Influencers: Guillermo del Toro & Cinematographer
Presented by

Presented by

optional screen reader

Past Lists Sign Up

Guillermo del Toro & Cinematographer Dan Laustsen

Profiles of a Partnership: 20 years after their first collaboration, del Toro and Laustsen have reunited to create three incredible films in which light and drama are inseparable.

Guillermo del Toro and Dan Laustsen

Guillermo del Toro and Dan Laustsen

Searchlight

In the mid-1990s, soon after making his Spanish-language debut “Cronos,” director Guillermo del Toro tried his monster-friendly hand at an American studio film for the first time. But working with Miramax on “Mimic,” a sci-fi horror movie about a plague of cockroaches in Manhattan, left behind a bitter first taste of Hollywood for the burgeoning Mexican auteur.

That kerfuffle of a production, a tug of war for creative control between director and producers, did give birth to his long-standing partnership with Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen, at the time also an emerging figure on the international stage finding his footing outside of his homeland.

“It’s funny, Laustsen and I started on the wrong foot,” recalled del Toro. Determined to avoid any similarities with the “Alien” franchise, the young director pushed back on some of the suggestions from the men with the money. “The studio wanted to do sort of an ‘Alien 3 1/2′ and I was resisting,” he added. Still, del Toro agreed to meet with Lauststen, their recommendation to lens the film, after having seen some of his footage.

Mimic Guillermo del Toro

(L) Guillermo del Toro on the set of “Mimic,” (R) “Mimic”

Dimension/Everett Collection

“I thought, ‘This guy has a beautiful eye.’ So we have a first encounter and I said, ‘What did you think of the screenplay?’ And Laustsen said, ‘Oh, it reminded me of ‘Alien,'” del Toro said with a laugh. “So right away I went, ‘Oh my God, this is not the guy I want.’ But then they said, ‘Can you meet with him again?’” Thankfully, their subsequent interactions were far more fruitful.

“The problem with Guillermo is that he has a memory like a fucking elephant and I don’t remember anything,” a candid Laustsen noted when asked about that first meeting.

Across his 11 features to date, del Toro has only worked with a total of three cinematographers: fellow Mexican Guillermo Navarro (six films), Laustsen (four films, including his most recent three), and, on a singular occasion (“Blade II”), with Gabriel Beristain.

Crimson Peak Jessica Chastain Guillermo del Toro

Guillermo del Toro on the set of “Crimson Peak” with Jessica Chastain

Universal Pictures/Everett Collection

“I rarely repeat production designers, I rarely repeat composers, I rarely repeat wardrobe designers, but I have a very monogamous relationship with cinematographers,” explained del Toro. “I go for decades because what’s most important for the day-to-day functioning of a set behind the camera is in the hands of the cinematographer and the director more than any other department.”

That Laustsen has remained part of such a limited roster is the result of two paramount prerequisites: a mutual understanding of the dynamic that del Toro deems ideal for moviemaking — one where the DP cedes a certain level of control of the elements of the image to the director — and the fact that Laustsen’s technical expertise serves the dramatic imperatives of the story and isn’t dictated solely by aesthetic concerns.

“I decide mostly camera moves, the composition, and the lens, but [his] lighting of the frame is absolutely perfect and dramatic,” said del Toro. “I’ve never seen him light a scene where the light is dislocated from the dramatic purpose. He doesn’t overdo it, and he has the most exquisite sense of light as a dramatic tool that I’ve seen. In my opinion, Dan is one of the top five masters of light working in cinema today.”

While working on “Mimic,” del Toro and Laustsen discovered a shared affinity for darkness that has accompanied their work together ever since. Del Toro refers to this as a “tradition” in which they seek to keep large portions of the frame in rich blacks that are still legible enough for the audience to discern visual information.

This approach was crucial in their latest effort, “Nightmare Alley,” where the density of the black tones on screen was so painstakingly calibrated that it made the director believe the piece could also work in a monochromatic palette. “That allowed me to think about the movie almost like a black-and-white movie with a layer of color,” he said. Not surprisingly, del Toro is about to release a black-and-white version of his noir saga entitled “Nightmare Alley: Vision in Darkness and Light.”

“We are not afraid of the darkness,” said Laustsen. “We are not afraid of what we are not seeing, but we want to be exact about what you see.”

To see how del Toro and Laustsen created the look of “Nightmare Alley,” watch the video essay below: 

Del Toro and Laustsen didn’t collaborate in the two decades following “Mimic,” but after completing “Pacific Rim,” his sixth venture with Navarro, del Toro felt ready for a change to bring to life his lavish gothic romance “Crimson Peak.” “With each movie I make I try to experiment with something different, so the skills needed for ‘Devil’s Backbone’ and the skill set needed for ‘Pacific Rim’ are completely different,” said del Toro. ”For ‘Crimson Peak,’ I thought I needed somebody new.”

Of his four undertakings with del Toro, Laustsen has a special affection for 2015’s “Crimson Peak.” It’s in this film that their recurring use of a single lighting source became particularly instrumental for content and form; realism is always secondary. “It’s more important that light is telling the story than where it’s coming from,” said Laustsen. Del Toro credits the cinematographer for the concept of how to achieve it.

“I was talking in painterly terms and then Dan said, ‘Why don’t we use these big windows as the key source of lighting and the everything else is a bounce and small lights that just rim the edge of the character to separate them from the background? That’ll give it a period look.’ And I thought, ‘That’s brilliant, Dan. Let’s do it.’ That idea didn’t come from me. It came from him. From that moment on, I knew the collaboration in terms of the light was in fantastic hands,” recalled del Toro.

