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Crafts Roundup: The Year of Cinematographers Capturing Turmoil On Screen

by Bill Desowitz
November 26, 2013 2:15 PM
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Barry Ackroyd's documentary experience served him well in "Captain Phillips" as its own culmination with director Paul Greengrass. His job was to capture everything in this cat-and-mouse between Tom Hanks' Captain Phillips and the Somalian pirates led by newcomer Barkhad Abdi. "Everyone who appears in front of the camera has the same intensity and relevance," Ackroyd suggests."It's part of my psyche and the way I work."

On the one hand, there's a frightening intensity to the way the pirates overtake the ship by overcoming the blasts of water from the crew. On the other hand, the improvised ending with a real medic is informed by Ackroyd's documentary skill and Hanks's complete trust in Greengrass. "The juxtaposition is really quite moving between his tragedy and her professionalism. They meet in a way that you don't usually see in film studio films."

In the murky black-and-white "Nebraska" (admittedly recorded in color on the Alexa and then altered during post), Phedon Papamichael also reaches new heights with director Alexander Payne. "The thing about landscapes is whatever the day is, you go out and shoot it," he insists.

As far as interiors, they let the actors invade the spaces, whether it was a house, a restaurant, or a bar. But Bruce Dern defined it: "The first time he stepped in front of a camera when we were doing a test, I was in a parking lot and the sun was out and I turned him so we'd get some backlight, and his hair just glowed and he looked like a ghost, and it was fascinating to study that face."

For Bruno Delbonnel, "Inside Llewyn Davis" marked his first collaboration with the Coen brothers, but he felt at ease with their detailed preparation and communicative style. He used "The Freewheelin Bob Dylan" album cover as a starting point with its evocation of "the slushy, cold New York winter." But he also structured the lighting as an early '60s folk song. He mainly went for a milky palette that was an uncomfortable magenta, yellow and shot on film because of the period and grain structure of the stock. 

"The Grandmaster"
"The Grandmaster"

"For me, the rule was to have the light falling off," Delbonnel says. "It  was more about being evocative than truthful to the '60s. I was looking for coldness, sadness, unhappiness, loneliness."

"The Grandmaster," Wong Kar-wai’s exquisite biopic about martial arts legend Ip Man (Tony Leung), is about the clash of physical and philosophical ideals. But it was a freewheeling, unconventional experience for cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, who wasn't used to such improvisation. However, it all comes together in the snowy fight on a train platform between Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) and her late father's killer and protege (Zhang Jin).

It took two years to shoot, often changing and expanding sets and props, and what began as a series of close-ups, escalated into a tour de force sequence defined by the performances of the two actors and a sense of discovery that informed the lighting and camera movement.

In "Rush," Anthony Dod Mantle developed a way of creating his own unique production values for the '70s look of the Formula 1 locations on the circuit. Which meant they were dependent on certain archival material that had to be manipulated and seamlessly integrated with the live-action footage.

"The aesthetic was a very painterly and, what I thought, an inspiring, visceral, sexy, color palette, and not the desaturated, golf ball grain, sadness of '70s. In Monaco, I was particularly struck by the yellow, cyan, and red. It's not pristine -- it has grit. The drivers were eccentric and raggedy; they had dirty underwear and bad hair, in comparison to multi-millionaire motor racing drivers now and their entourage."


  • joeS | November 26, 2013 2:19 PMReply

    Correction. NEBRASKA was neither "sumptuous" nor in "black and white." With all due respect to Phedon Papamichael, his decision to use a cheaper digital process and then taking out the color produces a bland looking movie that could have been specatular if it had been shot on 35mm BLACK & WHITE FILM.
    It's not "Black & White" - it's "Gray & Grayer"

  • JoeS | November 26, 2013 9:32 PM

    Bill, that is the point, though. Current day Digital on Digital (shot and projected) cannot reproduce true black at all. So EVERYTHING shot that way is gray - it can't be explained away as an "artistic choice". It's currently a technical IMPOSSIBLITY to reproduce true black right now with an all digital stream.

  • Bill Desowitz | November 26, 2013 3:21 PM

    Yes, it was technically captured in color on the Alexa (which I've added) and "stark" is really more accurate. However, the gray look certainly captures the mood and pace.

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