The Camera is a Dancer: DP Linus Sandgren Walks Us Through How He and Damien Chazelle Shot La La Land

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Colors pop like old-fashioned jelly beans in La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s musical about struggling artists Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) who fall for each other.

Released by Lionsgate, the old-style musical, updated to contemporary times, opened Friday, December 9 to rapturous reviews.

This eye candy of a movie is so delectable you often feel like you could reach out and taste it. Blame part of this sensory overload on the work of Swedish cinematographer Linus Sandgren.

La La Land opens with a show-stopping number in which the stars don’t even participate. This takes place—where else—amidst a traffic jam on the freeway. Cars and trucks are stuck and snarled and everyone suddenly pulls to a stop. People get out of their cars but instead of expressing road rage, they sing and dance to “Another Day of Sun,” an ode to L.A. The camera swerves and swings to keep up all the movement; it’s dancing along. Sandgren told me the filmmakers blocked the ramp for two days as they rehearsed the traffic jam, got the cars out on the highway and plotted their moves.

The story of La La Land is the story of dreamers Mia and Sebastian, who first meet on that highway. He honks for her to move. She gives him the finger. Soon after, she’s drawn to a jazz club by the sounds of someone playing the piano. It’s Sebastian. She compliments him on his playing but he doesn’t hear her. Sebastian’s boss (J.K. Simmons from Whiplash) has just fired him for not playing “Jingle Bells” and he brushes by Mia in a huff. Soon after, they run into each other at a house party in the hills where Sebastian is playing with an ’80s cover band for the scratch, and Mia sarcastically requests they play the cheesy Flock of Seagulls’ song “I Ran” to get under his skin.

Ryan Gosling as Sebastian in La La Land

After the party they walk to their respective cars—and this is where the real fun begins. The soon-to-be lovers start swirling and singing Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers-style around a lamp post on a hill overlooking a spectacular vista of the city of stars.

Sandgren, best known for his cinematography on the David O. Russell films American Hustle and Joy, spoke to MovieMaker last week by phone from London, just before all the awards hoopla in which La La Land has figured heavily. Sandgren spoke passionately about a wide range of topics, included choice of color palettes, shooting on anamorphic lenses, filming dance numbers in a single take and the light in L.A. during magic hour, when they chose to shoot.

There was more good news for La La Land Monday morning when the musical nabbed seven Golden Globe nominations—the most of any film—including for Best Picture, for actors Stone and Gosling, and for director Chazelle. By the time the Academy Award nominations are announced Tuesday, January 24, Sandgren should have come around to hearing his own name on the Best Cinematography list.

Paula Schwartz, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): You’ve never done a musical before. What was your first reaction to that challenge?

Linus Sandgren (LS): I was excited because I’d seen Whiplash shortly before I got a call to meet Damien. It was, like, weirdly soon after I saw it, and I was so amazed by it and was very excited to meet him and to hear his thoughts on doing a Hollywood style musical. I read the script and I thought it was really great. Then I met him and I sat down for a meeting and he played the music for me, which I totally fell in love with. It was so emotional that it really triggered creativity in me. I connected with the script right away. I understood suddenly the tone of the film, that was much more melancholic than I could have imagined.

MM: Talk about your choice of format.

LS: Because of what Damien wanted to do with this film, and because he wanted it to be an homage to old Hollywood musicals, and the craft of filmmaking, and the craft of making music properly with instruments and not on synthesizers, he felt that the film had to be shot in the scope format, anamorphic, because he loves anamorphic lenses in general, and scope would fit the film. And then I felt it would be more appropriate to shoot it in 2.55 CinemaScope like they did with A Star is Born, for example, and films like that back in the 1950s, before the standard became 2.40: 1, so that’s how the 2.55 aspect ratio came up. It was really an homage to old Hollywood.

Then, we wanted to shoot on film. Damien really wanted to shoot on film because we wanted to capture as much rich color from the sets as possible and we both felt that we had more opportunity to do so with film stock than with digital tools. And in addition to that, sometimes you find that digital cameras capture reality so well that you have a hard time making it look “magical.” This film was supposed to look much more magical than realistic, so film was a natural choice.

MM: Is all of it shot on film? What lenses did you use?

