Jaylin Webb (left) and Banks Repeta in Armageddon Time. Both were lensed by Khondji.
Left: Daniel Giménez Cacho as a filmmaker in crisis in Netflix’s Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths. Right: Jaylin Webb (left) and Banks Repeta in Armageddon Time. Both were lensed by Khondji. Courtesy of Netflix; Anne Joyce/Focus Features

Tell us about shooting that club scene.

KHONDJI It was complicated, quite challenging. The lights and music are often very entwined together. It was very challenging to have the light movements following the actors. I never had encountered work like this [before], so it was very exciting.

And then, in contrast, your other movie this year was Armageddon Time, which was set in 1980 Queens.

KHONDJI Yes, it was a much smaller budget and a very intimate story on the life of James Gray, [the film’s director]. You could call it a coincidence, but both movies were about the life of the artist.

Roger, you also returned to the 1980s, with Empire of Light. Would you talk about the visual style for the film, which is set in England?

ROGER DEAKINS Well, it’s very naturalistic, semi-autobiographical. For Sam [Mendes], it was certainly very personal. It’s a small film, and the most important thing was to make it feel natural, create a real world. Which is kind of difficult because even though it’s 1981, the world’s changed a lot since 1981. Especially movie houses. What was really crucial was spending the time just talking about it, looking at different locations and finding the one that best suited the story. Really, that was the hardest challenge.

Roger Deakins, with his camera, explores a period cinema in Searchlight’s Empire of Light.
Roger Deakins, with his camera, explores a period cinema in Searchlight’s Empire of Light. Courtesy of Parisa Taghizadeh/Searchlight Pictures

And you ended up working in the town of Margate, right?

DEAKINS Yeah. Margate. The cinema we used is an abandoned cinema there. It wasn’t what Sam originally had in mind. It was kind of a challenge for him to accept this new version of the cinema he had in mind.

Polly, I know Gina Prince-Bythewood had a very specific look in mind for The Woman King.

POLLY MORGAN The Woman King was also a period movie. But unlike Janusz and Roger, I had a lot of space to light and set up cameras, being out in Africa. And I think [the kingdom of] Dahomey [within present-day] Benin was just naturally a very colorful place — very lush, a lot of jungles, and it had this really beautiful red earth. It was important for Gina to really lean into that color and keep the movie as authentic as possible. And with all these beautiful, dark-skinned women in that colorful environment, she really wanted to focus on lighting their skin in the most beautiful way, not only making them look strong and gorgeous, but also making sure that we could see them clearly. It was an interesting thing to work in the middle of Africa with not too many light sources, to try to use the fire to light the actors’ faces, and then you sort of wrap that fire in moonlight. I never wanted to make it feel overlit, but to make it feel as authentic and raw as possible.

KHONDJI The most difficult thing is to make it look real.

MORGAN It’s that fine balance. I would get notes from the studio saying, “It’s too dark.” I just had to stand my ground and say, “No, it’s not. Everything is going to be there.” And I really appreciated Gina standing by my side and backing me up and not bowing to the pressure that the studio sometimes can put on you.

You’re all smiling.

DEAKINS I laugh because I remember one of the last times I was shooting in Africa and getting notes from the studio saying my dailies were too dark and yellow. I thought, “What the hell are they talking about?” And I had to talk personally with the studio guy who was on the end of the phone, and I said to him, “Oh, well, where are you watching my dailies?” He said, “I’m in the back of my car on the Pacific Coast Highway.”

MORGAN Yeah, that’s what someone said to me. They said, “I’m in a car on the way to the airport and I’m on PIX” [a remote review and collaboration tool].

KAMINSKI From doing Amistad, there’s nothing more beautiful than a Black face to photograph. In Amistad, Djimon [Hounsou] was such a such a pleasure to light.

MORGAN Absolutely, it was so exquisite. Just the way that the color reflects off their skin. And like I said, we just had this massive amount of space, so we could use these big, beautiful, soft sources of light, and the way that the dark skin reflects those soft sources is just so beautiful.

Polly, you shot Where the Crawdads Sing as well. What was that experience like?

