Cinematography Roundtable: Roger Deakins and 5 Other Top DPs on Angelina Jolie's Directing Style, Shooting Through Hurricanes and Film vs. Digital
The visionaries behind some of the year's most visually striking movies — 'Unbroken,' 'Into the Woods,' 'Gone Girl,' 'The Theory of Everything,' 'Noah' and 'Mr. Turner' — open up about everything from how to develop a relationship with a director to high-dynamic-range technologies
This story first appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
They're sad that instead of projecting movies on film, theaters have turned to digital projection — even if it means they no longer have to worry about scratched or fraying prints. They're resigned to the fact that reviewers never quite know what to make of their work. And especially when filming outdoors, they always keep one eye on the weather — in fact, veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins, 65, confessed he has four weather apps on his phone to make sure he remains prepared. Fortunately the sun was shining when Deakins, who recently finished shooting Angelina Jolie's Unbroken, got together at THR's invitation with five fellow directors of photography: Into the Woods' Dion Beebe, 46; Gone Girl's Jeff Cronenweth, 52; The Theory of Everything's Benoit Delhomme, 53; Noah's Matthew Libatique, 46; and Mr. Turner's Dick Pope, 67. They happily compared notes on their recent movies, which took them from the biblical realm of Noah to the 19th century British salons of Mr. Turner to the contemporary crime scenes of Gone Girl.
When you read reviews, do you feel the reviewers understand what cinematographers do?
BENOIT DELHOMME No, no. For me, it's incredible to realize that what you can expect as a DP is to get one line at the end of the review saying just two words about your work.
ROGER DEAKINS People confuse pretty with good cinematography. [The late cinematographer] Freddie Francis said there is good cinematography and bad cinematography, and then there's the cinematography that's right for the movie. I often feel that if reviewers don't mention your work, it's probably better than if they do.
Most of you have long-standing relationships with the directors with whom you work. How did you first get together with them?
JEFF CRONENWETH [David Fincher and I] started back in music videos and commercials. Actually, I got the torch handed to me by my father [Blade Runner DP Jordan Cronenweth], who worked with David [on Alien 3] before I did.
MATTHEW LIBATIQUE [Darren Aronofsky and I] have known each other since film school at AFI. It's been an evolution: It was like a bad marriage at the beginning, and now we're older. Visually, he has things he'll never give up: his sense of symmetry and his sense of subjectivity. It was nice to come back on Black Swan and understand each other as older guys.
DICK POPE When I first met [Mike Leigh] and talked to him, it was like 24 years ago. We share the same worldview. We're totally different people, but we do have something very much in common. We butt heads, argue, bitch — but behind it is absolute trust in what we're doing and in each other. And, yeah, we can have our moments — we really can. But nothing gets in the way of the work.
DION BEEBE [Rob Marshall and I] never really butt heads. With Rob, one of the things that is constant is his love of movement. Every time someone walks in a room, the camera and the actor need to be choreographed. Even with Memoirs of a Geisha, though that wasn't a musical, there's still a lot of movement. It's been unexpected for me because I didn't expect to enter a world of musicals.
In contrast, Benoit, The Theory of Everything marks your first time working with James Marsh.
DELHOMME I don't have, like you all seem to have, one director I work with all the time. I did my last three films with three different directors: John Hillcoat, Anton Corbijn and James Marsh. They cannot be more different. What I'm looking for, in fact, is to change the style on every film. So every time it's kind of risky, in a way, because I'm trying to do something new. People don't really know who I am, in fact, and they don't know what I'm going to do next.
When working with a director for the first time, how long does it take to develop a mutual language?
DELHOMME For me, [when I start,] I don't know the rules. Maybe this guy will not like this kind of lighting; maybe he will just want to do all Steadicam, and I hate Steadicam. The whole preparation is about [getting] to know the director.
