Paul Thomas Anderson served as his own cinematographer on the “Phantom Thread,” which meant he collaborated closely with – and relied upon – his long-time gaffer Michael Bauman and camera/steadicam operator Colin Anderson more than on his previous seven films. Anderson has been reluctant to take the director of photography title – having given Bauman a lighting cameraman credit, a nod to the credit Stanley Kubrick gave John Alcott on “Barry Lyndon” – and views the film’s photography as having been a collaboration, with him being the final decision-maker.
In talking to Anderson’s collaborators, it’s clear there is a duality, or maybe more specifically a contradiction, to the way he works. He’s a filmmaker who knows exactly what he wants in terms of lighting, the cinematic style and look of his films, but he needs to see it before knowing what it is that he wants. It’s a process that requires time and involves constant testing and experimentation, a process that with “Phantom Thread” started at least nine months before principal photography, and carried through 68 days (unheard of for a film this size) of shooting.
IndieWire recently had lengthy interviews with Bauman and Anderson (the camera operator, not the director) to gain insight into all aspects of how PTA works and approached shooting “Phantom Thread.” What emerges is a true journey to finding the film’s unique period look, which included a mixture of photochemical, smoke, filtration, and lenses experimentation to find what the director/DP wanted.
Not “The Crown”
“One of the first things he said was look, this cannot look like ‘The Crown,'” said Bauman. “That was a big thing. When people think of a period movie it becomes this beautifully polished, amazingly photographed – I mean ‘The Crown’ looks beautiful – but super clean, gorgeous light and he was clear it couldn’t look like that.”
According to Bauman, this meant trying to find ways to “dirty up” the image. While originally Anderson wanted fine grain so he could blow his 35mm film up to 70mm, he soon came to realize that texture would be how he’d achieve his period look and that meant trying to get a more grainy image.
“Because right now Kodak is trying to compete with digital, it makes their film stocks very, very fine grain,” said Bauman. “So it’s about how do we get some of that dirt back, like some of the older stocks that were around 15-20 years ago. So we started pushing.”
This mean slightly underexposing the image and then “pushing” it in the development process so the stock becomes more sensitive and it increases the grain and texture of the image. Having to push the stock ended up also being a practical solution to shooting in historical locations where large lights were near impossible to use and grey, cloudy London supplied only seven hours of daylight.
PTA and his lighting cameraman shot Radiohead’s “Daydreaming” and Haim’s “Valentine” music video purely to experiment with how to shoot “Phantom Thread.” On “Daydreaming,” Thom Yorke wanders in and out of various rooms, each shot on film with minimal available light so that Anderson could get use to the aesthetic. Then on the Haim video – which was meant to mirror the look of an old Rolling Stones documentary – Bauman and Anderson experimented with pushing the stock and figuring out where the sweet spot was in terms of texture and grain.
Against Our Better Instincts
The struggle of not being able to work with a great deal of light meant the classicist Anderson, who avoids working with modern film technology at all costs, had to embrace the latest in compact and efficient LED technology. This also meant more testing. Along with the music videos, Anderson and Bauman did numerous other tests over an eight month period, including on location and a week at Panavision.
“Paul had spent a lot of time with the lens guys to come up with a combination of lenses that had a lot of texture to them,” said Bauman. “They had imperfections to them and then we did a lot with lo-con filters, which lowered the contrast. Now that’s generally the opposite of what most people try to do. Most people try to have nice rich black – a very nice velvety type of feeling in the blacks – and that was no bueno for this film.”
Bauman also found himself working against his better lighting instincts bringing up the fill light, knocking down the contrast and creating intentionally flat-looking images for the film’s look.
“Paul showed us reference photographs from the ’50s of the dressmaking process,” said Anderson. “A lot of it was down and dirty and stark – fluorescent and overhead lighting, where dresses were made. It wasn’t pretty. You are trying to make a beautiful film, but a lot of it was lit as it was a time with bright fluorescent”
Smoke and Lenses
Photo : Laurie Sparham / Focus Features
Bauman and Anderson also discovered that the texture they were looking for meant using more “smoke,” or theatrical haze, than they normally would. The problem became their principal 18th century location.
“That place was drafty as hell, so you’d start with the set and get the smoke so it looked good, then half way through the take the smoke is gone,” said Bauman. To compensate they added more smoke, but sometimes it wouldn’t dissipate and the smoke would be incredibly heavy.
“There’s a couple of scenes in the movie that I’m like, wow we went a little heavy there, like when she is at the fashion show,” added Bauman. “If you see that again, the damn place looks like it’s on fire, but it has a great texture to it. You are kind of throwing these different layers at it, really taking the image quality and lowering it. Paul really came to embrace it.”
While PTA needed to experiment with the film stocks and the lighting, how the lenses factored into the equation is something he knows incredibly well and did little collaborating.
Photo : Laurie Sparham / Focus Features
“No other director knows glass like Paul does,” said Anderson. “He can hold his own with any other DP when it comes to glass and what he wants out of it and how it’ll react to film – he knows it incredibly well.”
Anderson said PTA knew going into “Phantom Thread” how he would thematically use some of his favorite lenses, like the 14mm “Gordon Willis lens” or the antique 50mm antique Pathe he had converted to spherical (it was used to shoot anamorphic on “There Will Be Blood”).
“You have to get inside Paul’s head to know why he chooses what lens and just when I think I’ve learned it, he’ll reach for something completely unexpected,” said Anderson.