The Contenders: Cinematographers


We could go on for a thousand words about the following five pictures. But better to simply let the cinematographers who shot them explain the origins and execution of a few of our favorite film images from the year.

“The Ides of March”

The scene: Ryan Gosling’s press secretary stands backstage, lost in thought following a confrontation with his boss.


Cinematographer: Phedon Papamichael

Birth of the shot: “The morning of rehearsal, George [Clooney] was working with Ryan and Phillip [Seymour Hoffman], and we just parked the camera wide in the corner. We saw it and realized we had a great opportunity to do a reverse-’Patton’ shot. I called George over, and he didn’t need much convincing.”

Making it work: “Me doing something to it would have just ruined it. On the other side [of the flag], the stage side, we’re lighting the speaker. The flag is all backlit. That’s why Ryan’s silhouetted against it. I didn’t really light him at all. I just wanted to maintain that mood we found in rehearsal. Sometimes you just know it’s right and you’ll screw it up if you manipulate it too much.”

Shot significance: “You have two sides of the coin — the spectacle with George up front, the façade, what he’s publicly presenting and then back on the other side, the negative side, you have him crumbling.”

“The Artist”

The scene: Poor and out of work, Jean Dujardin as George Valentin reflects on his former life as the world’s biggest silent film star when he spies his old tuxedo in a second-hand shop.

Cinematographer: Guillaume Schiffman

Birth of the shot: “We always had it in the script. What was interesting, after working with Jean on three movies, this was the first shot we ever did where he had to be emotional, and it was strange to me because it was so intense.”


Making it work: “We built the shop on the Paramount lot. We needed to have Jean sunny and the shot in the shade. [Director] Michel Hazanavicius had storyboarded it, so he knew what emotion he wanted. We just had to find the right angle. It had to be very clear and all white and all gray, nothing black except for the tuxedo.”

Shot significance: “The contrast between the gray and black is, I think, why it brings out so much emotion. That’s the part of the movie where everything is gray for George Valentin and the only thing we see that’s black is the tuxedo, which is just a souvenir from his old life. He is thinking, ‘I was that, and now I’m here.’”


The scene: Michael Fassbender’s sex addict Brandon retreats into himself following a failed sexual encounter with a co-worker at the Standard Hotel.

Cinematographer: Sean Bobbitt

Birth of the shot: “It really came out of rehearsal and specifically related to the layout of the hotel room itself. We knew he’d distance himself after his moment of failure, so it was dictated by the position of the bath, which is quite unusual for this particular room.”

Making it work: “We were very lucky with the fog and mist that day, particularly since we were on the 18th floor. If it had been sunny, it would have changed the look and feel of the room. I had devised all sorts of nets and flags and diffusion, but the weather cooperated and did it all for us.”

Shot significance: “There were a couple of takes where I followed him from the bed to his sitting position. But the way it’s cut, going from the befuddled woman to him, makes it much more powerful. He’s not trying anymore, and his distress is not over her embarrassment but the recognition of his own inability to be intimate with someone he might actually like.”

“We Need to Talk About Kevin”

The scene: Tilda Swinton crowd surfs Spain’s La Tomatina festival.

Cinematographer: Thomas Townend, second unit cinematographer

Birth of the shot: Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey “was already working on ‘The Avengers,’ so my entire involvement with the movie lasted for the one-hour, 15-minute duration of the festival. I had a shot list, and the fun pressure of getting them in that allotted time.”

Making it work: “We had two cameras on balconies and two in the street. It’s 40,000 people, most of whom have been up all night drinking, crammed into a very small space. We got the shot above the seething crowd first and then went out with Tilda [Swinton]. We had six guys with us dressed as revelers and they held Tilda aloft.”

Shot significance: “There’s the hint of her former life as a travel writer. The color red from the festival contains obvious symbolism, given what happens later. And the shots from above, since they’re filmed in slow-motion, deliberately distorts the reality, which is quite unhinged. In the film, it looks much more elegant.”

“The Descendants”

The scene: George Clooney’s Matt King shows his daughters the family plot in Hawaii.

Cinematographer: Phedon Papamichael

Birth of the shot: “The movie is not very stylized. But this is a key moment, so it’s one of the few cinematic shots. I felt like I needed to make a point. It needed to have some visual impact.”

Making it work: “They get out of the Jeep and — bam! — we crane up to reveal this incredible piece of land, this coast with the beach. I got lucky. The sun was moving across the mountain, creating a very nice pattern. It was overcast where they were standing with a little bit of God’s light on the bay below.”

Shot significance: “The movie’s called ‘The Descendants,’ so it’s the land entrusted to George’s character. And now it’s slipping away, like his wife is slipping away. And he’s wondering maybe if it’s time to start paying attention to things and not let them get lost.”