MORGAN I had read the book during the pandemic and fell in love with it because I grew up in the South of England, and we used to run around and get lost in nature. And it was just such an integral part of my growth as a filmmaker. So when I read this book about this young girl growing up alone in the marshes, it just resonated with me, and when I found out they were making a movie, I was so excited and did everything I could to just get into the room. And it really was just an amazing stepping stone to The Woman King, because I had to figure out how to work in the wilds of Louisiana and go out on these boats and photograph without being able to control the light or do much apart from storytelling with the camera. Both these movies have these strong female leads, and to work with some really great female directors — it was a good year.

Left: Daisy Edgar-Jones in Sony’s Where the Crawdads Sing. Right: Viola Davis leads a charge in Sony’s The Woman King. Both were shot by DP Morgan.
Left: Daisy Edgar-Jones in Sony’s Where the Crawdads Sing. Right: Viola Davis leads a charge in Sony’s The Woman King. Both were shot by DP Morgan. Courtesy of Michele K. Short/Columbia Pictures; Ilze Kitshoff/Sony Pictures

On the topic of executives reviewing dailies on PIX, do you have advice on how remote dailies systems should or shouldn’t be used, or is there something that could be further developed?

KHONDJI I can only say PIX looks really bad.

MORGAN Yeah, I tried to explain that it would be better to watch PIX in a darker environment, especially when you’re watching dark scenes. But it’s difficult to explain technical things to someone half a world away, and they don’t tend to want to listen, so I guess it’s just about the compression.

KHONDJI Yeah, it’s compression, right? Probably you have different compression. I’m doing a movie at the moment. Compression is really bad. It’s horrible.

Russell, we’re all excited to see Avatar: The Way of Water. What can you tell us about filming it?

RUSSELL CARPENTER So am I. All the post is being done in New Zealand, and I am going to see more footage next week. It’s somewhat surreal and hallucinogenic; you’re doing a project where the cinematographer’s role is very, very different. Everybody here was in on the project from the very beginning, but I inherited years and years of research and work that had been done in computers, worlds that have been developed. The movie is kind of made in layers. After the script’s done, environments are created that represent Pandora, the natural world, and another environment that represents this dominant, militaristic world. And my job is to bring all the human elements into what has gone before and do it in a seamless way. Of course, my nightmares were that my work was going to look like Son of Flubber or Viva Las Vegas, or whatever. When I was invited onto the project, it was “OK, let’s say this is a relay race. And now the baton goes to you,” so I had a year to blend into this process. I imagined I would start to analyze all this footage that had been shot, and the really weird thing was that there just wasn’t that much for me to look at. There weren’t cut scenes. It was more like looking through scraps and bits and being a bit of a detective to see what had been done. I thought they were gaslighting me. So it was a bit of detective work to finally get the information that I would need.

The Na’vis gather on Pandora in Avatar: The Way of Water, shot by Russell Carpenter
Avatar: The Way of Water Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

For the uninitiated, could you explain shooting on a virtual stage?

CARPENTER Basically, the entire world of Avatar is created inside a computer. And yet you can move around in that virtual environment. That is done on a stage with all these motion-capture cameras and motion sensors. They know exactly where Jim [Cameron] and his virtual camera are and they know where everything is in that environment. So he can go in and he can start blocking the scenes. When we actually get to the stages where we’re shooting, we’re basically replicating the environment on that shooting stage. In a lot of scenes, the lighting was very, very kinetic, especially in the battle scenes. All this is happening in the virtual world, and my job is to create a lighting effect. If it’s mistimed or if it’s coming from the wrong direction or if it’s the wrong color temperature, it just doesn’t cut the mustard. I was tasked with really paying attention to minutiae in that virtual world and then replicating that.

DEAKINS What’s the advantage of you actually shooting actors as live action and lighting the actors as you would in a standard set? Couldn’t they be lit in a computer?

CARPENTER I don’t think we’re there yet. And I would still weigh in on the lighting looking more natural, feeling the way the light hits the human face. But we’re very close to that reality that you’re talking about where the estate of Tom Hanks is going to bottle him, and he’ll be working forever.

MORGAN Russell, was your experience on Avatar something that was exciting? Did you enjoy it as much as the more classical style of filmmaking?

