The romance with film turned a corner this year with the massive success of Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk.” The World War II actioner had the widest 70mm release in 25 years (125 prints, dominated by IMAX), grabbing $188 million domestically and $525 million worldwide. And the visual impact of the IMAX format was powerful in the best picture frontrunner. Whether by land, by air, or by sea, the imagery was immersive. That is why Dutch-Swedish cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema is the frontrunner in his race as well.
But the impact of film on the cinematography race doesn’t stop there. Also in strong contention are “The Beguiled,” “Call Me By Your Name,” “Wonder Struck,” and “Wonder Woman,” all period pieces shot in a variety of styles that particularly benefited from the texture and warmth of 35mm film. At the same time, “The Post,” “Murder on the Orient Express” (another 70mm spectacle), “The Florida Project,” “Battle of the Sexes,” and “Roman Israel, Esq” should not be overlooked for their awards potential.
IndieWire spoke to the 10 cinematographers about the visual impact of shooting on Kodak film.
Hoyte van Hoytema (“Dunkirk”)
Of course, with Nolan, there was never any question about shooting with the 5-perf IMAX 65mm camera. It was just a matter of giving it some new gear to shoot hand-held like a GoPro for the aerial action and for underwater submersion. The directive was a “You Are There” experience.
Courtesy of Warner bRos. Picture
“There’s nothing like it [IMAX 65mm] right now,” van Hoytema said. “The sheer negative size of IMAX and the texture and color depth, clarity of the film emulsion in combination together was the most obvious way to capture this. It also requires very minimum tweaks and corrections to make it look great: no computers to suppress information or mechanical interpretation. It’s just a very pure way of capturing, resembling medium format still photography.”
For example, the aerial dogfights shot in real Spitfires were unlike anything we’ve seen on screen before in terms of understanding G-Force, formation flying, perspective shifts, and vibrations. And this could not have been achieved as effectively using the Alexa 65mm camera.
“It’s a bigger window into the world we were trying to look into,” added van Hoytema. “More light, spread over a bigger area of ever moving, living silver halides. I think it’s very pretty, as well as very identifiable in a visceral sense.”
Philippe Le Sourd (“The Beguiled”)
In shooting Sofia Coppola’s American Civil War drama, Le Sourd went painterly to create a sense of oppression at the boarding school, where Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning tend to wounded Union soldier Colin Farrell. “You shoot something more subtle with film on the quality of the highlights, skin tones, the grays, and the blacks,” said Le Sourd. “It’s more like you’re using a brush compared to digital. And I found more of the emotion with film. There’s something more dry. It’s almost close to a Renaissance painting with no hard lines around the face.”
There was also a unique softness the cinematographer achieved looking at 19th century photographic techniques as reference. It’s a delicate feminine world and Le Sourd wanted to adhere to their point of view. The long crane shot during the opening set the oppressive mood from the outset. “It was like being trapped by a spider by staying as long as possible inside the trees,” he said.
Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (“Call Me By Your Name”)
The same-sex romance directed by Luca Guadagnino and starring NYFCC Best Actor winner Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer leads to something far more sublime than summer love. For cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, shooting on 35mm with only a 35mm lens provided the most intimate and revealing visual perspective. “I choose to shoot on film in general because the quality is better,” the cinematographer said. “Here the landscape is so important, the trees, the leaves, the grass, the water. And, of course, film gives you better skin tone and tonal range inside the latitude of the exposure.”
And Mukdeeprom enjoyed blocking in the moment as well, such as the scene in the town square when Chalamet declares his desire for Hammer and they go off in their own space before reuniting. “When we arrived at the location and Luca looked around, I felt it was possible to do it in one shot and reveal what Luca wanted to get emotionally,” he said. It didn’t matter that the sky was overcast. That lent a sense of danger. “I can feel what happens better in front of the camera with film and respond to smaller details.”
Ed Lachman (“Wonderstruck”)
Visual contrast that could only be captured authentically on film was the hallmark of Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck,” where the deaf worlds of Rose (Millicent Simmonds) and Ben (Oakes Fegley) converge 50 years apart in New York. “Todd and I wanted to represent the cinema of the ’20s and the ’70s, and what better way to do that than with film?,” Lachman said. “It has a different texture, the color separation is different…it gives you a sense of depth to the image, almost like an etching.”
Appropriately for the 1927 sequences, Lachman shot with Double-X black-and-white negative to achieve the proper contrast, exposure latitude, and grain structure. And for the 1977 sequences, he recreated the urban distress of “Midnight Cowboy” and “The French Connection.” “We made a rickshaw dolly and tried to use the same means that they had and lenses that could’ve been used at that time,” he added. “I also recreated magenta in the shadow areas and green and yellow in the highlights.”
Matthew Jensen (“Wonder Woman”)
Another great instance of using film to convey contrast was Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” starring Gal Gadot. “I think film is better suited to period and there’s an elegance that comes with film the way the colors work and the softness,” said Matthew Jensen. “One of the early problems we were trying to tackle was this notion of Wonder Woman in period. You couldn’t make it almost a BBC documentary of world War I or something that was faded and sepia-toned. That would look ridiculous.”
