Euro Styled, and Nicely Done

As awards’ season entered hyper-drive, I thought about two cinematographers in particular whom I felt were likely to receive serious award consideration this year. With the ASC, Academy Award, and BAFTA nominations now out, it’s nice to see I was right about how their industry peers felt about their work. The cinematographers I was thinking about are the legendary Janusz Kaminski and Hoyte van Hoytema, FSF, NSC. Both are being recognized this year for their work on period films–Janusz for Steven Spielberg’s World War I piece, War Horse, and Hoyte for filming the Cold War era spy film, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, directed by Tomas Alfredson.

Illustrating how subjective award nominations are, both men received BAFTA nominations this year, Hoyte received an ASC nomination, and Janusz received an Academy Award nomination. Just my opinion, but I felt they were both deserving of nods from all three, but of course, there was reams of fine work this year and each body has different demographics and criterion for deciding these things. Nonetheless, I was impressed with Kaminski’s work because of the broad and painterly way he was able to romanticize the skies and landscapes of Europe and visualize the brutal, dark horror of World War I simultaneously. van Hoytema also tackled Europe in a period piece, albeit many decades later, for Alfredson’s film, and in that case, I was impressed by the care and craftsmanship that went into painting the gray, drab, and, as Hoyte says, “scruffy” nature of dimly lit Eastern Europe in the 1970’s, where spies anonymously plied their trade at the height of the Cold War. I had previously been impressed with Hoyte’s work on a much different period piece last year, The Fighter  (AC Jan. ’11)  for which I wrote a feature article for American Cinematographer, and once again this year, I think he has proven himself to be among the world’s rising cinematographers, and Janusz’ track record speaks for itself.

I talked to both Hoyte, Janusz, and other cinematographers recently for an article in Variety about the art of shooting period work, but since Variety’s format and space permit only a cursory treatment of the topic, I thought I’d take the opportunity here to elaborate on the work the two men did this year. A detailed technical examination of how Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was shot can be found in the December 2011 issue, written by Jean Oppenheimer, and War Horse  can be found in the current January issue of AC, written by Patricia Thomson. Following on those articles, I got each man to share some additional creative thoughts about period work on the two projects.

Hoyte van Hoytema, FSF, NSC

As it relates to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, van Hoytema points out that, in recent years, he has only rarely shot contemporary stories, that he previously shot an 1980’s-era period piece with Alfredson in the Swedish film Let the Right One In (2008), and later did extensive period work in The Fighter, among other pictures. Generally, he says, he prefers and gravitates to such period work.

“I think it is always easier to be creative if you have had a little bit of distance to (the subject matter) somehow,” he suggests. “I think time gives things perspective, and so, you can be a little bit more analytical about certain things. You have many references in art and documentary imagery that helps you see how the time is defined in a visual sense. It’s nice, as a cinematographer, to be able to re-invent yourself a little bit by (visualizing) aesthetics that people know very well. There is a little nostalgia there also, and I think nostalgia is a good provocateur for creating visuals.”

Hoytema talks at length about studying reference material on Eastern Europe in the 1970’s to come up with the grayish/noir aesthetic seen in Tinker Tailor Soldier  Spy. But, in the end, that aesthetic, he says, emanated out of the particular story originally crafted as a novel by John le Carré. Thus, though the stories don’t take place all that many years apart, he took his visual approach on the film in a totally different direction than the work he did for David O. Russell on The Fighter. 

“The cinematography on The Fighter was so adjusted for the actor’s performances that I would sometimes sacrifice more precise light and angles and lenses to make sure I didn’t limit the actors,” van Hoytema explains. “But on Tinker Tailor, I had more precise visual control—it was more about painting the universe in a different way. We wanted to make something that was really meticulous in storytelling in a cinematic kind of way that feels a little less random. It’s more thorough in its angles and cuts than The Fighter. This movie is more about mood, atmosphere, smells, in addition to the performances.”

On the collaborative front, the cinematographer also suggests that in period work, he feels an obligation, when feasible, to honor the labors of his production design and costume colleagues through his camera work. The palette and nature of many visuals, after all, are designed with those people working hand-in-hand with van Hoytema and the director.

