Awards Watch: Cinematographers Roundtable

VIDEO: Six top cinematographers debate how to persuade a director, when to go digital and the best way to light Sophia Loren.

They're the unsung heroes of any film shoot. Heading into awards season, The Hollywood Reporter's Carolyn Giardina and Matthew Belloni gathered six of the top cinematographers in the business -- Dion Beebe ("Nine"), Roger Deakins ("A Serious Man"), Greig Fraser ("Bright Star"), Stephen Goldblatt ("Julie & Julia"), International Cinematographers Guild president Steven Poster ("The Box") and Eric Steelberg ("(500) Days of Summer," "Up in the Air") -- to talk shop.

The Hollywood Reporter: How do you define great cinematography?

Roger Deakins: I'm open to suggestions! (Laughs.) No. If it tells a story. If it's a seamless mix with all the other elements of the film. I've got this thing against images that strike you as being wonderful for their own sake.

Steven Poster: The worst thing that can happen to a movie is they say, "What great cinematography, what a lousy film."

THR: What's the No. 1 source of conflict between a cinematographer and a director?

Poster: Every marriage is different.

Deakins: If I get in conflict on a production it's usually because my ambition might be greater than the production's ambition. It's as simple as that. But the director's the boss, as far as I'm concerned. The studio is not the boss.

THR: Roger, what are the elements that have made your long relationship with the Coen brothers so successful?

Deakins: A sense of humor, I guess. We just see things in that sort of dark, cynical way.

Stephen Goldblatt: It's interesting to have a collaborative relationship with a director and then to leave that to go and work with someone new and bring those assumptions of collaboration to it. You've got to start it all over again. Cinematographers have got to be good persuaders, as well as good photographic artists.

THR: Are you usually selling the time it's going to take to get the shot or are you selling the shot itself?

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Goldblatt: Or the idea. And it's not usually a shot, it's a way of shooting, it's a sequence. There are a lot of writers becoming directors nowadays but they don't necessarily have a visual appreciation. They have their own (written) material, and it's (about) how to bring them to see that you can actually be ambitious, you can actually use the camera to really amplify the written word. The camera moving, for example, can be a real cause of conflict if it hasn't been seen that way by the person toiling away for years on the written page. Here we turn up and we've got three months (to shoot) and actually, the best way to get the scene done is to move from there to there to there. This can be shocking to someone who's seen it one way. It's not necessarily a conflict. You've got to sell your idea but be respectful that the creative spark that starts this whole project resides in that written word.

Dion Beebe: That goes both ways, though. Not getting stuck in your own way as you see it. It should never be "Whose idea is better?" it should be "How do we realize both visions of this?"

Poster: It also helps to understand what the director's intent is for a particular scene. If I understand that the director wants the audience to understand (something) from this particular scene, then I can interpret that in a way that allows that to happen.

THR: Eric, whose idea were those aerial shots of the cities throughout "Up in the Air"?

Eric Steelberg: It was both (him and director Jason Reitman). A film about a guy who spends most of his time in the air and we're jumping around between cities, so what better way to introduce the cities than the way they're introduced to him? Jason came up with the idea that they should be (shown) straight down; that's something you haven't seen before, from an altitude that you're not typically exposed to in movies. It's not really low but it's not very high, it's this middle thing where you can still make out the buildings but still too high to really see people in detail. I don't like to be so rigid. I like to have a plan going in but I like to be open minded enough for things to change on the day or before the day and just try and make it better.

Greig Fraser: You need to be malleable enough so that when a director comes in on a new day, with a completely different idea -- which happens quite often -- everything that's been talked about before, that just goes out the window.

Steelberg: Or getting that call the night before and you're already in bed and the director has a new idea and wants to know if we can do it.

Goldblatt: Of course, at that point you can't sleep.

Fraser: Then you keep your crew up all night.

Poster: If we're gonna suffer, they're gonna suffer! (Laughs.)

THR: Roger, that ominous tornado scene at the end of "A Serious Man" has a very distinct look. Explain how you got what you wanted there.

Deakins: We wanted this slightly greenish feel that sometimes you get before a tornado. Apparently -- I haven't experienced one. So we pretimed the images before they went to the effects house and then I saw the images as the effects house was working on it. I actually was getting their images by e-mail and I sort of Photoshopped what I thought on top of their images and sent it back again and sent it to Joel and Ethan (Coen). It's this dialogue through e-mail of what the final image should look like.

Poster: Do any of you ever go in ahead of a film and work with the colorist to develop a look? I do.