"Crimson Peak" Guillermo del Toro

Guillermo del Toro on the set “Crimson Peak” (L), “Crimson Peak” (R)

Everett Collection

Based on that, del Toro started thinking about the mansion where the drama unspools as a character. Given that the light would come through the windows, he asked his team to make them resemble eyes in order to give the impression that the structure itself is watching the characters. Laustsen’s bright proposition was elevated through the director’s vision and vice versa. These moments of mutual inspiration define their bond.

When given the choice, Laustsen and del Toro prefer to shoot in a studio, as it provides a maximum level of control over the trio of components del Toro deems most essential to accomplish his desired outcome.

“We determined the logistics along with the artistic needs, so I think one of my closest collaborations is with three department: production design and set decoration, wardrobe, and cinematography,” said del Toro. “Those three need to come to a common language. It’s vital that Dan has the time to collaborate for weeks if not months with us.”

"The Shape of Water"

“The Shape of Water”

Searchlight

Including the people in charge of what the actors will wear and the spaces they will inhabit ultimately benefits Laustsen’s lighting. It’s because of this intertwined fabrication that they are able to create scenes with color schemes and lighting so specific that little must be corrected during postproduction. What the camera registered on set is almost one to one what the viewer will get at the cinema.

The long prep work del Toro alludes to offers certain advantages that Laustsen hasn’t always experienced with other storytellers. For example, in “The Shape of Water” (which earned del Toro Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture), they had to figure out the proper manner to light the fishman. Initially, the production tried UV lights that reflected on the other actors’ skins, thus requiring adjustment to the cast’s makeup. This was only possible due to the allocated time for trial and error.

“Because Guillermo is so well prepared, we shoot that makeup test as soon as I’m coming on the show like three or four months before,” Laustsen said. “So you really have time to change it. If you want to do a test, and you want to change it, you have to have time to do it. We did that very early in the process on ‘Shape of Water’ and on ‘Crimson Peak,’ as well.”

"The Shape of Water" Dan Laustsen Guillermo del Toro

Dan Laustsen and Guillermo del Toro on “The Shape of Water” set

Searchlight

The same goes for pre-lighting the sets long before shooting with the actors, a step for which, in Laustsen’s experience, there isn’t always time or money. But del Toro builds it into the process. They take into consideration the patterns and colors of the set decoration, how the camera will move, as well as the actors’ blocking, and make adjustments according to the atmospheric or emotional necessities of the scene.

“The key collaborators cannot add stress; they need to add to the relief. They need to be solution-oriented,” said del Toro. “When you are on a set, no matter what you have against you, you want to be on a team of people looking for solutions and not the problems, and Dan is excellent at that.”

On “Nightmare Alley,” the office that belongs to psychoanalyst Lilith (played by Cate Blanchett) serves as a notable example of how the construction of the set always takes into account the interactions between the camera, the actors, and, of course, the light. “Lilith’s office could be a normal square office, but we designed it to be narrow and very long, because we want to have this alley feeling and we wanted to have some space so the actors can move and so the camera could move as well,” explained Laustsen.

"Nightmare Alley" Bradley Cooper in Lilith's Office

Lilith’s Office in “Nightmare Alley”

Searchlight Pictures

To realize the wide angles inside the room, Laustsen had to have light outside the set coming through a large window. Additionally, the office space was built with low ceilings so that the skyline could appear in the frame above the actors’ heads, in this case Blanchett and Bradley Cooper, who embodies Stan.

This was another of Laustsen’s strokes of brilliance. “I remember he said, ‘We should try to lower the ceiling so we can contain them like they did in the 1930s and 1940s,’” said del Toro. “They lowered the ceilings so they could be in the composition in a wide lens and I thought that was a great idea. Together we decided that ‘Nightmare Alley’ needed to shot on a wider lens range than I normally shoot.”

Collectively, these ideas facilitated Laustsen’s ability to work around del Toro’s purposeful choreography for his cast and deliver classical studio cross lighting.

For the close-ups, however, they changed to tighter lenses and adapted the intensity of the light to add a somewhat unrealistic allure to them, especially the duplicitous Lilith. “The lighting in the room and the lighting on the face is a little bit different. We just wanted to light her as if she was a diva, a powerful woman,” said Laustsen.

"Nightmare Alley"

“Nightmare Alley”

Searchlight

“We are very bold,” said del Toro about his and Laustsen’s rationale regarding what the lighting says about a character. “For example, we can decide, which we did on ‘Nightmare Alley,’ not to light our star Bradley Cooper for dramatic purposes, and to have him deliver entire scenes or lines in darkness because it suits the character. He should be in darkness when he is lying.”

“We really want to tell the story with the light and with the camera,” added Laustsen. “That’s the beauty of the way we work together. We agree on how to do it, and he has this extremely strong vision. For me it’s a pleasure.”

Geographical distance — Laustsen resides in Copenhagen while del Toro lives in Los Angeles — prevents the two from seeing much of one other outside of their sets, yet the gorgeously tenebrous tales they create together speak to how much they see eye to eye. They describe their union as if it were an inherent force.

“Dan and I made a movie in the ’90s, and then we didn’t make a movie for so long, and the testament to how in sync we are is that when we started working again decades later it was like not a day had gone by,” said del Toro. “We picked up right where we left off 20 years before.” –Carlos Aguilar

Guillermo del Toro & Dan Laustsen

Credits: “Mimic” (1997), “Crimson Peak” (2015), “The Shape of Water” (2017), “Nightmare Alley” (2021).

View More Profiles

Joe Wright & Sarah Greenwood

Production Designer

Influencers: The story of how Joe Wright's 23-year collaboration and friendship with production designer Sarah Greenwood and set dresser Katie Spencer has become the backbone of his bold cinema.

View Profile