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How ‘La La Land’ Cinematographer Linus Sandgren Taught His Cameras to Dance

Oscar nominated cinematographer Linus Sandgren breaks down how he and director Damien Chazelle created long camera movements designed to play an active musical role.

"La La Land"

“La La Land”

Photo Credit: Dale Robinette

When looking for a cinematographer who could handle shooting his modern-day musical, “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle saw something in David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” that caught his attention. While Russell’s acidic worldview bears little resemblance to the candy-colored fantasy of “La La Land,” his camera is often moving, almost swirling, as it mirrors the often frenetic internal state of his characters. When Chazelle saw the film, he thought cinematographer Linus Sandgren might be someone he should meet.

“The reason Damien was interested in me was from camera movement in that film,” said Sandgren. “He knew he wanted the camera telling the story in a physical and interactive way.”

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Sandgren and Chazelle agreed that the camera would be like a musical instrument. They wanted the camera movement to have a rhythm that would enhance the film’s songs and give the film a heightened, magical feel.

“The camera would be more [noticeable] to the audience, so when it punched in on a character, we feel it emotionally telling the story,” said Sandgren.

When transitioning into a musical number, Sandgren would often combine the camera moving in on a character with a spotting of the light, almost as if they were on stage.

"La La Land"

“La La Land”

Photo Credit: Dale Robinette

“We wanted to get a more intimate moment with character,” said Sandgren. “We move in and spot them up, which was also a metaphor for their dreams of being in the spotlight and performing.”

By the time Sandgren came on the project, Chazelle was far along with his collaboration with choreographer Mandy Moore and, according to Sandgren, had a strong sense of how the camera would move in the scene. The challenge was Chazelle didn’t want to cut, but rather keep the movements long and uninterrupted.

“The trick would be to hit beats,” said Sandgren. “If we were tracking and moving around a corner and it didn’t feel like we hit the beat, we had to find a way to get the camera in rhythm.”

Chazelle, Moore, and Sandgren would collaborate in rehearsals, with Chazelle and Sandgren trying out different shots using their iPhones, finding the best way to deliver on Chazelle’s vision while getting camera movement rhythmically aligned with the film’s songs and dance.

Linus Sandgren

Linus Sandgren

Courtesy of Lionsgate

“The key was to find a way to cut inside the shot,” said Sandgren. “Instead of cutting to a close up, we’d move in, but that transition would also need to work with the music. While the choreography was fairly in place before I came on, and Damien had worked with Mandy on the camera movement, that was more two dimensional for the stage. We were able to free things up and start exploring three-dimensional space in terms of camera movement.”

Part of the challenge was, unlike many of the movie musicals Chazelle referenced for “La La Land,” the director wanted to use real locations rather than a sound stage.  This meant Sandgren would have to find a way to adapt elaborate shots to locations that weren’t always ideal for elaborate camera movement.

For the musical number “Someone in the Crowd,” in which Emma Stone’s Mia is being convinced to go a Hollywood party, the camera follows the four roommates dancing from room to room. At one point, the camera follows one roommates through the kitchen, pushing through to the yellow-painted living room to find another roommate, who’s draping a blue dress on a reluctant Mia. From there, the script calls for the four women to convene in the blue-painted hallway, where they continue to sing and dance.

“La La Land”

Summit Entertainment

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“When we scouted that location, we timed it out with the music and how they would move, but there was something missing,” said Sandgren. “We couldn’t motivate Emma into the hallway. There was a missing beat.”

The solution was to build a wall with a double archway between the living room and the hallway. Stone would go through one archway, and the camera the other.

“It was purely a rhythm thing,” said Sandgren. “What this created was a visual wipe as we moved into the corridor that rhythmically goes with the music. We simply created another beat for the camera to hit with that wipe, and it worked perfectly.”

Sandgren said a number of similar tweaks were matters of experimentation — coming to a stop here, panning left there, timing if the camera hit the swimming pool before the actors jumped in. When the camera hit the right beat, it instantly gave the shot emotional energy.

“It was like improvisation with jazz,” said Sandgren. “The camera and its movement really were like an instrument working with music and actors dancing.”

Sometimes locations would present larger challenges, which meant altering the shot. For the film’s elaborate opening dance number on a freeway ramp, Sandgren had to overcome multiple obstacles.

"La La Land"

“La La Land”

Dale Robinette

“The elevation of the ramp made it much trickier than if we were on flat ground,” he said. “There was also a concrete median in the middle that made it tricky to cross over.”

The DP and Chazelle initially conceived shooting the scene with a steadicam, but the location wouldn’t allow enough freedom of movement. They switched to a technocrane, but that created a new problem since there was no way to keep the crane’s shadows out of frame as it swept up, down, and side to side in the bright Los Angeles sun.

“It was a technical puzzle,” said Sandgren. “We maintained the basic movement, but we were forced to end up behind the characters, instead of in front of them.  To deal with the shadows, we’d split the long shot into different shots and mask the cut in a whip pan. For the audience, it still feels like one shot, which was important to Damien.”

Because the one long take was actually a few shots seamlessly blended together, it created another production hurdle: Each shot would need to be shot at approximately the same time of day, and would depend on the consistency of the sun. Sandgren said this type of production demand would never have been acceptable on most movies, but the producers of “La La Land” were dedicated to Chazelle’s vision.

Sandgren is grateful that the film didn’t deviate from Chazelle’s one-take philosophy and settle for coverage that would cut together.

Damien Chazelle on the set of "La La Land"

Director Damien Chazelle on the set of “La La Land”

Photo Credit: Dale Robinette

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“It’s a pity to have coverage you can go to if that’s not what the scene should be,” said Sandgren.  “It’s better to focus on getting it right and have everyone working on a solution rather than compromise. There’s such magic in these scenes because the camera movement in sync with everything and heightening the emotion of what is happening on screen.”

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