The right DP helps actors get ready for their close-ups


When cinematographers are applauded for their work, the praise tends to focus on gorgeous panoramic views of wide-open spaces shot not by them, but by the second unit. But even when the work receiving the kudos is their own, the truth is, while lighting large sets and vast exteriors can be a challenge, the shots that truly move an audience are typically of the more intimate variety -- ones that capture the subtleties of an actor's performance and enable viewers to feel what the characters are feeling. Oftentimes, the images are not postcard pretty. In the case of director Julian Schnabel's Miramax drama "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," they're not even consistently in focus.

As the film opens, fashion editor Jean-Dominique Bauby discovers he has experienced a stroke and is now suffering from locked-in syndrome. He is fully conscious, but all the voluntary muscles of his body are completely paralyzed, save for those controlling eye movement. The audience is locked in with him, seeing the world from the perspective of his one good eye.

"It was fascinating because it allowed you to go right against everything that you're supposed to be doing," says Oscar-nominated cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. "The image is out of focus, but it's OK. His eye was the only thing that allowed him to escape. If there was a face right in front of him and he didn't want to look at the face, the focus would frequently go away from the person who's talking to him and focus on a curtain blowing in the wind or on the TV screen."

In preproduction, Kaminski experimented with various techniques to enhance the first-person, disoriented perspective, from putting eyeglasses and a fake nose on the lens to smearing the optics with Vaseline. One technique that made the final cut involved taking a 40mm fixed-aperture lens designed for SLR still cameras and attaching it to the movie camera on a rubber bellows, which allowed Kaminski to selectively focus portions of the frame.

"When you manipulate the lens, you are able to get it in focus; but the moment you let go, it goes soft," Kaminski explains. "So I could look at this woman's face and make just one eye sharp and let the rest of the face fall apart."

As Bauby becomes more optimistic around the film's 40-minute mark, the camera is freed from his locked-in perspective. Kaminski believes that to have held on to the aesthetic conceit longer would've been "unbearable for the audience. It becomes relentless, it becomes boring, it becomes gimmicky. It's not interesting. It's not emotional. And you do want people to feel emotional. That's why you have the first 40 minutes where you feel so claustrophobic, perhaps even to the point where you think, 'OK, I've had enough!'"

In Fox Searchlight's "The Savages," cinematographer W. Mott Hupfel III looks at a medical crisis from another perspective, that of a sister and a brother (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) who become reluctant caretakers to their distant, dementia-ravaged dad. To heighten the intimacy as well as speed up shooting, Hupfel and writer-director Tamara Jenkins decided to forgo typical "Hollywood" coverage (establishing shot, medium shot, close-ups) and use primarily two and three shots.

"It was really important to keep all these people in the frame together so you can feel the tension between them," Hupfel says.

Save for three studio sets, the film was shot exclusively in practical locations in New York and Arizona, with a minimum of supplemental lighting, which usually amounted to a few small tungsten lights tucked away in corners that were hooked in to a dimmer board that gaffer Ken Shibata controlled remotely via his cell phone.

"That was one of the ways we helped to keep the crew out of the set so (Hoffman and Linney) could act," Hupfel says. "But it still ended up being a three-ring circus."

Keeping out of the way of the actors was even more essential for cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto during the filming of the graphic sexual encounters between the main characters, Mr. Yee and Wong Chia Chi, in Focus Features' "Lust, Caution," which were shot over 11 days on a closed set. Although those steamy scenes are what got the film attention in the press, Prieto's work is arguably more notable for the low-key moments he captured, such as Wong Chia Chi's enigmatic smile after what Prieto calls her "quasi-rape" by Yee, or the nonverbal tells during the mah-jongg scenes that have little to do with the game ostensibly being played at the table.

"I'd obviously read the script, and I knew what was going on, but it really wasn't necessary for me to understand the (Mandarin language) dialogue when I was operating the camera to know when to go from one expression to another," says Prieto of the mah-jongg scenes. "The women are talking, talking, talking, but it's much more about the looks on their faces."

Conversely, the key to cinematographer Seamus McGarvey's Oscar-nominated work in Focus Features' "Atonement" is what isn't seen. The plot is set in motion by an innocent summer encounter between the daughter of a wealthy family, Cecilia, and their housekeeper's son that is tragically misinterpreted from an upstairs window by Cecilia's 13-year-old sister, Briony -- and, initially, the viewer. McGarvey used a long lens to flatten the perspective, and he put objects in the shot to partially obstruct and distract from Briony's subjective viewpoint, such as portions of the window frame and a buzzing bee. In a later scene where a flashlight-wielding Briony stumbles upon two people having sex in a dark field, McGarvey used selective lighting to make unclear whether the encounter is consensual or rape.

"We wanted to give the sense that her viewpoint had an elliptical quality, that you didn't see the full picture and that her volatile imagination would fill in the gaps," McGarvey explains. "So for (the scene in the field), we not only played with interruption of the frame, but with light, with obscurity -- and the use of a (flashlight) to illuminate only part of the frame."

Even in a macho Western like Lionsgate's "3:10 to Yuma," the quiet moments can take precedence over action set pieces and wide-open vistas.

"A large part of the film is the psychological interaction between Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) and Dan Evans (Christian Bale), so we ended up shooting a lot of close-ups that were very intimate," says cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. "I do think the psychology of the land and the starkness of that period all aid the story. And, of course, me being a cinematographer, I was pushing for more, wider graphic landscapes. But, in the end, you've got to go with the story."