Deakins: On "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (2000), that was the first thing we did. When you're going for an extreme look, you go through a series of tests just to establish a look.

Beebe: That's important because directors sit in editing rooms for months and months with these images and fall in love with them, and if you haven't really spent some time defining what that look is, they're gonna come back and say, "I want it to look like this," and you'll say, "Hang on, that's just a one-light pass."

Poster: That started in the commercial days, when agencies would go into the editing room and look at terrible images and come out and say, "Well, we want it to look like this!"

Goldblatt: When films were cut on film, at least it bore some resemblance to the final print. Now when they're looking at a compressed image on an uncalibrated monitor and doing electronic editing, it bears no resemblance. The shock can be extreme when they look at the first pass and it looks nothing like the images they've become familiar with.

THR: How has the emergence of digital cinematography cameras changed what you do?

Steelberg: There's certainly more options. More things to discuss when you're having that initial meeting.

Goldblatt: I think it's improved film stock. (Laughs.) I think the fear of losing film as a medium has energized Kodak immensely. And the fact of the matter is that film stocks have never been better.

Steelberg: The competition against each other benefits everyone.

Poster: I want to dispel this thinking that is out there that because you're shooting digital, the guys that used to shoot film don't know how to do it. I find that no matter what camera system or medium comes down the way, it's a very short learning curve for someone like this group to come in and make the pictures that they want.

Deakins: Most of what we do is not about the technology, it's about how you frame, how you move the camera and how you light the shot. It's about imagemaking.

THR: What's the most challenging aspect of a period shoot?

Fraser: It depends on the style of the film. You might do a film that's very naturalistic, which "Bright Star" was, so every light source is something that was appropriate for the time. I tried HMIs outside windows and that felt very electronic on skin tones. I didn't grow up in England but when I arrived there I sort of tried to make the best out of the flat sky. I felt that Tungsten light with gel worked a lot better than HMIs. Even though nothing that we do is natural, we try and pretend it is and make the best of it. Candles for nighttime. Daylight for day.

THR: Dion, how is your strategy different for lighting a musical?

Beebe: It's a palette thing. With "Nine," we had 14 musical numbers and you want to prevent repetition in both how you move the camera as well as how you light and create the atmosphere. A musical number becomes an escape into fantasy, at least that's how Rob (Marshall, the director) and I have always worked. Once you get into that realm, anything goes.

Steelberg: Was the lighting of the women (in the film) a consideration in the approach?

Beebe: It is a responsibility, having a lot of women in front of the camera at one time. But they were great. We found the language of the movie first (then moved to lighting the women).

THR: What is the best thing an actor has said to you when you were lighting him or her?

Beebe: Don't photograph me from that side.

Deakins: It's such a huge part of our job as cinematographers to create a friendly environment for the actors to act in. I mean, I wouldn't stand there in front of the camera. I'm nervous and embarrassed now. (Laughs.)

Poster: Sometimes an actor will use you to get around the director's wishes. You have to be very cognizant of that.

Beebe: There was a moment in preproduction once where a big basket arrived from an actor. But as soon as I accepted the basket, I felt I had taken a bribe.

Poster: Years ago I did something with Sophia Loren. When I got to the location the director says, "Sophia wants to meet you." And I said, "Great, I want to meet her too, we'll go over and meet each other." And he says. "No, she wants to meet you privately." I went to her suite and she said, "I just want to know one thing: Are you the kind of cameraman that lights the room or are you the kind of cameraman that lights the actors?" And I said, "I am here for you."

Beebe: I just finished with Sophia (on "Nine"). We again had a private consultation. Because she has her concerns and they're legitimate.

Poster: And she's knowledgeable.

Beebe: It comes down to a comfort level. I think that conversation is about her being able to walk out onto the set and feel comfortable, feel safe.

THR: Is there a particular shot that stands out as something you're really proud of?

Deakins: I did a sequence years ago on "Mountains of the Moon" (1990), which was a film Bob Rafelson directed. It was about Victorian explorers, Richard Burton, and the scene was discovering this lake. We were shooting at Lake Victoria in Northern Kenya and the scene was meant to happen at sunset and Bob said, "Well, we can't do that." I said, "No, let's rehearse every shot and mark it all out, and we'll shoot it all within 45 minutes of sunset." That's a big risk but we actually did it. It was such a trip, such a high. I've gotten there a couple times and it's great.

Fraser: Morning at sunrise; I've done that a few times and at the end of that, everyone's adrenaline is just pumping and you can't do anything else.