You couldn’t ask for five better examples of state of the art cinematography, all of which convey complex states of mind and are shot in visually compelling ways. There’s the frenzied, “continuous-take” of “Birdman,” the fairy tale elegance of “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” the sublime black-and-white “Ida,” the abstract/Impressionism of “Mr. Turner” and the brutal yet spiritually uplifting “Unbroken.”
1. “Birdman”: Frontunner Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki goes for two Oscars in a row with another experimental breakthrough, this time with Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu. “I didn’t want to make a gimmicky film for no reason or just to do it in one take to show off. But Alejandro’s script had the seed of the idea in it and was perfectly written, it reads like one continuous take, where you go into the madness of Riggan Thomson [Michael Keaton] and the collapse of his life. So it did make sense. I think it works,” Lubezki said.
“And we had to a lot of editing before and that, as a cinematographer, is incredibly rewarding and interesting that you’re working in pre-production with the editor and very closely with the art department. Everything we built — for example, Michael’s makeup mirror and desk — had to be a precise height and precise size so we could see his image in certain moments. It was created like you were doing a play and then when you arrive to do the shooting you are prepared and the use of blue and red lights give the feeling of a real play all based on reality,” Lubezki added.
“‘Birdman’ was unknown territory. It’s exciting and it gives you energy all day because you have to be incredibly concentrated. And it’s incredible energy for the actors because they know the scene you’re shooting is the scene and there is no coverage. At the same time, it’s scary because without coverage and without the efficiency of fixing in post you just have to trust your instincts.”
Lubezki also said, “There was something that we did that nobody has mentioned: the labyrinth of corridors shrink and shrink as the movie progresses and Riggan’s level of stress and insanity grow. We narrow the width of the corridors and the ceilings come closer. We didn’t want to do it in a way that looked too strange but it’s something that you feel.”
2. “The Grand Budapest Hotel”: Wes Anderson evokes a sense of exuberant fun as well as bittersweet nostalgia for Eastern Europe between the World Wars, and Robert Yeoman infuses it with a host of glam lighting choices that reflect the director’s fairy-tale approach. And, appropriately, enough, it’s the only one of the five movies that was shot on film. “I think it addresses a grand old Europe that was extinguished by the forces of evil, really, with the colors that we used, the lighting that we used and even the miniatures give it a romanticized quality that embellished it so that when the zig-zags come in and take over, it hits home a little bit harder.
“There’s a very touching scene when F. Murray Abraham invites Jude Law to have dinner to tell him his story. It’s very emotional but he’s accepted his role in the new world. Wes and I took a more theatrical approach to the lighting. We shot this with anamorphic lenses, which give a certain Impressionistic quality. We also did things we normally wouldn’t do like changing the lighting within shots. So while the actors are talking the lights are fading up and down. We thought it gave the scene a special quality as he starts reminiscing about all that has happened to him,” Yeoman said.
“Wes came up with the idea of alternating aspect ratios and I wasn’t quite sure it would work at first but was totally on board. But back in the ’30s all the movies were shot in that boxy format and it offers different compositional possibilities. Most of the movie is in anamorphic and Wes likes to have all of the characters in the frame, which is a lot easier to do, but with the boxy frame he had to find new ways of doing this. For instance, when Ed Norton pops his head up in the prison, you only see him from the neck up and all the other prisoners surround him,” he said.
“I think for a period film shooting on film gave it a quality that we probably wouldn’t have achieved digitally. I was a little nervous because we were outside in the snow and digital does so well in low light situations, but the cameras were great and we never had a problem. And we were lucky being only two hours away from a film lab in Berlin. So it was an ideal situation and I think that the choice of film added to the fairy tale quality of the finished film.”
3. “Ida”: Pawel Pawlikowski’s meditative struggle with memory, history, and faith in ’60s Poland was split between two cinematographers: veteran Ryszard Lenczewski, who did all the prep and shot for 10 days before becoming ill and turning DP duties over to his camera operator and protege, Lukasz Zal. “A very important decision was the choice of lenses. Not all great, expensive and very sharp lenses give depth and vividness in the black-and-white image. Zeiss Ultra Primes gave our images richness, contrast and all the texture of life,” suggested Lenczewski, who is proud of the scene in front of a chapel with a tree (the only one where the camera pans), which he operated himself.
