Film is making a comeback as the prestige choice of such A-listers as Christopher Nolan, P.T. Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, who embrace its warm, natural aesthetic — particularly appealing for period pieces. Another incentive to use 35mm is last year’s Kodak deal with major studios to keep the manufacture of film stock alive.
And the choice of shooting on 35mm or Super 16mm film is having a clear impact on this season’s cinematography Oscar race, including Best Picture frontrunner “La La Land,” “Fences,” “Silence,” “Jackie,” “Loving,” “Hidden Figures,” “Nocturnal Animals” and “Gold.”
“La La Land”
Damien Chazelle’s romantic musical with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as star-struck lovers trying to succeed in Hollywood could only be shot on film for its CinemaScope, Technicolor-like splendor. And for Swedish cinematographer Linus Sandgren (“American Hustle”), who grew up watching art films as well as MGM musicals, it was the perfect retro nod to LA’s bittersweet, brightly colored dreamscape.
“You want to give the audience the widest possible image and the best colors,” Sandgren told IndieWire. Checking the aesthetics of Super 35 v. CinemaScope during camera tests, they needed to be able to process or treat the film stock. But in order to shoot CinemaScope on a smaller budget, they kept to a more conservative shooting schedule.
Sandgren, who took a crash course in Jacques Demy’s 60s musicals “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “The Young Girls of Rochefort” for inspiration, shot with the Panavision XL and C Series Anamorphic lenses but with some modifications for full-figured shots and extreme close-ups. “Most lenses are three-feet focus, which is a problem, so Panavision rebuilt the 40mm lens to accommodate nine inches in close focus,” he said.
Balancing the dreamy with the realistic played to the strengths of film (especially in the Griffith Observatory/Planetarium sequence). “That freedom hopefully makes the audience feel like we could travel in space in the normal scenes as well,” Sundgren said.
The great advance buzz for Denzel Washington’s powerful adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fences” could well result in the first female Oscar nomination for Danish cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen. She said shooting on 35mm film captured the authenticity of performance and the Pittsburgh setting.
In fact, director Washington insisted on anamorphic 35mm for the story of an embittered former Negro league baseball player-turned sanitation worker, because, when you pull focus, the distortion compels you to concentrate on the face.
”It was shot on location in Pittsburgh and film was so right,” Christensen told IndieWire. “It’s a period piece and it’s claustrophobic and it has a colorful look that’s truthful to the environment and the actors. We’re in a small house and in a backyard and it doesn’t go broad.”
Christensen used Panavision XL and C Series lenses, but there were challenges shooting interiors. They shot in a row house that was about 10-feet wide with low ceilings. “We could only light in through the kitchen and that’s a lot of light inside when you can’t remove a ceiling,” she said. “You’re basically lighting two feet away from the actors. But having seen the movie, the fact that we’re on location gives it that honesty.
“My work was about being minimalistic — making choices about what we do not do. For instance, when not to move the camera. There are a lot of long takes and wide shots— pacing up and down to break the stillness.
Martin Scorsese’s passion project about two 17th-century Portuguese Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver), who return to Japan to find their mentor (Liam Neeson), and endure torture and persecution, was shot primarily on film by Rodrigo Prieto (“The Wolf of Wall Street”), who went digital for night scenes.
“We both agreed immediately that ‘Silence’ needed to be on film [shot in Taiwan with the Arricam LT] and, from my perspective, it’s because of color depth and this is a movie that’s very much about nature and these priests in Japan surrounded by the foliage,” Prieto told IndieWire. “And a big part of the movie is how that sounds, how that feels, the presence or absence of God in this natural environment. I found through testing that no other medium captures the nuance of greens, for example.”
Skin tone is another reason, which makes Scorsese feel more connected to the faces. But there’s also a subjective, hallucinatory quality to the look since it’s told primarily from Garfield’s point of view — and the hellish experience tests both his sanity and faith.
By contrast, the use of baroque, religious paintings as inspiration, lent a spiritual aura with chiaroscuro lighting emanating from the center of the frame.
“To be confronted with the silence of God is really tough for these priests,” said Prieto, who found it a hard shoot because of weather in remote locations and being high up in the mountains.
