When directors cast actors we all appreciate how each performer brings something of themselves to the role. A similar artistic signature is stamped down when a director chooses their cinematographer. Let's take a look at two similar movies, shot by different people and see how their creative predilections come out on screen.
For starters let's talk about what these films have in common, other than Jake Gyllenhaal. They both deal with some heinous, probably psychopathic criminals—"Prisoners" with the child kidnappers, and "Nocturnal Animals" with the serial killers. They both tell a story about fathers who have lost their children, and they explore masculinity in modern society. Those parallels make it really fascinating to see how these crime thrillers take such a disparate approach to darkness.
“Prisoners” DP Roger Deakins chose to shoot on an Alexa camera. The digital format gave him the flexibility to rate his camera up to 1600 ISO for his low light work at night. Combined with T1.3 Arri/Zeiss Master Prime lenses, he was set up for getting the most exposure with the least light. Deakins fell in love with the Alexa camera when shooting 2011’s “In Time.” Since then he’s shot every movie using this camera and lens combination except when the Coens made him return to film for “Hail, Caesar” (2016). Before the Alexa he shot everything with the Master Primes lenses on Kodak film stock. Before the Master Primes he spent years shooting everything on Cooke S4 lenses. To say he’s set in his ways is an understatement.
On the other hand, “Nocturnal Animals” DP Seamus McGarvey decided to shoot on film even though the fastest film stock available is Kodak’s 5219 at only 500 ISO. This time he went with Panavision Primo prime and zoom lenses. He almost always opts for Panavision lenses, but not always the same set; sometimes he chooses spherical, other times anamorphic. He does however frequently change his format to suit the project. His recent release, “Life” (2017), used the Alexa 65. In 2016 he had two releases on film, while in 2015 he had two releases in digital formats. Back when Fuji film was an option, he shot “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (2011) on Fuji stock and he even sometimes mixed Kodak and Fuji. Whether this capture format mumbojumbo has anything to do with quality is still up for debate, but it’s pretty clear McGarvey thinks it’s important.
One of the most impressive parts of “Nocturnal Animals” was the night exterior driving scene when Tony Hastings and his fictional family is accosted by Ray. As the family drives along the highway, putting considerable distance behind them, the camera sees far in front and behind the car. The entire time everything is lit. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey used massive Bebee lights to illuminate over a mile of road with cinematic moonlight. Seeing deep into the distance sets the stage by isolating Tony on an endless stretch of road with no help in sight. Meanwhile the foreboding tones imply the upcoming tragedy that's about to befall his family. In these ways the lighting is effective on multiple levels, even if it's born out of a stylized approach. It’s easy to imagine that scene taking place on a road with streetlights doing all of the work, but McGarvey’s vision for this sequence doesn’t allow that.
The candlelight vigil in “Prisoners” exemplifies Deakins’s vastly different mindset. In this scene, Detective Loki spots a suspicious looking man and chases him into the nearby backyards. Deakins had the option to do large moonlight washes over the set, but he chose to go with a look that was more authentic to the location. He used lots of practical lights and subtly augmented them with movie lights.
While his lighting isn’t very stylized, he pushes the envelope with exposure. One of Deakins’s most admirable talents is his ability to put so much of his frame in complete darkness without any confusion about what's happening. With “Prisoners” he often balances out the rich blacks with beaming highlights especially when there are practical lamps in his shot. Those bright areas make the darks seem that much more intense. Deakins doesn’t shy away from having an actor’s face fall off into complete darkness. McGarvey is more timid with his exposure. He makes sure the actors faces are lit, he shows detail throughout the entire background so the scene has context. It feels more like McGarvey is following the rules, but it pays off because his work on “Nocturnal Animals” is absolutely gorgeous.
This gets us into a philosophical debate: what is good cinematography? Deakins refrains from being showy with the lighting. Frame-by-frame McGarvey’s work is more aesthetically pleasing, but Deakins would never concede that it’s better. There’s one dream sequence in “Prisoners” when Deakins shows off his true prowess with stylized lighting. Keller Dover falls asleep and we see an image of his missing daughter shrouded in shadow as hard light comes in through a window. Rainwater on the window makes an impression on the wall behind the daughter. The surreal nature of the lighting immediately communicates that we’re in Keller’s head. With that one scene it becomes clear that we could be watching images like this all the time, but Deakins wants the majority of the movie to look appropriately bland. The fact of the matter is that it’s not the purpose of cinematography to always make a film look pretty.
The same principle goes for the camerawork too. When things get intense in “Nocturnal Animals,” McGarvey goes handheld with the camera. He gives it a hectic feel and it ups the stakes for the viewer. Deakins rejects that idea in “Prisoners,” with stoic and stable camerawork even when tensions are highest. I can easily imagine the camera going handheld in the scene when Loki approaches Alex Jones in the RV, but that’s not how Deakins envisions it. He doesn’t see handheld as a catch-all for realism, authenticity, or grit. He much prefers to let the performances do the talking than to force a mood with camera shake.
Instead, for Deakins, strong compositions and simple movements are his staples. He loves shots with foreground elements and working with deep space in a frame. It seems like a simple thing to throw something in the foreground, but what makes it valuable is how Deakins uses it for more concise storytelling. You can convey multiple things at once with a well-executed composition, which Deakins does time and again. It’s effective and subtle.
There’s nothing about the content of these two films that says to me that they needed to be photographed in these two distinct ways. If the DP’s were switched I bet they would each take their respective shooting styles with them. “Prisoners” might be shot on film with McGarvey behind the camera and “Nocturnal Animals” on the Alexa with Deakins. Both styles have something valuable to offer a director. When placed side-by-side they show us how strongly a cinematographer’s personal style can influence the creation of a film.
After I started looking into these two films I found out that Gaffer Chris Napolitano worked on both of them. I wonder what input he had!