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Five Men and a Camera

The Oscars

The nominated cinematographers may differ about how to get the look they want. But they all set out with one goal: to capture a memorable sense of place.

March 24, 2002|HUGH HART

The original idea was to gather all five Oscar-nominated cinematographers in one room to talk about the art and craft of shooting movies. But in today's global filmmaking reality, a conference call linking four countries had to suffice.

Bruno Delbonnel checked in from Paris, the city he so charmingly mythologized in "Amelie." "Black Hawk Down's" director of photography, Slawomir Idziak, spoke from Warsaw. "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" cinematographer Andrew Lesnie called from his home in Sydney. British-born Roger Deakins, director of photography for "The Man Who Wasn't There," and Australian native Donald M. McAlpine, nominated for his work in "Moulin Rouge," gathered around a speaker phone in a Beverly Hills hotel suite.

Delbonnel, working for the first time with his close friend "Amelie" director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, drew inspiration from French Impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard and scouted Paris for three months to find the 80 locations featured in the film.

Deakins, who also shot leading Oscar contender "A Beautiful Mind," has made six movies with "The Man Who Wasn't There" filmmaking team of Joel and Ethan Coen. Deakins and the Coen brothers, shooting in Pasadena and Orange, filmed in color before printing the images in black and white. McAlpine contributed to Australia's independent film movement with such breakthrough efforts as "My Brilliant Career" (1979) and "Breaker Morant" (1980). He teamed for the first time with Baz Luhrmann on "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet" and spent a year in pre-production re-creating fin-de-siecle Paris on three Australian sound stages.

Lesnie, best known for shooting "Babe" in 1995, helped create a complex "Lord of the Rings" color scheme, defining each realm of Middle-earth with a distinct set palette. The "Rings" trilogy, filmed in New Zealand, marks Lesnie's first collaboration with director Peter Jackson.

Idziak worked closely with the late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski on films such as "The Double Life of Veronique" (1991). Ridley Scott hired Idziak on the strength of "Veronique" as well as "Gattica" (1995) and "I Want You" (1998). For "Black Hawk Down," set in Mogadishu, Somalia, but filmed in Morocco, Idziak coordinated as many as seven cameras shooting simultaneously for lengthy combat sequences. It's his first film with Scott.

As they voiced their views in an 80-minute discussion excerpted below, a fundamental bond emerged: To trot out that most familiar of filmmaking truisms, these master craftsmen thrive on collaboration. Given the chance in the nominated work to participate as artists, Deakins, Delbonnel, McAlpine, Idziak and Lesnie responded with moving images of the first order.

Question: Each of these five films conjures such a vivid sense of place. How did you go about creating this kind of heightened reality, where the setting itself becomes a major character in the story?

Deakins: Well, that was the way Joel and Ethan had written it, as a black-and-white film. Obviously, "The Man Who Wasn't There" was an hommage to film noir, but also an hommage to '40s science-fiction movies and B-movies, so there was a lot of different imagery that was conjured up just by reading the script. You spend time in pre-production, just generally talking about the ideas.

Q: Putting that noir twist into this middle-class environment, throwing two unexpected things together ...

Deakins: They've generally done that with all their films. That's what's so great about Joel and Ethan's filmmaking. They often examine small lives, small-town America.

Q: Bruno, how did you create this particular vision of Paris in "Amelie"?

Delbonnel: The idea was to create a kind of fairy tale look, so the major thing for us was to make Paris look beautiful, which was kind of difficult because Paris is not anymore beautiful for us. It's a very weird city now and very ugly. We had to find those really remote locations in Paris that only Parisians know about, which are places the camera likes. The lens makes it beautiful because they're already beautiful. And then choosing a wide lens as we did, we wanted to show those buildings which are kind of special to this place, Montmartre.

Idziak: I must say, filming "Black Hawk Down" was a very easy task with Ridley as the director. Having a partner who had a complete and clear vision of the picture, I had only to fulfill his vision. We had a little bit of fighting, but I was completely free in terms of the color scheme, how to proceed in terms of filtering, the vision in terms of lighting and so on.

Q: The word "dust" comes to mind when I think of "Black Hawk Down." I wonder if your choice of color brought out that sense of dryness even more?

Idziak: The color decision--I'm just joking of course--but very often Ridley used to mention that he was making this public-is-about-to-vomit sort of picture. So I just tried to find my inspiration for the colors in the color of vomiting. [Laughter.] That's why I use so much yellow and all this.

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