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“We Wanted to Paint With the Light and Write With the Camera”: The THR Cinematographer Roundtable

DPs Hoyte van Hoytema ('Oppenheimer'), Rodrigo Prieto ('Barbie' and 'Killers of the Flower Moon'), Cristina Dunlap ('American Fiction'), Shabier Kirchner ('Past Lives'), Dan Laustsen ('The Color Purple' and 'John Wick: Chapter 4') and Lukasz Zal ('The Zone of Interest') discuss their “happy accidents,” cinematic shorthand and the Barbenheimer phenomenon.

“I think it was a voice from the wider audience telling us that people wanted to go to the cinemas again and people wanted to join in with an event,” says Oppenheimer cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema of the summer’s Barbenheimer phenomenon. Rodrigo Prieto, who lensed Greta Gerwig’s Barbie as well as Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, also was encouraged by “the excitement that came from the audience wanting to go back to the cinema and see such a diverse example of human experience — Barbie’s not a human, but she does have human emotions, after all.” This discussion was part of The Hollywood Reporter’s Cinematographer Roundtable, recorded remotely Nov. 16 and also including cinematographers Cristina Dunlap, who lensed American Fiction; Shabier Kirchner, of Past Lives; Dan Laustsen, of The Color Purple and John Wick: Chapter 4; and Lukasz Zal, of The Zone of Interest.

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We all hear the comment “That was great cinematography,” but how do you define great cinematography? What do you look for?

RODRIGO PRIETO For me, great cinematography is when the imagery matches the story and expresses the emotional state of the characters.


DAN LAUSTSEN Yep, I would say so. I think great cinematography is when you’re telling the story the director wants to tell and you’re supporting him with the camera and you’re loading the lighting and the camera setups.

CRISTINA DUNLAP If you can make it beautiful without stealing the show. Sometimes you want to make it about the camera and making the shot as beautiful as possible, but if it doesn’t serve the story, then you’re distracting.

VAN HOYTEMA I have very little to add, except for the fact that I think it’s also a little bit about immersion, to immerse the audience into the reality of the film you’re making. People have to believe in what you are putting in front of them.

John Wick Chapter 4
‘John Wick: Chapter 4’ Murray Close/Lionsgate/Courtesy Everett Collection
The Color Purple
‘The Color Purple’ Eli Ade/Warner Bros.

Hoyte and Rodrigo, how did the two of you feel when the term “Barbenheimer” was coined?

VAN HOYTEMA It was a very lucky thing. They want to see films on the big screen. Traditionally, we as filmmakers always had that responsibility to create an event aura around pulling people to the movies, also with the content of it. But for us, it was very much a voice from the audience telling us, “We want to make this special, and we want to be part of something bigger or something more exciting.”

PRIETO I thought in the beginning that it came from almost a type of rivalry between two projects that are so different. What began as a rivalry became, suddenly, “We’re coming out the same moment, the same day,” and the excitement that came from the audience wanting to — as Hoyte says — go back to the cinema and see such a diverse example of human experience; Barbie’s not a human, but she does have human emotions after all.

VAN HOYTEMA Barbenheimer became a thing because they were so contrasting in so many ways but similar in many ways, as well. I have this feeling that audiences are very much looking for these kind of new cinematic experiences. We all grew up in times when, every time a movie came to the cinema, it was a big thing. It was an event. The marketing [was] all geared up in convincing the people why they had to see a specific movie. And especially for the last few years, it became all about marketing. I think that somehow the audience got a little bit tired of being marketed to and therefore had to create their own niche or their own subculture. And Barbenheimer was very much an expression of that — the new kind of subculture. It’s like, we as an audience decide what we want to see. And I liked it a lot. It was very positive for both our movies.

Let’s talk about Oppenheimer. Did the Imax release impact your creative decisions?

VAN HOYTEMA It does, but it is not limited just to Imax or just to this movie because we’ve been stubbornly pushing that format through for many movies in a row. I don’t want to necessarily talk for Chris [Nolan], but he’s been always so prophetic with trying to figure out how we can make a cinematic experience special for the audience, to justify actually going to the theater. And so in that perspective, you can absolutely say that choosing the format and choosing the way we shoot it, or choosing the way we frame it, has everything to do with that concept of going to a movie theater and seeing the film on a big screen, seeing it projected analog, if possible. It doesn’t mean that we just exclusively think that people should watch the film the way we shot it, but it does mean that we felt very much a responsibility to come up with an experience that was very hard to achieve at home.

Barbie cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto with star Margot Robbie.
‘Barbie’ cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto with star Margot Robbie. Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros.
‘Barbie’ Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection

Would you elaborate on the visual style?