CARPENTER There’s a double-edged sword there, because the challenge was great. There was a lot of problem-solving. “How do we realize this shot? And how do we make this blend as seamlessly as possible between these two realities?” I just love watching a great crew work. People had been working on the virtual production for so many years, and then we come in and we’re kind of like this different tribe and we have different customs and getting that all to work together. But there was that part of it that is kind of mind-numbing. It’s just this wall of mathematics that has to be somehow vaulted over to get the shot. And so I wouldn’t recommend it. I’m really glad I did it. I wouldn’t recommend it to everybody. I would say, though, that in seeing the scenes, all this technology that is thrown at this movie, it just disappears. It just, like, evaporates. You’re just left with a very immersive experience. Especially for the actors playing the Na’vis, between the first Avatar and this one, what [visual effects house] Weta has done in terms of replicating the human face — it’s not surface stuff, you feel the muscles under this skin now and the way certain parts of the face flush in different ways and change colors. I feel like the scenes are much more emotional than the first one. I think that will be something that some people will see.

DP Carpenter (next to director James Cameron, far right) lines up a shot on the set of Avatar: The Way of Water.
DP Carpenter (next to director James Cameron, far right) lines up a shot on the set of Avatar: The Way of Water. Courtesy of Mark Fellman/20th Century Studios

MORGAN Your process sounds very complex and slow. As technology progresses, there’s crossover between live action and animation. Roger, you’ve done some animated films. Did you enjoy those? Was it freeing to work in animation?

DEAKINS I loved it, I found it really stimulating. I think it’s got a bit stuck, because everybody’s trying to get more and more real with everything they do. And I find that a little dull, really. But I love working on animated movies, because it’s a different technical challenge, but that’s not really why I do the damn job. I do the job because I get emotionally involved in telling a story and helping a director tell a story about a real world, a real situation, that has something to say. And if we keep talking about technique, it’s all for naught. It’s part of what I have to do. But it doesn’t interest me.

KAMINSKI Yeah. Going back to making a movie with Steven, we cried because we were learning about his life — which was not as difficult as maybe he’s presenting it — but still, going through divorce, going through traumatic experiences, moving from different places and how that shaped his life. And the choices he had to make between [his] art and keeping the family together were a really big part of the story. I couldn’t identify with 100 percent of the story, [except for] the personal experience of falling in love with movies, feeling liberated by movies and making movies, and [that] living in the civilian life has always been very, very difficult. Making a movie about a man who somehow managed to combine these two aspects of being a brilliant filmmaker, brilliant director, brilliant businessman and yet maintaining a family was just an amazing experience, it is an experience that we all go through. We have to often choose between the art and the family. That was the most moving experience for me. And I realized why we have so much in common in terms of how we see the world and the passion that we put into making movies. But this is a heartbreaking movie for him. We cried often. So that was a great experience, just as Roger was saying — we are there to help the people to make the movie. And we get those brief moments when making the movie becomes a very emotional experience for us, and that was the most privileged position I’ve ever experienced in working with this guy on 20 movies.

A few of you are nodding. Do you want to talk about what that means to you and your movies?

WALKER Well, I agree with what Janusz and Roger are saying, that you want to move people. I got involved in cinema because when I used to go to the cinema, it moved me. I never look at a script when I first get it and think about how I’m going to shoot it. I always think about my reaction to the story. The first talks with the director are about that, and about emotion and about the journey that we’re going to take an audience on. I think it’s really important to start from that, and then you work out technically how you’re going to do it.

Austin Butler as Elvis Presley in Elvis; cinematographer Walker
Austin Butler as Elvis Presley in Elvis; cinematographer Walker Courtesy of Hugh Stewart/Warner Bros.

DEAKINS When I was talking about animation, you know, it’s the same language. You’re still deciding where to put the camera relative to the scene. You’re still deciding how are you going to light this, what emotion do you want to create by using the combination of the frame and the camera movement and the lighting. It’s the same as doing live action, and it’s more of an instinctive, emotional reaction to the script, to what the actors are doing, to the location. You know, it’s just feelings. That’s so hard to talk about. I mean, it’s easy to talk about [the technical details]. But when it comes down to it, what are you trying to create in the audience’s head?

