Oscar-nominated cinematographers explain how they envelop you in the story

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Anna-Karenina-danceAnna Karenina cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, who started working on the Joe Wright film three days after he finished Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, never wants you to notice cinematography for its own sake. “Cinematography really should be about shepherding the story through in the most creative and appropriate way for the script,” he says. But asked to talk us through a scene in Anna Karenina – which earned him his second Oscar nomination after Wright’s Atonement and forced him to work in a more theatrical, bold mode than he’s used to once Wright decided to make the Russian aristocrats’ world literally a stage in an auditorium, he knows precisely which one to point to:

McGarvey: There is a scene that in mind coalesces cinematography in that it’s about camera movement, it’s about lighting change, it’s about the choice of angles, and it’s about looking at the characters and what the camera is saying about them. Joe and I had talked about a shot that would be, within the same shot, objective, then migrate into a subjective point of view, and then back again to objectivity. We shot the shot of Vronsky [Aaron Taylor-Johnson] leading Anna [Keira Knightley] onto the ballroom in the auditorium and igniting the frozen dancers as they pass them by with their burgeoning love. The camera follows them around, and it was quite a long take of this dance that was specially choreographed for us by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, but the camera swirls around Anna as she’s lifted up into the air, and within that move, as the camera circles them round and round, we evacuated all the extras and dancers from the auditorium — there must have been about 200 of them — in the space of 5 seconds. And then as the camera pulls back from them again, I make a light cue so that they end up in a spotlight. I think the close-up portion of the shot allowed us to get into Anna’s mind, and the staging of it — evacuating all the people — showed them alone in their love. But then as the camera pulls back again and you see them in the spotlight, suddenly the lights dim up again and people start migrating back into the frame. We did that all with a single Steadicam take. That’s an example of how cinematography can help tell a story wordlessly, with movement and working with the actors…. We do a lot of rehearsing for a shot like that. I think Joe gets quite excited by it. It is like a performance, really. And what it does is it really focuses everybody together because they know that it’s not just a 30-second take with a line. Everyone is dependent — from all the technicians, from us on the camera, to all the actors, to the electricians that are cueing lights. It becomes a real clockwork dance. I get very focused and excited when we do those shots. Joe is so adept at doing that. The [Beach at Dunkirk] shot in Atonement had a similar sensibility in terms of the staging of it and the way the camera becomes an onlooker and protagonist in one shot. I still get nervous looking at that because that was on a terrifying scale with like a thousand extras. So much could have gone wrong. But that was three takes.

While Wright is known for those “elaborate, kind of kaleidoscopic and carousel-like shots that are ongoing,” McGarvey says they’re not what he’s most proud of in Anna Karenina. “I think the things I’m proudest of are the simple, humble close-up. When you’re working with actors as good as Keira Knightley and Jude Law, there’s nothing greater than lighting an actor’s face and seeing the landscape of their face expressing emotion silently. I think it’s a powerful tool that is unique in cinema. Close-ups don’t exist in theater. I think the film camera comes into its own when you photograph an actor’s close-up.”

JudeLawHe has two favorites: “One is Jude Law, when Anna comes back and he’s lit very, very dimly. His eyes are in shadow. I was terrified when we were shooting it, because I thought, God, have I gone too dark on this? And Joe was great, he just encouraged me to do it. I like it because it’s expressive. Jude’s performance is really kind of on edge, and I think that the lighting works alongside that,” McGarvey says. “And then the other one is when Anna has her veil on, and she’s sitting on the end of Vronsky’s bed, and she [lifts it up]. It’s very, very simple, and starkly lit. The light was directly above the camera, and it’s banging straight into Keira’s face. There aren’t many actors or actresses who can take that and look as exquisite as she does.”

Anna-Karenina

In addition to looking at paintings and photography (including fashion photography) for inspiration, McGarvey and Wright were influenced by films such as Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, and A Matter of Life & Death and The Red Shoes, which were shot by McGarvey’s late mentor Jack Cardiff. “We were looking at tonality, and color, and the way the lenses sort of depicted the images. We shot anamorphic lenses on 35mm, which is a sad rarity these days. But I had these Christian Dior 10 denier black stockings on the back of the lens, so that gave it a sort of glow that hopefully evokes a bygone era,” McGarvey says. How many stockings were used in the making of Anna Karenina? “We’ll say I went through one leg, because you do have to replace them. As many women understand, you do get ladders now and again,” the Irishman says, laughing. “But they’re a rarity. These stockings come from the ‘70s. I bought a few packs of them years ago, but they’re very sought after now.”

Some things, however, you just can’t plan for:

McGarvey: The end scene of the movie, when Jude Law is with his children in the field, Joe at the time was kind of upset because he wanted an optimistic finale to the movie, and there were these black storm clouds that day. I tried my best to light it. I was lighting it with these big sources. In the end, when we saw the rushes, I thought wow, it actually looks like it’s in the theatrical realm anyway. Joe initially didn’t like that, but when those shots are put in the auditorium, it really has that feel. It looks like it’s lit artificially, which of course it was to a degree. So sometimes, post-film rationalization can work for you. People say, “It’s amazing, that exterior, it looks like it’s lit with theatrical lighting!” And I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, of course.” (Laughs) There’s a certain alchemy that happens with moviemaking. Accidents can sometimes create wonderful logic.

Read more:
Oscar-nominated sound mixers explain what you should (or shouldn’t) notice if it’s done well
Oscar-nominated sound editors explain their key challenges (and the sounds you may not know they create)
Oscar-nominated editors clear up the biggest misconception about their category (and explain the decisions you may not know they’re making)

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