VAN HOYTEMA Imax is a very different beast sometimes for me; it defies all the rules of what I learned about framing traditionally. I grew up in a very traditional Polish Film School framing — the art of framing and the aesthetical side of the film. When you start working with Imax, you start dabbling very much in immersion. It doesn’t necessarily become all about aesthetics, but it also becomes about physics, about how you can pull an audience into a film, not necessarily just in an intellectual way or in an analytical way, but very much in a pure, intuitive way. And Imax, I found from the beginning, is always very difficult because you have to step away from what you traditionally thought about framing because certain things work very beautifully and other things don’t work at all.

Rodrigo, Barbie was your first film with Greta Gerwig. Would you tell us about creating the visual style for Barbie Land?

PRIETO We wanted it to feel like they’re inside a box and to photograph it the way it feels when you open a box as a kid. You see the toy is presented to you, and it’s full of light, it’s innocent and it’s frontal. That dictated what we did with the camera. For most of it, we have the camera frontal to the characters or to the architecture. And if not, it was sideways or behind, but no oblique angles. And the camera moves mechanically. Also, we embraced the soundstage, inspired by movies of the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, where you see the stage, the box. And the color also. We wanted the feeling of those movies that were shot with three-strip Technicolor. But we created our own version of Technicolor for Barbie Land that enhanced the pinks and the cyan and the yellows and the greens. Greta called it Techno Barbie.

You were additionally working on Killers of the Flower Moon, obviously a very different visual style.

PRIETO The approach was very much based on the fact that the film itself is a representation of the story of these people, just as in the beginning of the movie, we see newsreel footage of the Osage and the subtitles the way that white audiences and the white people making these newsreels would see their story. So that was a representation. And at the end of the movie, we have a radio show, which is a different type of representation. We decided that we were going to look at the beginnings of photography, because that’s a representation, in terms of the color for the white people, because I wanted to bring a technique to create color in photography that was designed in France by the Lumière brothers. It’s an importation from Europe, just like the descendants of the European settlers would remember those times through photography. That was autochrome, in contrast with the Osage. We tried to photograph their landscape and their relationship with nature as naturally as possible in terms of color. We shot [on] film to get as much color depth as possible. And then toward the end, the radio show that I was talking about, we use the color of that era, the late ’30s, which would be Technicolor movies. We created a lookup table that emulated three-strip Technicolor. Later, I used that as a base to create Techno Barbie. It was just wonderful to do all this research in terms of color.

Killers of the Flower Moon
‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ Melinda Sue Gordon/Apple TV+
Dunlap on the set of Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction.
Dunlap on the set of Cord Jefferson’s ‘American Fiction.’ Claire Folger/Orion Releasing LLC.
American Fiction
‘American Fiction’ MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

Lukasz, for The Zone of Interest, you used a rather unique multi-cam approach. Would you explain that?

LUKASZ ZAL Our film is about Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, and his family, who built a beautiful life just behind the wall of the camp. They had a house and a garden and greenhouse. And he’s responsible for killing almost 1 million people. Our approach was not manipulating, just witnessing: being in his house, in the garden, with his family. We were using 10 — sometimes five, sometimes seven, sometimes two — but basically 10 cameras. When [director Jonathan Glazer] came to me for the first time, he said, “A camera is as one eye.” And of course, it was his idea to use so many cameras. There was nobody on set while we were shooting. We didn’t use any light; the film set didn’t look like a film set. It was just a house and a garden, and [the actors] were there. And in one go, within two hours or one, we had everything, all the setups, all the wide shots, portraits. The idea was just not to feel altered, not to manipulate. Because this guy had exactly the same life we are having. He’s really working hard. He was stressed. And he was reading books to his kids — and then he was going just 50 meters to the camp and sentencing people to death.

PRIETO Lukasz, were the cameras operated or was it just static cameras? And in different rooms or in the same place? How did you go about that?

ZAL We had only one hot head, but we didn’t use it, just some technically, to pan. So basically, it was still cameras attached to the walls, hidden. If there were cameras, they were always hidden in bushes, in cupboards, everywhere it is possible. Of course, cameras [captured] each other, so we had to paint them out. But basically, they were in many places. For example, they were in a kitchen, in a corridor, on a porch and in the garden.

When we were shooting this, I was wondering, “Wow, this is amazing for actors.” They didn’t know what we are doing sometimes. And there were a lot of nonprofessional actors as well. There were no rehearsals. They were just put in the situation and we are just recording that.

[For research,] we spent a lot of time in the Auschwitz Museum, looking at pictures because the nanny was taking pictures, so we knew how it looked. But there were no references from anything, just from the reality.

Dan, let’s talk about your movies. Tell us about the visual style you chose to tell the story of The Color Purple.

