In just five movies, British director Joe Wright has established himself as a master stylist with an almost painterly eye for shot compositions and spatial geography. On the eve of his newest film, "Anna Karenina," we thought we would go through the five most amazing shots in his oeuvre (whittling them down was something of a challenge). As an added bonus, we got to talk to Seamus McGarvey, the cinematographer behind behind three of the five scenes, including the one from "Anna Karenina," about what it was like crafting these truly unforgettable moments. We've included the scenes where possible, but of course, you can check out each of these films on home video.
When we first saw "Anna Karenina" a couple of months ago, we thought that our eyes might spring out of our heads, like some Tex Avery wolf. The conceit behind "Anna Karenina" is that the entire movie takes place on a stage, with the camera moving around the stage and up into the rafters and down into the basement. This is all established in a mind-boggling opening shot we'll call The Overture, which lays out the geography of the stage/movie and sets up the emotional stakes for what's to come, following various characters as they prepare for their day (with the backgrounds shifting behind them), including Keira Knightley as the titular Anna, Jude Law as her husband, and Matthew Macfadyen as her brother. One of our favorite flourishes (in a scene full of them), is watching the other characters "wait in the wings," as the camera passes them by.
Wright has said that the decision to set it on a stage was a financial concession (that turned out to be an artistic triumph), and we were surprised this wasn't always the case. "The complete shift of gears was a shocker to us all, especially at such a late stage in pre-production," McGarvey admitted. Wait, so it wasn't always supposed to be on a stage? "I was on 'The Avengers' when all this was being done. But locations were being scouted all over Russia and Britain. And suddenly it changed. It was a Fellini-esque atmosphere, all of us on this set, with crews running between stages."
"The opening of the film, all of that is in-camera, with the curtain and the curtain is front-lit, so it appears like a solid curtain… It's like an old theatrical technique with the gaze, and the revealing of Oblonsky and beyond," McGarvey explained. He said that there was one key difference between this film and other Wright films that he's shot. "The difference with this film was that we had a choreographer involved, who was just incredible and who devised all these dances and even the most little, incidental movement was choreographed," he said. "So that scene was crystallized as we thought about all the elements. Joe is so conscious about what it takes to do a move. There's a constant evolution of the shot that involves creative discussion on a photographic level."
We wondered, for all the extensive planning and choreography and staging, if, in the end, McGarvey wouldn't have rather just gone and shot on location. "For me, it was a great decision, even though it meant working with a lower budget and a hell of a lot harder. It meant that every single scenario had to be created from the ground up," he said, sounding liberated. "Sometimes you work on these period films, as I've done in the past, and there are a myriad of restrictions. Not only in terms of how you can light something but where you can put the camera, etc. In design terms it has its own built-in look."
"We were creating all of this from the ground up, so it gives it a stronger feel and one with more visual cohesiveness," he continued. "I think I was able to completely change my lighting style. A lot of times you're battling against ambient light. I was able to use more expressive forms of lighting. And the fluidity of this environment gave our camera was great." McGarvey then boiled it down thusly: "It was one of the most creative cinematographic excursions I've ever had."