The Post’s Production: Longtime Spielberg-DP Janusz Kaminski Expresses Himself Through Light

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While growing up in Communist Bloc Poland, Janusz Kaminski was permitted by the government to watch gritty American movies of the 1970s, which were intended to serve as cautionary tales. This actually achieved the opposite effect and encouraged Kaminski to move to America at the age of 21.

After attending film programs at schools in Chicago and Los Angeles, Kaminski joined the legion of future visionaries who came up through the ranks of Roger Corman’s low-budget film factory.

His cinematography on the 1991 TV movie Wildflower caught the eye of Steven Spielberg and led to an almost exclusive working relationship between the men—beginning in 1993 with Schindler’s List which not only took Kaminski back to his native Poland, but brought him the first of his two Academy Awards for Best Cinematography (the second for 1998’s Saving Private Ryan).

Kaminski has occasionally found time to work with other directors such as Julian Schnabel on The Diving Bell and the Butterfly as well as comedy directors Judd Apatow, James L. Brooks, and Cameron Crowe.

The Post, which marks the 17th collaboration between Spielberg and Kaminski, is both a nod to classic investigative journalism films such as All The President’s Men, as well as a referendum on our current “fake news” era. – C.H.

As told to Caleb Hammond

Camera Movement

The news floor is the place where most of the film action happens. In the old newsrooms, journalists moved around a lot—exchanging ideas and getting information from each other—so the camera needed to move quickly to reflect the energy of that space. We built the set so that Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is a part of the main floor. He came from a rarefied class, the intelligentsia—he traveled with the Kennedys—but he aspired to be a working man.

Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) had nothing to do with the working class. She came from tremendous wealth and prestige with a legacy of money and cultural influence. The lighting style for her reflected her socioeconomic background. The lighting style for Tom’s character and the working floor reflected another type of socioeconomic status. The journalists are pale; they work in the same space for many hours; they smoke and drink coffee.

Long Takes

When you go outside the office and you have those scenes with Tom and Meryl, the camera is much more relaxed. It’s very conventional, almost classical moviemaking. When we first introduce Meryl and Tom in the restaurant (having breakfast), it’s basically one long shot; it starts wide, and starts pushing toward the two of them sitting at the table and very slowly we’re panning around, so from over Tom’s shoulder to Meryl becomes over Meryl to Tom. With two cuts that’s the whole scene. The approach was to be honest to the story and to the actors. There was no need to force cuts because the performances and the story were so great. Every time you make a cut, hypothetically, you take the audience away from the honest feel of the scene. We know that’s not always true and that often editing can make a scene more exciting. Here, there was a conscious decision to stay long on shots.

DP’s Involvement Across All Departments

It is essential that I have some input into everything in front of the camera. The simple things: the color of the walls to the placement of the lighting fixtures and even the type of lighting fixtures—not just lighting fixtures that illuminate the set. Our department and the Production Designer have their ideas, but I’m consulted.

I like to be a part of location scouting as early as possible. If the location is really wrong, I will definitely voice my opinion regardless of logistics and time consequences, but that’s what cinematographers do—we tell the story and use all these elements to enhance the story. So, I am essential personnel when it comes to making movies. The position is diminishing lately, but at the moment, there are a few of us who still are essential in shaping the movie not just visually, but in running the movie in a physical aspect of production. We push and pull to make time and finish on schedule.

Kaminski frames Matthew Rhys in The Post. Photo by Niko Tavernise

Film vs. Digital

We shot digital on The BFG [a 2016 fantasy directed by Spielberg] and on the first test day I had tears in my eyes, because it is such a difficult medium. The biggest issue with digital is when it looks good I have no idea why it looks good. My friends tell me, “Don’t change anything. Light like you do normally.” I try, but it just doesn’t work like that. You do have to alter your lighting style. You do have to alter what you know. It is a different animal. I have not been exposed to it enough to really say that I like it. I can definitely say I don’t understand why we went in that direction. We had something going on [with film] that worked perfectly for us.

We were in control of the image, and with film on the screen, it was very clear if you were good or if you were mediocre. Now you can be mediocre and still look decent. You just get in focus and make sure you’ve got enough—this whole idea of “capturing images.” Capturing images? Why do you have to capture them? What is there to capture? You’re creating images. You have to be much better to do 35mm negatives rather than in high definition. There is a different language involved.

Phillippe Rousselot does things so masterfully on all his movies including Interview with a Vampire. He uses his photochemical and light knowledge and would use under-exposed non-directional light to create these half tones within the frame. Now, anybody can do that and all the films look like that. It’s not an art form anymore. It’s not knowing any better; it just looks good (kind of).

Kaminski scored his second Best Cinematography Academy Award lensing Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998). Courtesy of DreamWorks Studios

Telling a story through light—that will come back. Telling a story through visual metaphors—that will come back. People are making lemonade and are visual geniuses? They’re searching for something, and when someone has a little bit of visual panache, suddenly they’re “geniuses.” They’re “groundbreaking artists.” Just because they’re copying some shit from the 80s. People are putting crystals in front of digital lenses because they are trying to be visually inspiring. No! Use the light. Make it clean. There are no aesthetics that they’ve developed. Everywhere across the board, it looks the same.

I told my young friend after his first feature, “This is some top-notch cinematography. You did fantastic, but where is the oomph? Where is the special thing that makes you different from all the other guys? I couldn’t name whether it’s you, or whether it’s that guy. You all look the same. You all use the same lights, the same filters, the same approach. Make it so that it’s yours. Make it so that you are expressing yourself through light.” I would love to do a contemporary movie with high definition, but it will still look like I shot it.

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2 Comments

  1. Tom Luca

    March 31, 2018 at 6:47 pm

    Kaminski is my favorite DP/Cinematographer of today’s times. *thumbs up* Fantastic article

  2. Tom Luca

    March 31, 2018 at 6:43 pm

    Thank You for sharing this one! Love it, and the Film vs. Digital part was especially interesting because I love celluloid more but think digital does have it’s pro’s. But prefer filming on Kodak in either Panavision or Arri cameras.

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