Janusz Kaminski on Shooting War Horse, Avoiding 3-D, and Those Spielberg Close-Ups
For most of the last 18 years as Steven Spielberg's go-to cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski has held one of the sweetest creative gigs in Hollywood. The post has netted the Polish D.P. two Academy Awards (for Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, plus an additional nomination for Amistad) and credits on some of the most commercially successful films of the last generation, but more than that, it has made Kaminski's eye the one through which audiences witness Spielberg's influential vision of the past, present and future. It's a huge responsibility. It's also a singular opportunity.
Their latest film together, War Horse, returns Spielberg and Kaminski to the scope of those epic, Oscar-winning collaborations, adapting Michael Morpurgo's novel of a young man (Jeremy Irvine, in his film debut) and his thoroughbred separated by duty in World War I. It's masterful filmmaking, for better or worse; the battle scenes are extraordinary, and the movie's sentimentality is less of a shortcoming than an aesthetically achieved device -- one that Kaminski's lens has helped Spielberg refine over more than a dozen films. The cinematographer recently spoke with Movieline about the development of their shared language, the end of film as we know it, why he's skipped 3-D so far, and what really makes a Spielberg close-up.
What was the first Steven Spielberg film you remember seeing?
I know it was The Sugarland Express. I was still in Poland at that point. And then he made Duel. That's probably it, because I left Poland in 1980. Sugarland Express was probably 1973 or '75. And then Duel came right after.
What was your reaction to them?
I liked Sugarland Express simply because it reflected the America that I knew from the movies. It had this raw quality -- the freedom, the quirkiness, full of weird people. And my perception of America was based on American movies, you know? But strangely... Well, actually, not strangely. It makes perfect sense: The censorship in Poland allowed the great movies made in the States to be available for Polish audiences, because at that time, America was questioning its social make-up through cinema. It evaluated the social make-up and would frequently become critical of that society. So the Polish censorship embraced that, because in their mind, they were showing the decadent, immoral America. But for us, it was just the land of freedom. We wanted to watch those movies just for the whole idea that if you could question the government, then you were already free.
Among those films that came over to Poland, which were the ones that you think most inspired you to pursue filmmaking and cinematography?
I started as a filmmaker, and then I chose cinematography for various reasons. But I think Vanishing Point was one of those films. I liked the movies that reflect the rebellion of the individual against the system, you know? And I guess that's why I left Poland as well. I'm still like that: I still want to rebel against the system and those things. It's a little bit different these days -- maybe just through my work -- but I'm still attracted to those movies.
So after 15 films working with Spielberg, what challenges remain? Apart from the films themselves -- how does that relationship evolve?
It evolves just because each of those films is a different story. You get a different screenwriters, different actors, different this or that. And the challenges are great, because the physical aspects of production are always challenging -- simply to get through the day. You have to provide a quality of work that's just right, and you have to make the day. That's always challenging. And the movies are getting bigger and more complicated, especially the ones that are supposed to entertain. They are just getting bigger. When I did Minority Report, I felt this was the biggest movie I've ever done. And then, of course, we did War of the Worlds, which was even bigger. And then Indiana Jones [and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull], which was even bigger. Audiences' expectations are such, you know? So doing a movie like War Horse, which was big but not really driven by action so much as the story, was very rewarding. And we're doing Lincoln right now, which is virtually no action. It's all about performance. So right there, you have two very much different films. That's what makes it exciting -- the subject matter he's interested in.
What kind of shorthand have you two developed to navigate those challenges from film to film?
We kind of know what's going to happen. You kind of know what the shots are going to be. You kind of know what to expect. There's no mystery. If something looks really good to me, I know that he's going to see it as well, and we're going to go for it. Particularly the angles: If we walk into this room, obviously it's very logical to shoot this direction [against a window overlooking Manhattan], because it's great. If you didn't have money, I'd shoot against this wall because you can control it -- you can control the environment. So there are certain things. You just know how the movie's made. And also, you expect to know that we'll see certain shots everywhere. We have to accommodate that desire of the director. And also be accommodating of actors so that the work becomes better -- so that you're not taking too much time from the actors and the director. The time is always a big issue; every 10 or 15 minutes you take on a set, that adds up over the course of a day to one or two hours of production time. You're really robbing the ability of the director and actors to do better work. So that gets more refined. There's no guessing. We know what the work will be.
Beyond the films getting bigger, the technology changes. How does the preponderance of CG or the advance of 3-D affect your craft, if at all?
It doesn't, because I haven't done a digital movie, and I haven't done 3-D. We still work with film, and we still work flat. I think that 3-D, apparently, was going to be something that was very popular -- and it was -- but now it's kind of winding down a bit. The digital will be a reality for us very soon because will be no more film. There will simply be no film emulsion. Kodak is going out of business. So we'll end up shooting digital, and the quality of the digital becomes higher and higher. It will never be compared to film; it's just a different vocabulary, a different language, different aesthetics. And it shouldn't be. It's a different palette, and that's fine.
Does 3-D turn you off?
I haven't done it. I haven't seen a movie in 3-D.
You haven't seen a movie in 3-D? No Avatar?
No, not yet. I'd like to see Hugo because I'm sure that Robert Richardson's work will be spectacular. But I just... I don't know. I'm not drawn to those movies -- the movies that are made in 3-D. Not because of the form, but just the story. You know? Not into it -- not into those action films, I guess. But if we do one, I'll see it!
So Spielberg has a trademark shot -- that tracking-in close-up that he does -- that has carried over to seemingly all of his films over the decades. It's a very specific thing; a lot of filmmakers use that shot, but there's something a hair different about Spielberg's. What is it?
I think they're emotions. He just does it at the right time, when he wants to evoke those emotions. And he knows so much about emotions -- human emotions. I think that's why his movies are so successful: because we can all identify with those emotions, and we can really clearly see those emotions on the screen. But it's not just the one shot. It's a sequence of shots that allows you to make it so much different then. You can imitate his shots, but you can't imitate every shot. His trademark is also wide shots -- especially wide shots where you have explosions or special effects. He likes to give the audience the thing happening in one take, right in front of you without editing. Because the moment you cut, you're cheating.
And audiences don't realize how cinematography itself affects emotion. It's so subtle, right?
They don't, sure. Well, they don't really intellectualize it, but they know when something moves them emotionally. They cannot pinpoint why or who's responsible for it. But they know the impact of visuals -- and when the visuals are impacting them.
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