Every cinematographer prizes those spontaneous, magic moments — what photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment” — when the essence of the film crystalizes before the lens both visually and thematically. For Quyen Tran, Tobias Schliessler Chris Menges and Ben Smithard, their favorite shots from the notable new films they photographed all capture that ineffable yet decisive scene when the actors’ performances deepen our understanding with new layers of meaning. And in more than one case, these shots seem to epitomize the heartbreaking pain, trauma or isolation at the heart of the story.
Quyen Tran, “Palm Springs” (Hulu)
(directed by Max Barbakow)
Released last July, months into what already felt like an interminable new reality, “Palm Springs” is still very much a movie of our times. The existential comedy, starring Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti and J.K. Simmons, raises the single POV stakes of “Groundhog Day” by juggling three protagonists through endless time-loop resets — and nonstop jokes. “Knowing that it was an independent film with a tight budget made it that much more exciting to try to tackle this enormous metaphysical theme in less than 22 days of shooting,” says Quyen Tran. As both operator and cinematographer, Tran was always at the ready with her camera, cross-covering with a second camera when needed. “I’ve done improvised films before, but this one was just such a pleasure and a joy to see such masters at work. I wanted to be sure I did not miss a beat.”
Favorite scene: “If you have just one shot to tell a story, then it is the shot of Andy on the pizza float in this seemingly infinite body of water. The theme of being alone and finding your purpose in life is the whole movie in a nutshell. That’s why this shot is so important: It not only captures that single moment; it describes the whole film.”
Genesis of the shot: “When we were scouting, I took some shots of me lying down on the diving board of this enormous pool. I thought, ‘This is a really cool idea. It looks like I’m just floating in the water. Maybe we can do this.’ We couldn’t use a drone; we were in a very windy place. We needed a Technocrane, but the producers said, ‘We don’t have any money for a crane.’ ”
Making it work: “The wide shot needed to feel boundless, to show Andy’s character floating in this vast body of water without showing the sides of the pool,” says Tran. “I talked to my key grip, Patrick H. McGinness, and he told me that our guys at [the dealer] Pro Cam were going to give us a 50-foot crane for free.” The wind did have an upside: It helped create the ripple effect in the water. “That was a huge bonus,” she says. “Otherwise, it would have looked like a mirror. We had Andy tied on monofilament [fishing line] to keep him from floating away, because I had to frame the shot end to end.”
Then she noticed something else. “This great thing happened as I was shooting,” she says. “As he drifted, his shadow was moving as well. It looked amazing, and I knew we had to frame-in the shadow. The whole time I was thinking about that song ‘Me and My Shadow,’ and it hit me how beautifully tragic this shot is. At first glance, you think he’s just enjoying himself and relaxing on a lazy day, but within the context of the plot, you see that he’s just so lonely.”
Tobias Schliessler, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Netflix)
(Directed by George C. Wolfe)
The drama may take place nearly 100 years ago but the message in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman, is as urgent as ever. Set in 1927 Chicago and based on August Wilson’s play of the same name, the film’s primary location is a cramped, featureless recording studio with few redeeming qualities. The steamy, unventilated space quickly becomes a pressure cooker of emotions, resentments, lusts and unspeakable traumas that ultimately converge in violence.
Favorite scene: “The scene that really sticks out for me is when Chadwick,” playing talented yet distracted trumpeter Levee, “recounts the rape of his mother and murder of his father to his bandmates,” Schliessler says. “That is such a moving scene, probably the most emotional one in the film and one of the most emotional I’ve ever filmed. We all felt like the camera and the lighting couldn’t be distracting to his performance in any way. George was adamant that we shoot the big monologue scenes in one continuous take so the actors could stay in the emotions. It is a six-minute take. When George said, ‘Cut,’ I realized I had been crying throughout the whole take.”
Genesis of the shot: “The basement practice room was the hardest room for me to shoot in because of its size,” Schliessler says. “It was 18-by-26-foot wide, so having four actors with their instruments made it very tight in there. We were using a very wide lens on a large-format camera. We needed to find two camera angles that could capture the whole six-minute monologue without interruption. We also wanted to use an extreme close-up on Chadwick using a very shallow depth of field, but we didn’t want to give him any specific marks [to make him feel] confined by camera or light constraints. The way George explained it to me at the beginning of prep was ‘I want you to think of it as a boxing ring, where the actors come together and have pages of dialogue, then they retreat into their corners before going out again.’”
Making it work: “I put two cameras on Chadwick as he’s addressing the group that track him as he retreats into his corner: one, on a profile to him behind the piano and the B camera at a 90-degree behind the band members,” he says. “Those two shots literally covered 90% of his performance in that scene. One camera had to get out of the way of the other, so it was a real ballet between those two cameras.” Both were on dolly tracks with 4-foot sliders and a single light source through the window gave the actor even more freedom to move. “I’ll never forget when he turned away from the other band members and walked right towards the A camera,” Schliessler recalls. “He landed in the ideal spot for my operator, Kirk Gardner, to slowly push in on his face, in perfect timing. Everyone was at the top of their game, especially Chadwick, who delivers the most incredible performance of his life. He was on set every day and had so many intense scenes to film. He never showed any weakness. It’s just so inspiring.”
