Culture Films, Article, Arts, Culture, Documentary, Drama, Emine Saner, Film, G2, Terrence Malick, The artists' artist, The Guardian — June 30, 2011 9:16 — 0 Comments
The artists’ artist: cinematographers
Leading lensers of the big screen choose their favourite living cinematographer
The documentaries Menges shot of the opium trade in Burma [in 1963 and 1972] were amazing. When he directed a documentary in Harlem about the end route of the drug trade, he was following this young girl who was selling drugs on the street. The shot took him into a brownstone and there was no light, but the camera kept running. He was shooting nothing, and that was a miraculous image in my mind.
It’s something I have tried to reproduce: in The Hurt Locker, there is a scene where it is written that they disappear into absolute darkness. Not a "cinematic darkness", an actual darkness. If you can make an image that is nothing, but is more powerful than something, that’s something to strive towards.
Seeing his work on Kes, and the link he had with Ken Loach made me think I could achieve something, because I was more or less the kid from Kes. I grew up in that industrial background. Later, Menges mentored me, and I remember him saying: "You don’t want to have to chase the action. Get yourself in the right place and the action comes to you."
The first film I saw of his was [the Coen brothers'] Barton Fink, and I remember thinking this was truly an original, collaborative vision between cinematographer and directors. The atmosphere, colour palette and composition created a world that was unique. He is not showy; he doesn’t take your focus away from the story with flashy camera moves or lighting effects. He shoots every movie as its own entity.
He started on music videos at a time when MTV was more open to ideas. The directors that came out of that time were people like David Fincher; Savides was one of the most popular directors of photography of that period. He was very much an alchemist. He wouldn’t do what Kodak said on the box. He would underexpose, which made the colours very light – a dangerous thing to do, because it’s difficult to get right. He went on to make some extraordinary films, a lot of them with Gus Van Sant. He would do extraordinary things, like tell his assistants to take the film home and bake it in the oven. They’d shoot it the next day, and it would make these incredible images. He’s a pioneer in this very safe digital world that everyone else is going to. Sometimes he puts no light on the face, sometimes people are in the dark, but it doesn’t matter because you seem to know his characters more than if someone else had shot them.
His work has such a broad range. I remember seeing [Mike Nichols'] Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when I was young. These were the early days of using handheld cameras: to go against the Hollywood system and use the camera in a way it hadn’t really been used before – and to do it with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton – was brave. He won his first Academy award for that film. There was a spark of energy and life; he brought some of the French New Wave style to Hollywood.
Ellen Kuras on Emmanuel Lubezki
One of the first films that really blew me away was Sleepy Hollow. I sat there and thought: ‘This is a series of paintings’ – the patina, the lighting, the composition. He is one of the few cinematographers who manages to combine painting and cinematography.
When you watch a film, your brain believes what it sees. When something is out of place – a window on the left, but the light coming from the right – something in the back of your head tells you it doesn’t quite add up. A film that doesn’t have holes is rare, because there are so many elements beyond your control, and one of the biggest dilemmas is when to stop fiddling. I remember seeing Elswit’s work on Michael Clayton, and thinking ‘There is nothing that doesn’t work.’ There is one shot of a car dashboard, a really simple shot, and it still looks incredible.
John de Borman on Chris Menges
As a person, he is very self-effacing and modest. His colour palette and eye are second to none. You often look at his films, on locations which are difficult to light, and you have no idea where the light comes from. There is a great deal of complexity, style and taste. He plays with silhouettes, light falling onto a person’s face. He manages to create absolute beauty and that is, for any artist, the goal. He is 70 and he never stops working. He has been incredibly consistent over decades of work. Every job he does you know will look beautiful.
Lubezki is known as chivo (goat in Spanish) and he is as light-footed and deft as that suggests. He has a very diverse approach. On films such as A Little Princess, Children of Men and Y Tu Mamá También, his camerawork has a soft, glowing lustre: really luminescent images. In other movies, like [Terrence Malick's] The New World, his work exhibits a more naturalistic hue.
All cinema is created by many hands; some are clumsy and others are velvet-gloved. He comes unequivocally from the latter group. I love the levity and profundity of Malick’s Tree of Life. For me, it revealed the beauty of available light controlled by an artist’s eye. It is all too easy to obliterate the beauty of the real world when a film crew crashes into a location; Chivo has an artist’s heart that stands in the way of the crasser tendencies of some film-makers.
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