So they reversed engineered the visual style so the DC superhero would look natural. “We definitely wanted her suit to be elegant and pop amidst the cyan grayness of London, which was different from Themyscira, her homeland,” added Jensen. “The important thing was contrast, to understand where she came from and how she viewed the man’s world, which was industrialized and ugly and choked by coal and black skies. She comes from Paradise, so we wanted you to feel the warmth of the sun and the bronze skin tones of the Amazons up against this beautiful ocean and green grass.”
Janusz Kaminski (“The Post”)
Contrast was also vital to Steven Spielberg’s 1971 “Pentagon Papers”‘ thriller, “The Post,” starring Meryl Streep as publisher Katherine Graham and Tom Hanks as editor Ben Bradlee. “With film, I know when it’s looking good and why,” said two-time Oscar winner Janusz Kaminski (“Saving Private Ryan” and “Schindler’s List”). “A lot of talking, a lot of interiors. But at the same time, Steven felt that the movie should have the energy of the newspaper floor. It needed to look authentic and to move the camera 360. Consequently, I shot a lot of overhead with fluorescent lighting.”
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
However, when it came to lighting Streep’s Graham, Kaminski took a more classical approach. “I always wanted Kay to look larger than life,” added Kaminski. “And she has tremendous wealth and has dinner with the [high society].So the lighting was always more glamorizing. She was more the Statue of Liberty to me.”
Haris Zambarloukos (“Murder on the Orient Express”)
The other immersive 65mm film shot this year was Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express” (in which he stars as Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot). “We felt that film gave us something textural and something in the color that we wouldn’t be able to get any other way,” said Haris Zambarloukos. “What you really want are the mid-tones. That’s where the face kind of lives.”
And this benefited the all-star cast of suspects (including Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, and Leslie Odom Jr.). Most of it was shot at Longcross Studios outside of London without resorting to green screen. They built a train set with real carriages and constructed a hydraulic system to create movement, placing nearly 2,000 LED screens both inside and around the train displaying an authentic-looking environment. “The camera is absolutely huge and weights a ton,” added Zambarloukos. “But we challenged ourselves and allowed the audience to be swept away when it was appropriate.”
Alexis Zabe (“The Florida Project”)
With “The Florida Project,” director Sean Baker and Mexican cinematographer Alexis Zabe turned a unique coming-of-age movie about kids living on the fringe of Orlando’s Disney World into a freewheeling “pop verité” that resembles ice cream. And 35mm anamorphic film was the perfect choice to evoke the soft, creamy, imperfect aesthetic Baker was after. “There are fewer and fewer opportunities to work on 35 and I really treasure it,” said Zabe. “It changes the whole dynamic on set and it plays better because of the moving grain and the mechanics of the camera.”
Courtesy of A24
But it’s the push-pull between rambunctious six-year-old newcomer Brooklynn Prince and tenderhearted hotel manager Willem Dafoe (the Oscar frontrunner for Best Supporting Actor) that propelled the drama. Shooting scenes with adults, however, altered the visual language. They were done at a higher, more objective angle. “That was a great exercise in rhythm and blocking…and Willem… had a beautiful relationship with all the non-actors,” added Zabe.
Linus Sandgren (“Battle of the Sexes”)
Yet another great use of 35mm film to convey contrast occurred on “Battle of the Sexes,” the tennis face-off between Billie Jean King (“La La Land” Oscar-winner Emma Stone) and blowhard Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris went at it without a trace of ’70s nostalgia with Oscar-winning cinematographer Linus Sandgren (“La La Land”), who pushed the grain, contrast, and color saturation in the negative for a more organic look. “We created rules for ourselves for camera distance,” Sandgren said. “The less the character lets us into their lives, the further away we were with zooms, while the most intimate scenes we were hand-held and close with primes.”
Sandgren also worked out a strategy with the directors that politicized the motion of King and Riggs during their match (which extended to female and male perspectives throughout the movie). “We felt it could be interesting to create a running visual metaphor where Billie Jean and the other women players are often looking forward, while the men are looking back,” he said.
Robert Elswit (“Roman Israel, Esq.”)
Finally, the visual contrast between the ’70s and today is at the heart of “Roman Israel, Esq.,” the Dan Gilroy-directed drama starring Denzel Washington as a legal savant stuck in the past and forced to grapple with modern society.”There’s something romantic about film,” said Robert Elswit (Oscar winner for “There Will Be Blood”). “You see it on film and it really starts to come to life. There’s an alchemy to it. It made it warmer and we could go further with color temperature. We could have a real contrast between the two worlds that I wasn’t going to have to create later.
“All the stuff in his apartment, all the stuff at the beach, all the things where he’s home and comfortable. And that would contrast with everything that happens in the prison and at Colin Farrell’s law office,” added Elswit. After directing “Fences” (shot on 35mm), Washington also insisted on film. “Whatever it is you’re going for, whether it’s trying to lower the contrast or make things more diffused, there isn’t time to do it [digitally]. And we know how to do it on film,” he said.