Director Pablo Larraín and cinematographer Stephane Fontaine (“Elle”) primarily chose Super 16mm for the story of Jackie Kennedy’s (Natalie Portman) post-assassination, five-day ordeal. That’s because it’s was easier to blend archival footage for this melding of fact and fiction. And, as we get closer to her distress, the camera moves closer as well.
“You’ve got archival footage and two different kinds of period footage: the 1962 White House tour that she did for CBS, which was shot on video and we shot on video as well, and our footage needed to be damaged to match the footage we were able to use for the funeral procession,” Fontaine told IndieWire.
The saturated, Kodachrome look dominates most of the film in contrast to the more subdued and softer interview sequences. “The White House needed to feel like a shelter compared to all the chaos outside with the assassination,” the cinematographer said.
After five films, director Jeff Nichols and cinematographer Adam Stone remain committed to shooting on film. And in “Loving,” the historical drama about the landmark 1967 Supreme Court case that legalized the interracial marriage of Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga), they concentrated on showing their love story through a warm, anamorphic lens.
Visually, the director and cinematographer achieve a pastoral beauty in many of the actual locations in and around Richmond, Virginia. “‘Loving’ was shot mostly outside during golden hour, and we didn’t latch onto any period movies about the South from the late ’50s or early ’60s,” Stone told IndieWire.
But Stone became obsessed with the photo essays of the Lovings in “Life” by Grey Villet (in a cameo by Nichols regular Michael Shannon): candid snapshots of the couple’s boundless love and affection, which served as the visual aesthetic.
“The film camera added an air of weight for the actors where [the characters] grew up and lived,” Stone said.
Theodore Melfi’s “Hidden Figures,” the historical drama about African-American math genius Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and her two colleagues (Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe) who helped NASA catch up in the ’60s Space Race, also boasts an Oscar-contending female cinematographer, Australian Mandy Walker (“Truth”).
Once again, Melfi and Walker preferred to shoot the period movie on anamorphic film. And Walker also emulated the Kodachrome look of the early ’60s. “We wanted the texture and color and we pushed it further in the DI,” Walker told IndieWire.
The iconic image of Johnson working in the all-male, all-white Space Task Group was “a jewel in a sea of white.” For flashbacks of Johnson breaking the color barrier as a math prodigy in West Virginia, Walker used 16mm and went for a sepia look.
“We also made sure that we could use the low depth of field focus to create layers to draw your attention to certain parts of the frame,” Walker said. “We did foreground, mid-ground, background so it looked more three-dimensional. We did that with color as well. We wanted to feel texture and the grain gives you that.”
For Tom Ford’s festival hit, “Nocturnal Animals,” starring Amy Adams as an alienated LA gallery owner trapped between the past and present, two-time Oscar-nominated Seamus McGarvey (“Anna Karenina” and “Atonement”) used 35mm to create two different worlds on the Panaflex XL.
“It had to have a cinematic feel but a psychological one too,” McGarvey told IndieWire. “That gave us a lot of scope and leaps of faith and playing with imagery.”
Adams’ world contains an anemic aspect and the cinematographer starts out with very symmetrical frames for the environment, contrasted with edgy, peripheral frames for her character. There’s minimal camera movement and she’s often framed within a series of frames.
By contrast, the internalized movie within the movie plays like a disturbing horror thriller. “Film allowed us to play with leaping forward into the over-saturated desert, using the codes of a Western or color noir [shot in the Mohave desert],” said McGarvey. “And a lot of it was shot at night and we were blessed with a crisp, early fall.”
Stephen Gaghan’s crime drama, starring Matthew McConaughey (looking like Christian Bale from “American Hustle”), is about a desperate search for gold in the uncharted jungles of Borneo in the ’80s. Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (“There Will Be Blood”) shot the golden, luscious jungle flashbacks on anamorphic film (in Thailand), with the remainder in Manhattan and New Mexico (doubling for Reno) shot digitally for a grittier vibe.
“We tried to bake in something that’s more vibrant and colorful than going electronic, which I don’t find convincing or compelling,” Elswit told IndieWire. Film processing was done at the former Technicolor lab in Bangkok.
“I threw a big curve into the digital work as well, shooting on the Alexa and pulling the color out,” Elswit said.
“I wanted the ’80s to look like they felt to me but not like other movies, which looked too shiny,” Gaghan told IndieWire. “And the living, breathing, grain is the medium of portraiture.”