Of scenes and sweet spots

Although the stories in this year’s Oscar hopefuls are powerful, it’s the look of a film that often creates an enduring impression in the minds of voters. With an eye toward some of the most visually arresting movies of the season, we asked cinematographers to discuss the scenes that they think achieved the effect for which they were striving.

-- Christy Grosz ‘The Hurt Locker’

Barry Ackroyd

The opening sequence in which a sergeant attempts to defuse a bomb on a residential street.


That first scene happened early on in our schedule, more out of coincidence, because we had to take a major road and close it down. It’s quite a big set, and then [we had] to apply an actual full-scale explosion in a domestic space where people were living. It’s not enhanced in any way with CGI, just shot for real with three or four cameras. We didn’t have the money to go out of our way and look for an alternative method. We got down and dirty, got in the street. Stylistically, realism is what we were about. You want to kind of get the enhanced reality a little bit, while still trying to remain real. One of the authentic parts I thought about when we did the explosion was how to express the power. I tried showing that the power is not shrapnel or the blast or heat, it’s merely force -- the air moving, the shock wave.

‘Up in the Air’

Eric Steelberg

Ryan Bingham stands in front of the airport monitors, deciding where to travel to next.

Airports, it turns out, do not like movie crews. We come in with a lot of equipment; we kind of take over things. Generally speaking, the ticketing areas and out in front of the airport were not as big of a deal as trying to shoot past security -- that was extremely challenging. But the complication in that scene was scheduling it around the sun. We determined, through scouting it and some charts based on where the sun was coming in, that late in the morning would be the best time to shoot. It wasn’t until our third attempt that we had the ideal weather to shoot that scene in the terminal. First attempt, it was raining. Second attempt, we couldn’t get there in the morning. The third attempt, we got really lucky. It’s a little nerve-wracking because [there’s] the way it needs to be done, the way that it will be perfect, but you also have a schedule to live by. Fortunately, it was a very important image that Jason [Reitman] had in his mind even before we started shooting the movie, so he supported me.

‘Inglourious Basterds’

Robert Richardson

A Nazi officer pays a visit to a Frenchman he suspects of harboring Jews.


We did end up on a stage in three parts: for shots like the eyes underneath the floorboards, for performance purposes, and when the Germans came into the room and began firing. We had a fair amount of material that was mixing the practical location and the stage. That was where I had some of my greatest fears. You can imagine sitting in a room in your kitchen, and you’re looking at someone and the exterior’s really bright. On film, if it’s as bright as it is to the normal eye, it will be burned out and the interior will be very dark. Quentin [Tarantino] wanted a sense that the exterior was as close to the interior as possible without taking it to a surreal level. When we ended up on the stage, I had to re-create that [lighting]; our attempt was to make it as seamless as possible.

‘Bright Star’

Greig Fraser

Fanny basks in the glow of love, lying on a bed with a warm breeze billowing out the curtains.


What we found when we were in the house where we were shooting for a little while was that if we opened a couple of doors, we could actually control the wind through the house. We discovered the best door and the best window to open. We also discovered the best level to keep the window open to create that gust. I spent a lot of time early on just studying the quality of the light and studying the beautiful different levels of overcast, and it’s really quite complex. What I discovered was that I wanted to try and use tungsten light, which emits a heat, [and] then you put gel over the lens in the lab to create the color of the daylight. We also used a very big bank of light called a Wendy Light that created multiple shadows on the walls. The lighting was quite an important part in creating the feel.


Andrew Dunn

The sequence of scenes in the apartment in which Precious lives with her mother.


The door in the corridor and down the stairs, that’s on location, but the actual apartment was built. Those sequences are the key to everything else. That apartment [shows] the real oppression of being brought up by an abusive mother and abusive father. So lighting-wise, I kept it very simple. The whole thing has to be very fluid and not be self-conscious -- the camera and the lighting become an invisible part of the process. We let a lot of light through the windows, so you get a feeling that there is an outside world waiting to be discovered by [Precious]. The way I work with characters is to get under their skin and into their hearts and minds, so that when we’re on set I can feel that. Then we can be creative with space, with actors, and whatever is going to happen will flower.

‘The White Ribbon’

Christian Berger

In the black of night, flaming torches slowly begin to fill the screen and illuminate a dense forest as a search party hunts for a missing boy.


The torches, they are strong anyway, they give a nice light. The people who are near to us had original oil lamps. The ones who stayed more in the distance, they had electric lamps, halogens, which gave more light all around. Then at the end, because it’s one shot, it ends on the boy, so all the people who surround him, they have the original oil lamps. And with the torches it was enough light, no artificial light, nothing at all. We start with black, then you see a few points of light, then it becomes a little more clear that it’s a forest. It was a kind of choreography. We rehearsed in the late afternoon to fix each place. The problem was [having] people remember their positions in the forest, for the person to stay in the third row without getting too near or pointing in the wrong direction.

-- Mark Olsen ‘Where the Wild Things Are’

Lance Acord

Max’s final few minutes on the island and his return home


Specifically, what I liked about that sequence is that the story’s completely told with the visuals at that point. There’s no dialogue whatsoever for a five-minute stretch, and that’s very unusual in films today. Spike [Jonze] and I have a running joke between us: When we set up shots, I always ask, “Where’s the language of cinema in this shot?” And I feel like Spike and I together in that final sequence on the island found the language of cinema. There’s a lot packed into that five minutes. It’s the photography itself and the nuances of the performances that really tell the story. What’s really beautiful and poignant about how the film ends is there’s really no dialogue between Max and his mother when he gets home. I’ve seen the film 25 times now, and I still well up in that sequence. The way that he looks at his mom there tells the whole story of the movie.

‘Julie & Julia’

Stephen Goldblatt

Julia Child dines in Paris and is enchanted by the fact that French people eat French food every day.


It was very difficult to shoot, to make the food look good, make the actors look good and get the whole atmosphere in there. Meryl [Streep] is not a large woman, but Julia Child was 6 feet 2, and so we were always aware that we had to have the camera just a little bit lower. In that restaurant, we started in the middle of the day, and I noticed a beautiful skylight that you don’t see in the film, but we used the skylight as a source of soft top light. And then we bounced light into the mirrors and onto the faces of Meryl and Stanley [Tucci]. [The challenge was] hiding the camera from the mirrors and hiding the lights from the camera and hiding the crew. I had a visitor that day, and she walked in and saw the entire crew lying flat on the floor. It seemed to be the only way to get people out of the reflection.