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These award-contending cinematographers say their work requires energy, improvisation — and strong legs

These award-contending cinematographers say their work requires energy, improvisation — and strong legs
From left: Rachel Weisz in "The Favourite," John David Washington in a scene from "BlacKkKlansman" and Willem Dafoe in "At Eternity's Gate." (Yorgos Lanthimos /Twentieth Century Fox; David Lee / Focus Features via AP Photo; Lily Gavin / CBS Films)

Going undercover with the KKK, running circles through a forest, and painting an impressionistic portrait of a post-Impressionism painter: Three cinematographers explain how they got their shots and why they mattered.

Chayse Irvin, “BlacKkKlansman”

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The scene: Spike Lee’s celebrated dramedy finds newly hired Colorado Springs police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) going undercover to canvass a black student union gathering where Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) is giving a passionate speech about civil rights.

Birth of the shot: This scene was a pivotal moment in Stallworth’s career and what inspires him to start investigating the Ku Klux Klan. Irvin notes, “In the film, it's depicted like he coincidentally finds an advertisement for the KKK in a newspaper. But it's really his kind of black pride that is sparked in this moment, that makes him really energized.”

Ture gave that particular speech in real life and it was shot verbatim. Irvin adds, “Whenever you're working on a set when you know the stakes are high like that, the energy amongst all the collaborators is really clicking at a unique level. And you know, I think it got to the heart of Spike and I's collaboration, which was very much almost like a jazz band, where we did a lot of improvising. But in jazz they have this term called ‘in the pocket.’ When you're kind of in the zone, you know? And that's how it felt on set.”

Laura Harrier as Patrice and John David Washington as Ron Stallworth in Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman."
Laura Harrier as Patrice and John David Washington as Ron Stallworth in Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman." (David Lee / Focus Features)

Making it work: Lee and Irvin decided to use four cameras simultaneously. There was a second unit in a closet at the location shooting portraits of the crowd actors, two were shooting the speech, and Irvin stayed on Stallworth. It was set up like one big event that they were documenting. Lee played music from the ’70s beforehand to get the extras portraying the crowd into an energetic mood.

“I try to light something in a way that, on the set on the day, it feels like anything's possible. Especially for the actors,” Irvin says. “I don't want them to feel constrained to a certain space if they feel inspired to kind of work outside of that and whatnot. So I essentially lit the space as it would be lit in that kind of setting, so I set up an array of stage lights almost like a horseshoe shape, above the crowd. And then I set up a soft top light, a soft box. I exposed it at a level that just gave enough detail on all the crowd so that you can sense their presence, but it was still dark and naturalistic. You felt the audience, but your focus was on Kwame.”

Robbie Ryan, “The Favourite”

The scene: For a story set in the early 18th century, Ryan and director Yorgos Lanthimos decided to film entirely with natural light. This meant using candles for numerous night scenes and gigantic windows during the day for interior scenes. One of the more memorable moments, however, took place during a daytime excursion in the forest where Samuel (Joe Alwyn) and Abigail (Emma Stone) become entangled in a flirtatious chase.

Emma Stone in a scene from "The Favourite."
Emma Stone in a scene from "The Favourite." (Twentieth Century Fox)

Birth of the shot: Originally, Stone and Alwyn had rehearsed a choreographed dance where they were just twirling around each other intensely. On set, however, Lanthimos and the actors transformed the moment into something much more comedic.

Making it work: Ryan was using a hand-held rig he’d never used before, which made things slightly more difficult as he followed the actors around the forest. “That was kind of a crazy day,” Ryan recalls. “It was a poor man’s Steadicam because I don't know how to use [one], but I was able to wear a vest that had these kind of exoskeleton arms that housed the gimble with the film camera on it, which gives you a steady, light touch. So I was able to run around after them and that was kind of so bizarre. It was uneasy. I remember that very well.”

Benoît Delhomme, “At Eternity’s Gate”

The scene: Julian Schnabel’s impressionistic portrait of Vincent van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) is a unique collaboration between filmmaker, cinematographer and actors. At this particular moment in the film, Van Gogh is upset upon hearing news that Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) will soon be leaving him in the South of France to return to Paris. The Dutch artist runs from the church where they were speaking to a nearby cemetery where he has an exhaustive breakdown.

Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme on the set of Julian Schnabel's "At Eternity's Gate."
Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme on the set of Julian Schnabel's "At Eternity's Gate." (Lily Gavin)

Birth of the shot: “This was such a long scene, such a long dialogue scene, and I knew I should film with the hand-held because I wanted this to be really organic and follow Willem everywhere I could,” Delhomme says. “I thought the scene is so long and I need to have a steady camera operator to shoot the scene too. And so I [hired] a guy I really liked, very good cinema operator, and I told him, when you work with Julian, you need to improvise. You need to show him the shot. And as the shot develops, Julian is going to tell you things and to redirect you. This is what I was doing during the whole shoot.”

Making it work: Unfortunately, the camera operator left after assessing that the long run behind Dafoe was simply too hard to do, especially as there were only so many takes and Schnabel wanted to shoot it in the magic hour. That left Delhomme to tackle the shot himself.

“I remember when I was running behind Willem, he was running so fast and I was out of breath and looking at the [hand-held] camera in my hands, I thought, ‘Julian was right because my operating was being quite shaky and emotional, it is adding to the tension of the scene.’ I felt like a war photographer going to escape a war zone,” Delhomme says. “And I said to Julian, ‘Do you think my operating is too shaky?’ He said, ‘No, Benoît, because life is so shaky. You would never be too shaky for that scene.’”

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