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‘All Quiet on the Western Front,’ ‘Elvis,’ ‘Empire of Light’ Cinematographers on Their Oscar-Nominated Work: “The Camera Had to Be Dancing”



In this season’s competitive cinematography race, Mandy Walker’s bold lensing of Warner Bros.’ Elvis made her just the third woman ever nominated for an Academy Award in the category. Could she become the first to take home the Oscar?

Walker is joined by two other first-time nominees in James Friend, for Netflix’s All Quiet on the Western Frontand Florian Hoffmeister, for Focus Features’ Tár. Also in the running is veteran two-time winner Roger Deakins, who with his work for Searchlight’s Empire of Light earned his 16th nomination (extending Deakins’ distinction as the most nominated living cinematographer in the category).

The fifth contender is another veteran, Darius Khondji, who is nominated for his first collaboration with Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Netflix’s Bardo is the director’s deeply personal, introspective film following documentarian Silverio (Daniel Giménez Cacho) that moves between the real and surreal and was filmed on location and on stages in Mexico. “We wanted to see the world with very wide eyes, wide angles, to be very close to Silverio,” says Khondji, adding that the director also saw the film as having different “chapters” that he wanted to flow from one to another as a continuous story.

Daniel Gimenez Cacho in Netflix's Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths.

Daniel Giménez Cacho in Netflix’s Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths.

Limbo Films, S. De RL de CV Courtesy of Netflix

Khondji used large-format ARRI Alexa 65 cameras with wide-angle lenses, explaining of the choice, “We wanted to feel the actor very present. [with a very close] distance between the camera and the actor. [Additionally,] we wanted to feel it when the camera turns around the actor, and we see the height of buildings, the rooms, the ceilings. We wanted to have that feeling of almost flying.”

In describing his lensing of Tár, the Cate Blanchett-led drama about an EGOT-status composer on a downward spiral, Hoffmeister says the cinematic approach was restrained. “The focus of this restraint was to create an immersive sense of authenticity but trying to stay emotionally neutral,” he says of the production, shot largely in Germany, particularly in Berlin. “We wanted to let the audience figure [out] the elements [of her story] — and different levels of reality that the movie offers — by themselves. You could have really pushed, saying, from frame one, ‘This is not about music. This is about drama.’ But we very consciously decided not to do that. We really wanted to step back and let the film almost tell itself.”

Cate Blanchett in Focus Features' Tar

Cate Blanchett in Focus Features’ Tár

Courtesy of Focus Features

He adds that they also wanted a clean look, meaning he didn’t want a “photographic layer between the camera and the story. There should be no visual romanticism in that sense.”

Authenticity and immersion were also central All Quiet on the Western Front DP Friend, as he sets out to capture the reality and horror of war in Edward Berger’s adaptation of the classic World War I novel. It was shot on a tight 53-day schedule, on location near Prague — and in plenty of mud. “We wanted to [engross] the audience in what the characters were going through and, more importantly, place the audience in the trenches,” says Friend. “We were very conscious of not breaking that illusion. So [we used some] quite long takes, and the camera was very much in the zone of the characters.”

To do this, he also used ARRI’s large-format Alexa 65 camera and a range of approaches and gear to move the camera, including a Steadicam and Stabileye stabilized head. “We used a multitude of tools that would enable us to keep that feel — most likely every piece of grip and gimbal equipment out there, down to very basic handheld and putting the camera on the shoulder and running with the actors.”

Walker’s work has received deserved attention for meticulously re-creating the look and feel of Elvis Presley’s most well-known performances. The DP says there were effectively three aspects to the visual language of this movie, which was shot in Australia. “The first one is, the camera had to be dancing with Elvis; and then when he flies, we fly. And when there’s a dramatic, intense, emotional moment, we were to slow down and be elegant and observational,” she explains. “The tricky thing was to integrate them into the footage so it flowed. We’re dancing with Elvis [onstage in Vegas]then we cut to the colonel [Elvis’ manager, played by Tom Hanks] down in the audience, selling Elvis for the next five years with the head of the hotel. It was about creating a flow of those different styles of camera and movement and lighting.”

She adds that careful attention was placed on transitions from scene to scene and in between time periods. “It was about how to integrate those without throwing the audience out of the film,” she adds. “The concerts are so mesmerizing and Austin’s so incredible that I had to be very cognizant that, at the same time, we are telling the story.”

Finally, Deakins gave a naturalistic, observational look to Empire of Light, his frequent collaborator Sam Mendes’ ’80s-set drama that follows local cinema employees Hilary (Olivia Coleman), a lonely woman who suffers from bipolar disorder, and Stephen (Micheal Ward). The film was made in the English coastal town of Margate, where they found a disused cinema for the theater exterior. “As luck would have it, it worked for an upstairs where there was a ballroom, but it didn’t have a lobby that fit what Sam was after in the script,” says Deakins.

Instead, the lobby was a set built on a location a few doors from the cinema with the same view. “The difficulty was balancing the interior with the exterior because you’re shooting with a short amount of daylight,” says Deakins, adding that the art department built in controllable lighting fixtures, including the overhead chandelier. “Basically the whole set was lit in preproduction. I used very few lights on the floor.”

The ballroom wasn’t in Mendes’ original plan, but it had full-wall windows and an ocean view that the director found to be ideal. “In terms of lighting, I didn’t do anything at all,” says Deakins of filming on that location. “It wasn’t a big production and there was no way I was going to put in huge light systems [and] cranes on the promenade to light this ballroom from outside. You know where you can fight your battles, and you really need the equipment. So we treated the ballroom as though it were an exterior location.”

This story first appeared in a Feb. stand-alone issue of The News84Media magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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