LAUSTSEN The first time I heard about The Color Purple was when Blitz Bazawule reached out to me. Of course, I knew a little bit about Spielberg’s movie from many years ago. But for me, I’m coming from Denmark, a white guy from Denmark coming into this [story about the] southern part of the United States where everybody’s in the Black society. For me, it was a big, big change. We decided to have this feeling of the very, very bright light in Savannah, in Atlanta, coming into the sets. That was our first approach. We wanted to go very realistic and [use] very warm lighting until we’re coming into the dance numbers. When we did some of the dance numbers, we changed the whole look of the movie. The dance sequences were much more LED lights and much more colorful. And, for me, it was just amazing to be together with those dancers and those singers. I’d never done it before. And it was a very important story to tell. But [Bazawule and I] just talked a lot about [wanting] to have the dark sets, the dark skin tones, and it has to be very bright outside. And of course, that was a challenge, but I think we did it OK.

On purpose, you never saw the original, is that right?

LAUSTSEN I have never. I just saw a little bit of it from many years ago. I’m just trying to help the director to tell the story, and I want to go in with open eyes and not thinking about what somebody else has done. And it was Blitz’s first feature film, so it was a big thing for him. The first movie we talked about that we wanted to look at together was [the 1964 Cuban-Soviet drama] I Am Cuba — everything shot handheld and super wide-angled. We didn’t [go] that way, but that was just our inspiration. We wanted to paint with the light and write with the camera. What we tried to do, especially in the dance numbers, [was to] really move the camera into a musical world. It was my first musical, and it was fantastic. And we shot LF signature primes with diffusion film behind the lens, and that helps a lot to have the windows blown out and stuff like that but still keeping the skin tones, so it looks pretty cool.

Oppenheimer director Christopher Nolan (left) with DP van Hoytema, shooting on Imax cameras.
‘Oppenheimer’ director Christopher Nolan (left) with DP van Hoytema, shooting on Imax cameras. Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures
‘Oppenheimer’ Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures

And this season, you also re-teamed with Chad Stahelski for the latest John Wick film. And I know you shot in a lot of different countries and locations. Which was the most challenging, and would you tell us a little bit about it?

LAUSTSEN John Wick is just a fantasy world, like a ballet in fights. We wanted to go more crazy, with more powerful visuals on John Wick than before. And we tried to do [many of the] stunts for real. I don’t know if you guys have seen it, but there’s, like, 300 steps up to Sacré-Coeur in Paris, and that was shot for real with Keanu Reeves and some fantastic operators we have on that show.

But I think what’s most interesting is that the end of the movie is shot on the top of Sacré-Coeur, where, in the story, that is a sunrise sequence. And of course, we could not do that, so we shot that night for day, and it was a challenge because one day, the priest of the church up there figured out what movie we were doing and he threw us out. We could not come back again because John Wick is maybe not the most innocent movie.

VAN HOYTEMA It looks extremely convincing, that sunrise sequence. I wouldn’t have thought that. That was actually very nice to hear.

LAUSTSEN Thank you. And we did that for real. We made a big, big overhead with LED lights. And then we had a big crane with, I think it was six Dinos on, so we just raised the crane as the sunshine was coming up. And that was nice. Then, the rest of the shot was in a parking lot somewhere in Paris because we weren’t allowed to come back.

Cristina, let’s talk a little bit about American Fiction. This was Cord Jefferson’s first feature as a writer, producer and director. And you created different looks, including rom-com and action. Tell us a little bit about filming that.

DUNLAP It’s hard to talk about it without giving it away, but I’d say the film is very grounded, for the most part. It is a satire, but it’s also a beautiful family story and very heartfelt. And then there are bouts of surrealism weaved throughout the film. The main character is named Thelonious, and everyone calls him Monk. Right off the bat, we knew that we wanted there to be a sort of jazz to the way the camera moved, and we had this very large ensemble cast that was incredible.

I worked a lot with my Steadicam artist, Xavier Thompson, who did a beautiful job of always having a movement to the camera [as] we’re flowing through the characters. We wanted it to really be subjective for Monk, who’s come home to visit his family and has a lot of personal drama going on.

And we decided to shoot anamorphic crop but on spherical lenses, because sometimes anamorphic can really make you feel like you’re watching a movie, and I wanted to be a little more inviting to the audience and have it come from Monk’s perspective and what he’s going through. There’s definitely a control to the camera, and then it goes off in these flourishes.

And some of those flourishes are rom-com, where we’ve pulled references. And some of them are action, where I actually pulled a lot of references from The Wolf of Wall Street [which was lensed by Prieto], so it’s cool to be here talking with all of you about this. My goal was to do it justice and make it cohesive and make people laugh. Also, I think we achieved some tears. It’s one of the best scripts I ever read.

The Zone of Interest director Jonathan Glazer (left) with cinematographer Zal.
‘The Zone of Interest’ director Jonathan Glazer (left) with cinematographer Zal. Kuba Kaminski/A24
The Zone of Interest
‘The Zone of Interest’ Courtesy of A24

Shabier, would you describe your collaboration with Celine Song?