LS: It’s all shot on 35mm, but there’s a sequence shot on 16mm anamorphic. We agreed that Panavision would have the lenses for us that also spoke to us more as a classic Hollywood cinemascope lens. There’s many obviously modern anamorphic lenses out there and also older anamorphic lenses, but the Panavision lens is very significant for Hollywood movies, I think. So we went with Panavision XL2’s camera with anamorphic C series and E series primes. We had also zoom, but Damien really wanted to capture a lot of scenes—as many as possible—in single takes to let us as an audience travel in space, and experience it as humans in the space for real. The camera then needed to move very tightly in or very wide, which would have caused problems with anamorphic lenses because they normally go three feet for close focus. So we had Panavision make a special 40mm anamorphic lens for the purpose of being able to go close to things. They made a special lens for us that had a much closer focus, so that we could get closer to hands and stuff and then pull out to wide shots.

Then we have another sequence we shot in 16mm anamorphic. We made another anamorphic lens, 4.60mm format, so that we could shoot home video footage that they watch later in the film in the flashback. They have a little sequence where they get pregnant and that’s handheld… and part of that is shot on 16mm anamorphic. That is also a special lens made by Panavision for us. It wasn’t like we wanted to make lenses, but we needed them because we wanted some flexibility for shooting.

Damien Chazelle on the set of La La Land

MM: How did you shoot the dance numbers in one take?

LS: Yes, it was very important to do that, and very important for Damien to capture them head-to-toe dancing, but also for the camera to be able to move in space with them. And not only, like, horizontally back and forth, but more in depth, in and out and up and down with them, almost like a musical instrument, actually, or like a dancer as well. And if we could capture that in one single take, [it meant] whatever we see on the screen actually happened. It’s not like we cut around it or something. They actually walked up that street. They start to sing a little, and they walk up and they start dancing and it ends with the phone ringing. It’s all happening in that hour or two, in that magic hour, in those six minutes of light in the skies when we shot it for real. It was very good for Damien to not cheat with that, to not shoot that at night and then put in the sky later or shoot it on stage. As much as possible, we always strove to make the movie like they would have made it in the ’50s. We both felt the desire to capture things in camera was something we had in common—we feel like that is something of a film craft, and that it’s really important to remember the impact of doing things for real. Even if you can’t tell today, you’ll be able to tell in 10 years from now that something is not real. But if it was there for real, it was there, so you can’t cheat.

MM: I’m assuming when they are in Griffith Observatory and they fly up to the stars, it’s fake. They aren’t in real space although it feels like it. [laughs] They’re on wires, right?

LS: They’re on wires, yes. They’re up on wires and we built that set. We shot in the real Griffith Observatory for the walls before that, but then when they walk into the planetarium, we were not allowed to shoot in there. Also we couldn’t put wires there, so we built that on stage and had them fly up on wires and land with the wires and it’s blue-screen above them where we project the images.

MM: When you’re doing uninterrupted takes, they’re dancing that whole number. How many takes would they do of a number and if they made a mistake did they have to start over?

LS: Right. When they walk up from that party up the street, that Mulholland Drive-style street, then they start to sing, that particular scene was during magic hour; we figured that it had to happen somewhere around 7:30 in the evening and we planned it out that way. We rehearsed, obviously, a lot, in both the dance stage, but also on location with actors, and they spent three months in prep just rehearsing different things like dancing and playing piano and everything, because Ryan plays the piano for real. Everything is for real.

Emma Stone and Gosling dance above a magic-hour view of L.A.

That dance number, for example, we rehearsed it the entire day from seven in the morning until seven in the evening with the crane and we had 27 marks on the crane, and obviously the actors had to hit their marks, and it was incredibly hard for them. They had to perform and sing and dance and we had to move the camera and light it, so we spent the day rehearsing and lighting for night, and then at 7 p.m. we rolled the camera for the first time and then we rolled five takes. We were OK for light on two takes—not the two last ones, but takes three and four were good. And then the next day we came back in the evening and started shooting, between 7 and 7:45, another five takes. So we in total got 10 takes. Four were good for light. And from those four takes, Damien picked one then for the film. If it hadn’t worked, we would have had to come back and shoot again because we didn’t have any coverage or B-roll.

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