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Immersed in Movies: Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski Talks 'Lincoln'

Thompson on Hollywood By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood January 23, 2013 at 2:35PM

The stripped-down, theatrical approach to "Lincoln" allowed Janusz Kaminski to light with an intimacy and ambiguity that's unique in his celebrated collaboration with Steven Spielberg (he's photographed every one of the director's live-action movies since "Schindler's List," for which he won his first Oscar).
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"Lincoln"
"Lincoln"

However, if the opening battle stylistically recalls the brutal Normandy invasion in "Saving Private Ryan" (for which the cinematographer earned his second Oscar), the minute and a half of hand-to-hand combat is really much more primal. "You have black soldiers; you have white soldiers and it becomes the essence of the Amendment," Kaminski suggests. "It's about ending the Civil War and ending the slavery, a vicious portrayal of killing somebody where you feel the blood gushing out of someone's chest. And you feel the sounds of someone being drowned in the water by the hands of a soldier."

Kaminski also enjoyed the comic relief of the political operatives trying to finagle votes from lame duck Congressmen because it took us outdoors for a breath of fresh air. "That's a signature storytelling of Steven. And it always works. I remember in 'Schindler's List' there was a little montage where the Jewish black marketers are buying stuff and selling to the Nazis and bickering about shoe polish in glass jars in the church."

But there are aesthetic differences between Kaminski and Spielberg and, surprisingly, the cinematographer occasionally lights brighter than the director might want it. Yet somehow they meet each other half-way. Still, when it came to Kaminski's favorite scene, a reflective moment between Lincoln and General Grant (Jared Harris) on a porch with the troops going by in silhouette, he got his way."

"There's the discomforting reminder of the war happening outside the frame with the shadows of troops moving across empty space. But it was problematic for various departments. The sound department was complaining that I was using the troops to create shadows and you don't hear them. Steven was a little concerned that it was disturbing to the actors. But when he realized what I was doing with that metaphor, he embraced it. He is not paralyzed by people's ideas."

Thus, "Lincoln" was an uncommonly emotional experience for Kaminski, who found being so close to the camera like watching a play and more conducive to creating a series of tableaux.

"Lincoln: An American Journey" featurette:

This article is related to: Lincoln, Production , Immersed In Movies, Features, Steven Spielberg


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