Contenders: How Cinematographers Played With Elements to Convey Directors Vision

The cinematographers for such films as “West Side Story,” “The Power of the Dog” and “Macbeth,” worked hard in collaboration with the different visions of each film’s director. Filmmaker Joel Coen wanted “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” his adaptation of the Shakespearean staple about the ambitious Scottish king, to be rooted in theatricality but not to look like a filmed play. “West Side Story” had to convey the grittiness of the mean streets of New York as well as dance sequences full of life and color. “The Power of the Dog” had to convey the vastness of Montana and the oppression of a home on the range.

Bruno Delbonnel worked with light and shadow for Macbeth’s tragic story and its deep psychological threads. All ornamentations were removed from the sets, there were no carpets, no torches and no flashy chandeliers in the castle. “It’s an homage to the language and Shakespeare,” Delbonnel says, noting that the lighting patterns he chose were on occasion unreal: “Sometimes the light doesn’t follow any natural reason. It’s a shape that either follows the lines of emotion or was in contradiction with it.”

Janusz Kaminski collaborated with Steven Spielberg for “West Side Story.” Like Delbonnel, his focus was lighting and flares to create drama. For the big fight near the end of the movie, production designer Adam Stockhausen found a sanitation department salt shed with high windows, situated near the highway off-ramp. For the scene, Kaminski built an elaborate lighting rig involving klieg lights mounted on super-size cranes, with the idea to have a mix of headlights and brake lights shining through at intervals. Audiences never actually see vehicles; they only see the lights. “The idea was, ‘What if the location was just below the overpass, and the cars illuminated the windows as the fight happens?’ And as the fight intensifies, we speed up the lights coming from outside to the point where it becomes this wild visual element of moving lights,” says Kaminski. “There are flares and shadows and it’s this violent fight. Steven [Spielberg] wanted to create that sense of emotional disturbance, not just through the actors and music.”

For “The Power of the Dog,” DP Ari Wegner not only captured the vast vistas of Montana, but also showed the psychological horror inside of the Burbank family house for Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog.” Wegner was conscious of the elements she needed to pull from Thomas Savage’s novel, on which the film is based, as well as from the script. The mansion is “this symbol of generational wealth, but the architecture doesn’t make sense as a ranch house,” she says. It’s a big place, yet it feels claustrophobic — deep browns and old woods fill the house with decidedly European decor. “It’s a space devoid of love, and any feminine touches and maternal love have faded away,” says Wegner. The foreboding aspect was deliberate “We wanted this dark space because in many ways it asks, ‘Where’s the monster?’”

Wegner faced the challenge of bringing the vast and brightly exposed barren landscapes into the house. Campion was adamant that Wegner not use a green screen and visual effects for exterior-facing shots. “We took photos of the locations and printed them on billboard-style backdrops, which helped with my lighting because I was seeing it all in-camera,” says Wegner. The DP adds that the backdrops enabled her to be riskier not only with her lighting choices but also with scene composition.

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