WALKER I also love what Janusz was saying — that [being] in the moment is really important, because no matter how much you’ve planned for something, if the actor is bringing something, or the director sees something in that moment of the performance, how do you catch that? You have to be really prepared to be able to spin around and change what you’re going to do, because that moment’s changed. You always have to be aware of that at the time.

MORGAN [On The Woman King] I also found myself in tears on set, because it was these incredible performances, and the story of slavery and the history of this culture and these people. It was a powerful thing to be a part of. Just to feel that emotion on set, or [to see] all these women standing there in Africa and feeling their ancestry. It’s a powerful thing to have that honor, to convey that story with our craft. I agree with you guys completely. It’s not about any of the technology at all, it’s just about trying to create a feeling and help support the story. And I think it’s a powerful thing when we can help people feel something.

KHONDJI So, that’s what we do: With the eyes of the audience, we steer them to that direction.

Micheal Ward and Olivia Colman in Empire of Light, shot by DP Deakins
Micheal Ward and Olivia Colman in Empire of Light, shot by DP Deakins Courtesy of Parisa Taghizadeh/Searchlight Pictures

A few of you mentioned shooting during COVID. In this past year, the COVID safety protocols have been extended or revised a number of times. How do you feel about where they stand now?

MORGAN It’s just so refreshing to go back to seeing people’s faces. It’s been really hard to communicate with people just with your eyes. We’re working so closely with people. It’s all about our relationships on set. And for me, I’ve missed seeing people clearly, and it’s amazing when suddenly someone pulls their mask down and you haven’t seen their face before and you’re like, “Well, who is this person?” You know, I don’t recognize them.

A year ago when we held a similar roundtable, a big topic was on-set safety in the wake of the tragedy on the set of Rust. A year later, how do you feel about on-set safety? Have you seen progress?

WALKER I’ve always been on sets where safety is a priority. It’s a shame that it had to happen. It’s very sad. But it’s brought to light the fact that [safety] has to be [there] all the time.

MORGAN Shooting in South Africa, the crews are not unionized. Often they work six days a week, and people get very tired and overworked. I think the balance of going to work and then having enough rest time is still something that needs to be improved. Working hours are a big issue.

KHONDJI I really agree about the crew getting enough rest. Personally, I really need two days [off per week] just to reflect on the script and think about the film, going to visit a [new] location. I don’t see enough rest at all for technicians in the industry.

What are you seeing in terms of progress in diversity, specifically in cinematography?

WALKER It’s definitely getting better. And I’m finding many more diverse crews these days. I always go out of my way to bring on trainees [who lend diversity] and need to be brought up into positions that they’re keen on, and to encourage them. It’s definitely getting better, but it’s very slow. A lot of us women cinematographers, we all know each other and call each other by first name.

MORGAN Like Mandy said, it’s a slow process. But since the digital revolution, [there is] so much more attention to cinematography. There’s this blossoming of cinematography programs and education, and I’m seeing a lot of young women come up. And now these women can see other women doing it, which is something. When I was a camera trainee and assistant, I couldn’t really [find] that many women to look up to and follow their path. Now there are a lot more of us, and the conversation [is more about] not necessarily wanting to be highlighted as a female DP or as a male DP, but the fact that we are just all DPs. But it is important, like Mandy said, to help give people that opportunity when they’re starting out, like people gave to me — to hire people of color and women so that when we look around on a film set, it’s a reflection of the world. We have all these different types of voices that can be heard, and that just makes storytelling all the richer.

One final question: A number of years ago, the Academy announced that four categories, including cinematography, wouldn’t be presented live during the telecast — a decision that was later reversed. And earlier this year, it did present eight of the categories before the telecast began. How would you like to see the category presented?

KHONDJI Keep all the categories. There’s no reason to shrink some categories and not others.

KAMINSKI Each department contributes a great deal to the storytelling. Why should some be pushed aside because somebody thinks it’s a lesser category?

KHONDJI It was such an absurd decision. Just insulting.

WALKER I definitely agree. I think that everybody should be treated equally. And we all should be up there, representing our craft.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.