DEAKINS [Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid DP] Connie Hall once said to me, "I get so nervous before I start a film." He said: "I get on the set on the first day, and I look through the eyepiece because I don't know what the hell I'm doing. And I'm frozen." And I think, "Thank God there's somebody else that's like that." I'm about to start a film with the Coen brothers. I've done 11 films with them, and I'm a nervous wreck some days, thinking, "How can I do it?"
BEEBE It's a funny thing because the cinematographer is not really allowed to be that way. Everyone's like, "OK, this is the stable influence right here." So you're constantly having to be this rock.
DEAKINS Half the time the director will walk off, and you're actually running the set until the director comes back and you're ready to shoot.
DELHOMME I really think the director is more scared than we are. I think the actors are more scared than we are. I really think it's incredible how scared they can be.
DEAKINS One of the first films I shot was 1984, and Richard Burton was on it. After a couple of days shooting, he asked the A.D. to call us all together at the end of the day because he wanted to speak to the whole crew. He came out of his trailer and said: "I just wanted to thank you. When I came on the set yesterday morning and saw such young faces, I was terrified. But you've made it so welcoming. I've had the best experience I've ever had on a film." We were so nervous, and he was nervous. It was just wonderful.
Roger, this was your first experience working with Angelina Jolie, who is best known as an actress. How did she go about establishing her authority as a director on Unbroken?
DEAKINS She's very low-key, but, you know, the director's the director — they don't need to establish their authority. Every director is different; every situation is different. There are so many elements: We were shooting on water; we were shooting in this B-24 supposedly flying on a bombing raid. I mean, it was crazy.
What did you and Angelina discuss before shooting?
DEAKINS We discussed references. One of Angie's chief references was Sidney Lumet's film The Hill.
POPE Great movie.
DEAKINS It was a great reference. It wasn't like we were going to copy it, but there was something about the framing, the immediacy of the classic simplicity of the framing — getting right to the point without frivolous camera moves and fancy lighting.
Jeff, in your case, your lead actor, Ben Affleck in Gone Girl, has been an award-winning director. Was he able to set that aside and become just an actor again?
CRONENWETH The beautiful irony in it is that he had won [the best picture Oscar for Argo] the previous year. But when this opportunity came up, he dropped everything and jumped on board and was a very, very avid student of David [Fincher]. He took full advantage of this opportunity and studied and watched and kind of went through the procedures with David. So it was fun.
How often do actors exhibit interest in what you're doing?
BEEBE When we did Nine, Daniel Day-Lewis came on the location scouts with us — that was more to the point of understanding playing a director. But he never left set; he was on set even the days he wasn't working.
Matthew, when you were shooting Noah, you were hit by Hurricane Sandy. Had you experienced anything like it before?
LIBATIQUE No, I haven't. But, you know, it provided a few days off. When you're making a film like Noah, you get emotionally invested. So it was kind of this happening that made everybody feel like we were on the right film, for some weird reason. And it gave us a week off to refocus the end of the film and tear down the ark set, which was interesting.
BEEBE Hurricane Katrina came through Miami when we were doing [the 2006 film] Miami Vice, which was odd because it hit Miami as a Category 1 or something and then went on through the Gulf and became, like, Category 5. We had shut down for a day or something. And then you're booting back up, and you're starting to hear these stories coming from New Orleans. People are dying, and you're like, "This is crazy," because we're in this world that is total artifice. When real life butts up against it, it's a little odd.
When shooting outdoors, do you view the weather as your friend or your enemy?
DEAKINS A cinematographer's best thing now is a phone app, a weather app. I've got four. I just did a film that was in New Mexico with a lot of exteriors, and it was monsoon season so I was on the phone constantly, figuring out what the weather was going to do. People think about lighting as being an art thing, but the hardest thing to do is to shoot a day exterior over an extended period — especially in England.
POPE We lucked out [on Mr. Turner]. We were blessed with the most extraordinary weather for the period we shot it.
CRONENWETH I think the weather depends on the story you're trying to tell. In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, it needed to be cold, and it was cold.
