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

life-of-pi-04Leading up to tonight’s Oscars, EW.com set out to take a closer look at four categories that moviegoers may mistakenly think of as “technical.” After tackling Film Editing, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing, we conclude with Cinematography, with insights from Anna Karenina’s Seamus McGarvey and Life of Pi’s Claudio Miranda. (Django Unchained’s Robert Richardson, Lincoln’s Janusz Kaminski, and Skyfall’s Roger Deakins complete the category.)

The cinematographer may be in charge of how to technically achieve the shots on a film set — lighting, camera movement, and framing — but what he and the director are really collaborating on his how to tell their story creatively and emotionally. “What mood do you feel when you watch the movie?” says Life of Pi‘s Claudio Miranda, who was previously nominated for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. “When you look at the movie, I don’t want you to think about me, I want you to think about the scene. It’s very important to me that you don’t think this is a fantasy-reality play. You need to believe this. I feel like if I’m too fake with lighting, you’ll be taken away and not immersed in the story. When I’m lighting a set, I go, ‘Am I there? Am I there yet? Am I there yet? Am I there yet? Am I there yet?’ And then I’ll let go when I say, ‘Okay, we’re here. We can work with this.’”

Making moviegoers feel like they’re adrift on a boat with Pi and Richard Parker obviously presented challenges. “We had an amazing tank that we built and I helped design. We knew we were going to be inside there shooting for 2.5 months, so it was worth it to be able to do anything we want. On all these kind of scenes, we had an idea of what the weather would be like. In that tank, I can create storm clouds, nightfall. We had curtains that I can block out [light], doors to open and let in real sunlight,” Miranda says. “So lighting-wise, [the movie] had a big ebb and flow. There’s high noon, which is kind of harsh and crisp, and then it gives way to maybe like the beautiful golden light, like in the scene where the sun comes up and there’s that beautiful music that comes along with it. Pi throws the can out and it only goes so far, and then it ends with him going to the tiger, and the tiger does this little growl, and Pi backs up, and then he starts talking to God at that moment. It’s a very beautiful scene, but it’s also beautiful because there is an ebb and flow of not so much beauty beforehand. If it was all that, it wouldn’t be that special.”

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Of course it’s the special scenes that moviegoers remember best about Pi. While Miranda and director Ang Lee looked at a watercolor painting for inspiration for the painterly sky in the scene described above, Miranda looked for real references for the most magical scene.

Miranda: There was a point when Ang and I went, in the middle of the night in southern Taichung, diving in the ocean in a bay that was phosphorescing. That was kind of our inspiration for the whale scene at night, and how that looked and how that felt and how the phosphorescence kind of went around your hand. As you shook your hand, the [phosphorescent plankton] get more excited and they become a little brighter. We played around with that in the movie. It ends up lighting the scene a little bit more. Being with Ang, in the middle of the night in an ocean just whacking away at phosphorescence — I just thought that was a pretty stunning moment.

Another scene that was special to him was the candlelit scene. “I really wanted the candles to light the whole scene. I decided with the crew, and I said, ‘There should be at least 50,000 candles on camera to cover the space. To last the night, they bought over 120,000 candles to keep what we see going. We had 2,000 people lighting. I don’t care what anybody says, when you’re there, you go, ohmygod, it is a beautiful spectacle. You walked away from that night, like, Ah. (Contrast that to one of his favorite scenes in Benjamin Button: “I like a room where people can walk around freely. I don’t like lighting people in a box, where they can’t move. There was one scene in Benjamin Button, when he’s saying goodbye to Mr. Oti, when I just put a light bulb in the middle of the whole scene, and I said, ‘Let’s just try this bulb in the middle, and let’s just let it be the bulb, and let it be what it is: Let it blow out, let it be horrible, let it be this, but this is the scene.’ I love that moment.”)

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Lee also wanted to use 3-D as a storytelling point, with where the actors are placed. “There’s the scene where the ship sinks, and the ship is on the inside of the screen and Pi is floating a little bit outside. It’s kind of like a separation — this is his life going away,” Miranda says. “So when I lined it up, we put him in the audience-plane side of the screen and the ship was on the opposite side. We play different aggressions, like if an actor is being aggressive, we’ll put him towards screen as well. We wanted to play 3-D as a story point because it’s another way to make you feel the story.”

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NEXT: Anna Karenina’s Seamus McGarvey on the beauty of elaborate Steadicam shots and simple close-ups

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