Chris Menges, “Waiting for the Barbarians” (Samuel Goldwyn Films)
(Directed by Ciro Guerra)
Adapted by Nobel Prize-winning author J.M. Coetzee from his 1980 novel of the same name, “Waiting for the Barbarians” is a harrowing
story of colonialism and oppression and one man’s attempt to understand his role in perpetuating it. A nomadic indigenous people, the so-called “barbarians” that people the mountains surrounding an isolated settlement of “The Empire,” are rumored to be mounting an attack. The malevolent head of the empire’s special forces is sent in to cull the threat by ordering the capture and public torture of dozens of these tribal people. Some are killed. When the fortified settlement’s unnamed magistrate, played with distinctive command by Mark Rylance, tries as a last resort to stop it, he becomes yet another chapter in the hideous spectacle. Shooting in northwestern Africa was a dream come true for Menges. “Returning to the Sahara desert was like being in heaven for me,” Menges says. “The light was so crystal clear, the sun so bright, the sky so dark blue and the mountains such a rich, deep black.”
Favorite scene: “I loved the performance that Mark Rylance gives when he is handing back the girl to her own people in the mountains in the second part of the film,” Menges says. “When he tells her against that stunning backdrop, ‘This is what I want: I want you to return with me to the town,’ it stirs the heart. It’s just magic.”
Genesis of the shot: “In my script, I read the notes ‘The Magistrate is a complex person who wants nothing to do with the actions of the Third Bureau under Colonel Joll,” says the cinematographer. “He also knows he’s complicit in the action of the Empire. The mystery of the girl, played by Mongolian actress Gana Bayarsaikhan, lies not in her being part of the enemy ‘barbarians.’ It’s in the unbelievable pain, cruelty and suffering she experiences at the hands of her torturers, part of the Empire that the Magistrate represents.”
Making it work: We were on the south side of the Atlas Mountains, so the weather in that part of the Sahara desert is very consistent. It’s always very bright and crystal clear. We obviously planned when we wanted to do it in terms of the light, but partly because the acting was so good, we got the shot very quickly without multiple takes. Like Cartier-Bresson, I just had to capture it. And that was a wonderful feeling. Mark Rylance is the most extraordinary person to work with. He’s just incredibly talented. But I also found the scenes between Gana and Mark to be completely devoid of emotional exploitation, so I think that’s another reason this worked so well. The story we told — and by “we” I mean John Coetzee along with Ciro and producer Michael Fitzgerald — is an extremely significant one to tell right now. It was Coetzee’s imagination and the very real horrors of apartheid that inspired the story and steered this ship.”
Ben Smithard, “The Father” (Sony Pictures Classics)
(Directed by Florian Zeller)
It’s hard to top filming the likes of Maggie Smith, with her impeccable, scene-stealing timing, among the opulent rooms of England’s Highclere Castle. But for “Downton Abbey” cinematographer Ben Smithard, capturing Anthony Hopkins’ moving performance among the more simple, intimate spaces of “The Father,” was a career high point. “I’ve been lucky to work with him three times now, and his performance is stunning in this film,” says Smithard. First-time film director Florian Zeller ably moves a stellar cast through the confusion, fear, pathos and pain unleashed by a family member’s dementia.
Favorite scene: “I pretty much love all of this film, but my favorite scene is the last one, when he’s in his hospital room,” says Smithard. “You could look at it that he possibly doesn’t ever leave his hospital room for the entire film and you are simply inside his head. In this last scene, between him and Olivia Williams, who plays his nurse and whom he confuses with his daughter (Olivia Colman), he has a slight moment of clarity and feels completely alone. It’s so sad to look at but also amazing to watch. My job is to operate the camera, feel the emotion of the scene, try to understand the words, put the light where the important parts of the scene are, and try to position the audience where I am. Because if they can see what I see, they’ll get it.”
Genesis of the shot: “We shot with just one camera, and it was me behind it all the way through the film. The scene is four or five minutes, and it starts on him. The nurse gives him a postcard from his daughter from Paris; you see earlier in the film that she doesn’t go to Paris, but actually she does go. The entire scene is shot in two shots with a single cut, and it leads up to the end of the film and a closing shot out the window.”
Making it work: “A scene like this is so emotional for Tony,” says the DP. “I knew that if he was going to build himself up into this, he was only going to do it once, maybe twice. I didn’t really know where Tony was going to go, though of course I know what he’s going to say, so I know the timing of it. What I do is I just very slowly push the zoom in to a mid-shot, waist up. You don’t even notice. He says this deeply poignant line, about feeling as if he’s losing all the leaves off his tree, and he’s up against the door of the bedroom. He’s slowly moving into the corner of the room. I didn’t know he was going to go there, but I’m still slowly pushing in and getting closer to him. When he reaches the corner, he’s like a child. He’s lost all of his memory.
He holds his hand out, and Olivia takes it, and then goes over to the bed. Then there’s a cut, and he sits down on the bed with her, and we set up another position. As she puts her arm around him, I know I’ve got a really complicated and tricky move to make to end up out the window: I’ve got to move my body on the dolly without making any noise and disturbing them. And I can’t slip! I’m on the two of them, and I’ve got to twist my body and then step over the dolly as it’s moving, and I’m also pushing in a little bit. I have to get the timing spot-on, because the camera moves off them, across the bed, across the bedside table with a picture of his daughter on it, across the chair and out the window, and then slowly pushes out the window to the trees outside.”
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