POPE Oh, yes, you don't always want sun. It's terrible to have it when you don't want it.
Christopher Nolan pushed to use film projection for Interstellar. But are we witnessing film's last hurrah?
BEEBE I think film projection is at its very last round. We're all still doing film prints on the movies we make, and they're all still screening with film projection. When you suddenly flip over to the film projection, it's just a less sophisticated look — it has a different feel. With these new digital projectors, there's great quality. But whether you love the aesthetic of film projection or you love digital projection, the reality is that almost every theater is replacing film projectors with digital projectors.
CRONENWETH I miss, like all of us, the texture and the quality of a projected film image.
BEEBE There's no rolling that back, I don't think.
How important to you are high-dynamic-range technologies, which allow audiences to see blacker blacks and whiter whites? Dion, Chicago recently was remastered in an HDR format.
BEEBE Remastering things in a high dynamic range is one thing; you can [do it] in consultation with the cinematographer [who knows which contrasts] were there for a reason and there by design. Then there's shooting HDR — this idea that you're shooting out of a window, in the middle of the day, and every detail out the window in direct sunlight is exposed. So suddenly you've got this reality, [but] it's not a perspective we are used to seeing. [If] you start to measure out every highlight and every shadow, you're going to change the aesthetic of the picture. It does open up incredible choice in terms of what we're able to do with the image — suddenly we can shoot anything in any situation. I can walk into any restaurant in the middle of the night in L.A., and I can photograph in it without bringing a light with me. But is that cinematography? Surely, part of what we do is about shaping light. I do worry with HDR.
DEAKINS It's also about personality, isn't it? I mean, each one of you, I can watch your work and know it's you. It's about the eye behind the camera. It's not about the bloody technology; it's about the person behind it.
LIBATIQUE Interpreting the technology.
DELHOMME When you see a painting in a museum, you don't say, "Which kind of paint are they using?" In cinema, we talk too much about which camera, which lab — you just want to see the film.
CRONENWETH It's about the environment you place these actors in and the emotional connection to whatever's happening.
POPE Where you place the camera is just as important as the light. That's what I love most about cinematography: just watching the scene and looking at how to shoot it.
DELHOMME Cinema is more poetry than technique, that's for sure.
LIBATIQUE There's technique in poetry.
DELHOMME "Technique" is a terrible word. No, no, honestly — we should never talk technical; it should be something secret. We should have dirty little secrets.
1. Benoit Delhomme
The Theory of Everything
The France-born cinematographer's latest film, a biopic about Stephen Hawking, might appear quintessentially British — except director James Marsh's first request, says Delhomme, was that it not "look like an English film." That meant sunny skies so the movie would look "positive, cheerful."
2. Roger Deakins
Revered by his peers, he has amassed 11 Academy Award nominations — beginning with 1994's The Shawshank Redemption and running through 2013's Prisoners — without scoring a win, a fact that is considered something of a scandal within cinematography circles.
3. Matthew Libatique
He has a long-standing relationship with Darren Aronofsky, working on the director's first three movies — Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain — then reteaming with him on 2010's Black Swan (for which Libatique was nominated for an Oscar) and their most recent project, Noah.
4. Jeff Cronenweth
A second-generation cinematographer — his father was Jordan Cronenweth — he frequently works with Gone Girl director David Fincher. Cronenweth picked up Oscar nominations for Fincher's previous two films: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network.
5. Dion Beebe
Into the Woods
A native of Australia, he won a cinematography Oscar for 2005's Memoirs of a Geisha and was nominated for 2002's Chicago — both directed by Rob Marshall, with whom he reteamed on their big-screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's fairy-tale musical.
6. Dick Pope
The British DP has worked on nine features with director Mike Leigh, a fellow Brit, beginning with 1990's Life Is Sweet and continuing through their collaboration about British painter J.M.W. Turner. Pope earned an Oscar nom, though, for 2006's The Illusionist, directed by Neil Burger.