“In a visual sense, I worked very close with the production designer [Maria Djurkovic] on this project,” he says. “We spent a lot of time together, and she came up with a lot of inspirational material for me. So, yes, I adjusted my cinematography because of her work and the costumes, out of respect for them. We drew up some sort of palette feeling that we liked together, and also colors we wanted to avoid. So, when the actors came in, in a way, this whole world was sketched for them. We could give them lots of [visual] references as they started working on their performances, so in away, it was a very directional process that we were all involved in together.”

Janusz Kaminski

Meanwhile, Patricia Thomson’s article in the January issue of AC details Janusz Kaminski’s work on War Horse. But I was also curious to hear his thoughts about the experience visualizing World War I in War Horse compared to his award-winning effort to bring the stinging horror of World War II to life for Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan (AC Aug. ’98). Kaminski says camera movement and lighting involved totally different approaches for the two pictures. The frenetic, handheld approach for following action in Private Ryan was replaced by what Kaminski calls “a more straightforward approach” for depicting the first World War’s trench warfare, and a wider, “more objective” lensing strategy for the madness in the trenches.

“For trench war, we had to be substantially different than Private Ryan,” he says. “There is rain and smoke and explosions and all that stuff, so you had to be less personally involved [than the intimate camera used on Private Ryan.”]

However, the movie also features a beautiful, classical visualization of a cavalry charge as British troops, early in the war, descend on German lines. Initially, the charge of men atop majestic animals is painterly and stylized—an homage to the end of horseback Calvary as modern warfare came onto the scene. Eventually, of course, the attack goes wrong, the horses enter a dark forest where German troops lie in wait, and the darkness of trench-style warfare then slowly takes over the movie.

I use the word “painterly” because, indeed, Spielberg and Kaminski were trying to evoke classic paintings of heroic cavalry charges on historic battlefields. Then, later, when things go dark and gloomy, once again, they were hoping to evoke classic imagery of the war’s blown-out, haunted battlefields.

“We wanted to cut through those shots and find what the emotional approach to the [Cavalry charge] was,” Kaminski says. “It was meant to look glorious, like in so many paintings. There are first World War paintings from the battlefield that are beautiful like this. I wanted to convey that beauty—the horses charging, the glory of the soldiers pointing [their swords], almost like gladiators. So the idea was to start with the glorification of battle from those paintings, and then later, we see the reality of the war, death, and all the destruction.

“That’s when we change, and reference black-and-white [photos] from the war, where you see the battlefield of Verdun [in France] that are famous. It was almost total destruction—land with one barren tree sticking out of the ground, destroyed tanks. We based a shot on one of those specific [photos]. But in terms of color and (camera movement), that was our total artistic creation.”

Kaminski is particularly proud of his work on War Horse for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the story gave him a chance to simultaneously create, in certain scenes, what he calls “storybook paintings” such as the richly golden sky at the film’s climax, but also brutally harsh imagery that realistically illustrates the war in all its madness. He suggests there is a perfectly understandable desire, or tendency, to romanticize imagery in period films like War Horse. But the ability to know when to give in to that compulsion, and when to resist it, is a skill Kaminski is well acquainted with.

“The easiest way to do a period movie is to have images perfect for that specific story,” he says. “So you might have to get away from [the tendency to do] beautification of the images in period films. Amistad (AC Jan. ’97) was a good example for us. That film dealt with slavery. Because that was the subject matter, I tried to stay away from the conventions of warm light. Consequently, sequences involving the slaves had bluish tones, not warm tones. I certainly wanted to use warm light, but the story did not allow for that because warm light romanticizes the story, and there was nothing romantic about that particular movie. I do like to go against the expected, that is interesting to do, but only if you have a good reason. [War Horse] was pretty conventional in terms of capturing the beauty of the particular period, except, of course, for the war moments. When we showed horses laboring to pull artillery up a hill, I did not want to have romantic images there—I wanted it bluer and greyer and grittier to have the audience feel the hardship of the particular scene. But in other places, I was able to have that romantic, storybook feeling, so that was one great thing about this movie.”  

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy photos by Jack English, courtesy of Focus Features.

War Horse photos by Andrew Cooper, SMPSP and David Appleby, courtesy of DreamWorks.

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