Innovative Cinematography: Our top picks of 2020 & what we can learn from it

Author Kirsty McLean

1917 is one of the most talked about films of 2020. Not only did it sweep up at the award season and become a box office success, it also gained a huge following online thanks to YouTube videos which showed the making of the incredible continuous single camera shots.

Anyone who has an interest in cinematography will be familiar with Deakin’s portfolio; not only has he filmed some of the best features, he has also penned some very strong cinematography rules, which he follows on every film. Keeping the camera in front of the actors and only using the ‘in-world’ sources of light are just some of the ways that Deakins makes the films he works on look so distinctive.

1917 is known for being one of the few features which is filmed to mimic one long take; as opposed to films such as Victoria (2015) and Russian Ark (2002) which were in fact physically filmed in one take.

With the one take look concept there are a lot of concerns: lighting, art direction, relying on actors to not mess up their lines. Every step was rehearsed for weeks before the shoot, and the sets were then designed from the scenes which had been rehearsed. In other words, if the scene is eight minutes long, they had to build a trench which took eight minutes to run through.

We could have been lost in the colossal set designs and landscapes, or distracted by the explosions – but with Deakins sticking to his rule of using prime lenses, there wasn’t an option for a long lens to sit and follow an actor from afar; we were right there in the action with him, being left in the dark when he was. 

The story has a continuous yet dynamic flow, keeping the viewer engaged with the man’s fight for survival through seamless photography. 

What we can Learn from this – 

  • Stick to your rules – If you believe in your own cinematic rules, then incorporate them into the project. You made them for a reason.
  • Don’t feel overwhelmed by the sets you are working with. Don’t drift away from your narrative or story – keep with your character. The audience will appreciate this. 
  • Don’t always assume the more light the better. If your image is well lit and still telling a story then people will engage.

Whatever you think about the de-aging of De Niro, Pesci and Pacino in the 2020 film, it is still a huge achievement. Even if De Niro did have the face of a forty year old and the body/ motor skills of a 78 year old in a lot of scenes.

The de-aging required a three headed camera which affectionately became known as the ‘three headed monster’ throughout filming. The middle camera (Red Helium) would capture the scene, whilst two Alexa Mini’s on either side were known as ‘witness cameras’. The Mini’s would project infrared light onto the actors and record every facial muscle movement. This information then would be used to de-age the actors through CGI yet assure their performances and facial expressions were kept exactly the same as the original acting. 

Despite choosing not to film on actual 35mm Scorsese wanted to incorporate the looks from each era, instead of just basing this on the production design, wardrobe – he strongly referenced the commonly used film from each era. Not wanting to lose the look just because he was shooting in digital.

Scorsese really pulled from his own memories of childhood; he would explain to cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto the lighting in specific restaurants he visited and what colours he saw reflected on the wet sidewalk of his family’s street. 

What we can learn:

  • Don’t be afraid of CGI – when done to keep consistency in talent or to add to the storyline, then we should embrace CGI. If used hand-in-hand with production design, wardrobe and lighting, CGI will actually help you paint the picture you want. Not hinder it.
  • Give everyone the room they need. If you need to fit into a 70s style diner, have three cameras, nine lenses and four actors on the set, then make sure your priority is giving them the time and space. Prieto even describes himself as ‘invisible’ most of the time on set. With great preparation and clarity on your aims from each scene, you won’t need to get involved in the actors’ space

If you have seen Uncut Gems you will remember the feeling you had when watching it. You feel like you have missed three nights of sleep, missed your last train, are about to step into the most important meeting of your life and lost a tooth along the way. Of course I am saying this with endearment. A film which makes you feeling anything half as strongly as Uncut Gems does, is a massive achievement. 

Using overhead lighting to resemble the garish glamour of diamond pawn shops or obstructing one of Manhattan’s beautiful buildings with a trash can, were just some of the many ways the Safdies and Khondji built the juxtaposition of these characters, who are performing sleazy acts whilst dressed in designer couture. 

This couldn’t be further from Khondji’s usual look. Known for collaborating with Woody Allen, Michael Haneke and Stephen Frears – his work flows around a character. Following the character in longer takes, giving them the space to breathe and follow their own path. The lead in Uncut Gems is constantly running against the clock and throwing his life away to gambling, meaning the camera is trying to keep up with him. We try to follow his phone calls from the other side of a New York sidewalk with yellow taxis whizzing past or rotate around a shop in messy cuts as he rambles on, trying to make some dodgy deals. 

The scrappy nature of Uncut Gems works well, not just because it coincides with the mentality of our protagonist, but also physically on set it gave the actors space to move around. Similar to The Irishman and Prieto’s ‘invisible man’ technique – Khondji adapted to the Safdies’ rhythm on set. The directing duo steer away from using markers and controlling where the actors stand and move around, leaving plenty of room for improvisation and capturing those beautiful impromptu moments on screen. Sounds like a fun set, but think of Khandji’s challenge – filming actors with free reign on a long lens whilst running around NYC using foreground to your advantage AND trying to keep focus so that the unwritten moments are usable. 

What we can learn – 

  • Take the risk. If you have a strong vision, your camera department will technically and creatively be able to make it happen. With affordable technical advancements on film kit, many filming styles can still have that professional look. 
  • Let the actors run the scene. If Adam Sandler wants to improvise running in circles screaming ‘I love you. I love you. I love you’ down a phone then work with it as you will be thankful for these moments in the edit suite. 

This is the film with the lowest budget in our list, with an especially tiny budget for a period drama. However, this certainly does not make it the least striking. The cinematic achievements of this film led Mathon to win her first Lumières Award for Best Cinematography. Using an 18th Century painting in the Louvre as inspiration, Director and DOP chose to mimic the lighting, colour palettes and textures of these paintings. Mathon wanted to draw from the fact that in these 18th century portraits, the light seems to be illuminating from within the subject, rather than from a noticeable source light.

One of production’s largest obstacles was location, they wanted to find a perfect period house which encapsulated the moment, but that also hadn’t been done up for weddings or modern day events. When they did find an untouched castle it was classified as a historical monument, hugely limiting what the crew could do to the space. The majority of the interiors were fully lit from the outside, using the castle windows and then building walls within walls of diffusion inside to create the perfect look. This soft lighting and faking of sources continues throughout the film; even a lot of candlelight was faked with LEDs. 

However this very specific location and limiting lighting setups actually worked perfectly with Sciamma’s directorial style. She favours highly choreographed scenes, some in which the actors had to count exactly how many steps they took when crossing a room. This meant that the tight spaces naturally gave rise to the restrictions that Sciamma would have implemented in each scene anyway. 

What we can learn from this

  • Wrap yourself around your ideal location – If your film is a period piece, you can augment this to your inspiration for this time. Lighting it to work with your vision without having to be afraid of bringing the modern into the old, as the story should be timeless. 

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