SHABIER KIRCHNER I had never worked with Celine before. This was her first film. She came from a theater background. Our first challenge, which was the best part of the whole process for me, was to figure out our cinematic shorthand, how we want to communicate. In prep, she sent me a playlist of all the songs she put together for the film. And we had gone through the script scene by scene and assigned sonics to the scenes so we can build an emotional map for how the characters feel. And the second time we went through the script — with me and Celine and Grace Yun, our production designer — she had us read. It was a story about three people, so each of us read the characters. So for weeks, we would act. Approaching the film came from the POV of the characters.

There I was acting out Nora [Greta Lee] or Hae Sung [Teo Yoo] and the physicality and understanding of the human behavior behind the characters. Seeing what the actors brought to it, it was just amazing. And then we started talking about, “How do we want to imbue love?” We wanted to figure out how to do that in a very naturalistic way, and that was through moving the camera from left to right. That was understanding the direction in which we wanted time to move, and that we could flip it all on the last scene of the film and move the opposite way when characters are saying goodbye to their past and walking toward their future.

Those are some of the ways that we approached the film, but really grounded in naturalism. We wanted it to feel as natural and authentic as possible, and that means it needs to feel a little bit flawed as well.

Could you give an example of one day on the set?

KIRCHNER We had a scene in DUMBO [Brooklyn] where Hae Sung and Nora are connecting over the course of this walk. We wanted it to be a lot about the environment and the architecture, and we wanted to be quite far away from them. And as the scene progressed and they became closer characters, we became closer to them. And so the camera was moving closer and closer to them, and in each setup we would get closer. In the final setup of the scene, we wanted to have them sit in front of the carousel that was spinning — the camera was going to do this sort of lavish move around them, and we were going to catch the sun setting behind the building. And that was kind of going to be the metaphor of eclipse, [that] their chance in this lifetime had been erased. We were running against time and light and we had the camera on a crane, and it all broke. So I ended up just running in and held the camera in place. We just shot the scene a couple of times, and it was utter heartbreak. Because you had this idea of what you wanted to do and didn’t get to achieve that. But seeing what was presented and responding to that, it didn’t need it. It was the perfect solution to the problem, and I can’t even remember the way that we had conceived it in the first place. That was just one of many instances where we just were responding to the environment and listening to what the film wanted to be.

DUNLAP You’d never know watching it that that wasn’t your original intention.

KIRCHNER I’m really grateful that the techno collapsed on us that day. It’s just another reminder that not all accidents can be bad.

DUNLAP Yeah. It’s about those happy accidents. On our set, one of our characters showed up with a scratched cornea, and so there’s a character wearing an eye patch in the film, which actually was just out of necessity. And we had intended to put a spotlight on him for this more surreal scene. We weren’t able to because light was causing him so much pain that we actually had to bring down the lights as much as possible. It ended up actually making the scene a lot more grounded. And I think it was for the better in the end.

ZAL At the end of Ida [Pawel Pawlikowski’s Oscar-winning 2013 Polish drama, for which Zal also earned a nom], when she’s walking, there was an idea for a Steadicam shot, and we had two cameras this day because it was a very little movie. It was $1 million. But this day, we had the two cameras and the Steadicam, and it was a very long walk, and I didn’t know why, but at a certain point [the Steadicam operator] was stopping. He didn’t have enough power to walk with her for so long. And the sun was almost setting. It was getting so dark. So I just took this handheld camera and I did it handheld, and now I can’t imagine that it would be on Steadicam.

PRIETO Lukasz, I remember thinking, “Wow, how brave … the whole movie’s so static and these very controlled frames and then handheld, the freedom of that moment.” It was a great idea.

Kirchner lensing Celine Song’s semi-autobiographical film Past Lives.
Kirchner lensing Celine Song’s semi-autobiographical film ‘Past Lives.’ John Pack/A24
Past Lives
‘Past Lives’ John Pack/A24

Rodrigo, do you have a “happy accident” you’d like to share?

PRIETO On Killers of Flower Moon, there’s a scene where there’s a fire. William Hale [Robert De Niro] is burning the land around his house to collect insurance money. I wouldn’t call it an accident, but we had all these fire pipes hidden under the ground and creating the fire effect for the wide shot. But the second layer of fire created this weird distortion that was unexpected. It was so much that you couldn’t see an image practically, so I asked Trevor Loomis, the focus puller, to pull focus to the distortion itself, and that’s where the image suddenly came to life. And you see these very strange, surreal figures that are shimmering. It looks almost like through water, but it’s just through the heat waves. And it was designed to be with a certain distortion, but I never imagined it would be like that. So I love it when you design something. You’re going for a look or an effect, and then something else actually happens and life takes over and it’s beautiful. 

This story first appeared in a December standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.