“At first, we composed frames in 4:3 format very carefully and we grew bolder with time,” said Zal. “We searched for different compositions, strange places for our characters. We saw that we created the feeling of loss, isolation and that it wasn’t just a strange mannerism but it conveyed so much more. We knew that with such long and static shots we couldn’t afford a mistake. Every take had to carry emotions and information. All the details, even those in the background, had to function perfectly. We did a lot of retakes to connect all those elements of reality. Those scenes were taking shape, were expending and growing. We felt that the picture started to work. Pawel used to say that there has to be a joke in every take.”
Zal said “As far as the contrast is concerned, we planned to have it very low. To make the movie as coarse as possible. Deprived of all the visual ornaments. We drew our inspiration from the movie entitled ‘Vivre Sa Vie.’ We found the formal decisions made in this movie very bold and incredible. But it turned out that it didn’t work with our film so we changed it and raised the contrast. In the outdoor scenes, despite the scattered light, we looked for the high contrast, we used a lot of negative fill. We enhanced the bright part of the face by reflecting the light on large bright surfaces. Inside we also used the scattered light but used a lot of flags, we cut the light in order to focus it.
“Creating ‘Ida”s world, so innovative in expression, meant that I had to cross my own boundaries. As it turned out, less is more. What touches me most dramatically, is what we can observe in the life of the two main characters: all of us have to make decisions, both big and small, and the results of those decisions make us who we are. The good decisions and the bad ones are equally important but it is self — mindfulness and reflections that are the key. Wanda never looks at her life from a perspective. Ida does. And that reverie and use of our inner compass help us to live well and not to lose ourselves.”
4. “Mr. Turner”: For his latest collaboration with Mike Leigh, Dick Pope takes us into the visionary mind of eccentric 19th century British painter J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall), creating the most opulent movie in years. “What happened was, I went off, under pressure to make it work on digital, and shot an extensive test of landscapes and seascapes and faces against both, using vintage lenses,” Pope said. “I also tested lantern and candlelit interiors, and quite frankly, when I saw the results, I was sold that we could do this film digitally.
“I came to the conclusion that I could make it painterly and true to Turner’s work by evoking the colors of the day and what he used. So both in the lighting and colorization I used a little yellow in the highlights and blue green teal in the shadow areas and it worked. The sky, the land, the sea — along of course, with all the location based interiors and the views from every window — they’re all real,” he explained. “Only the ‘Fighting Temeraire’ itself was a VFX and totally necessary as the ship of course no longer exists, but the plates for it were those we photographed when we shot the scene.
5. “Unbroken”: 12-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins creates a powerful dance of light and dark in Angelina Jolie’s impassioned biopic about Olympic runner-turned war hero Louis Zamperini. “I felt strongly that the opening dogfight should be centered on the character’s perspective. I didn’t think we should go much outside the plane. For me, I’ll be quite honest, there are two or three shots that I wish weren’t there because I really felt the strength of the scene was being with the character. And if you don’t know what exactly’s going on, that’s great because that’s how the character was experiencing things. Of all the parts of the film, I’m really quite pleased with it. You do get the sense of what it was like to be in one of those tin cans,” Deakins said.
“We had three situations for the shots on water,” he explained. “We shot some of it on a spud barge anchored in the bay and we shot a lot on an exterior tank and then we shot quite a bit on an interior tank, which I lit for different situations. I sailed around the world when I was a lot younger and there’s nothing more claustrophobic than being as far as possible as you can be away from land. It’s very surreal. It’s so much about the faces; we’re not shooting the landscapes.”
Deakins added that “Omari, which actually was on Tokyo Bay, was a dry, nondescript, wooden prison camp. And Naoetsu was a working coal terminal. And the real place was built on the confluence of two rivers and there were these very big cliffs abutting it. Apparently the prisoners had to climb up this hill to the warehouses where they were billetted. And it was the idea that they traveled from Omari and have gone further and further into this hellish vision.
“The plank scene is the crucial moment. Angie was concerned about how we depicted that in terms of the light changing. It’s the idea of the light coming around and eventually the light’s in Louis’ eyes. And when he’s looking back at the Bird, the light’s in his face. It’s kind of spiritual and I hope it wasn’t heavy-handed, and I’m not a religious person and it doesn’t have the same connotation to me, but that was definitely part of the visual language.”