“For me, what’s exciting is doing a wide variety of work and trying to tell stories in images that help the narrative move forward,” says director of photography Danny Cohen.
“Variety” certainly describes the British cinematographer’s recent output. The past six months have witnessed the release of a period love story about a transgendered painter (The Danish Girl), a biopic about disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong (The Program) and a claustrophobic drama about a mother and son held captive (Room)—all shot by Cohen.
Each posed its own unique difficulties for the Oscar-nominated cinematographer, from transforming the modern world into 1920s Copenhagen to discovering the best way to stick a camera and a kid inside a rolled-up carpet. Cohen spoke to MovieMaker about the most challenging scene in each of those three films.
Matt Mulcahey, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): As different as these three films are, they have one common element—all were shot on Red cameras.
Danny Cohen (DC): I did a film at the end of last year that was on the Alexa and I’ve just finished another film this year that was on the Red. So I use both. It depends [on the project]. This film I did last year called Florence Foster Jenkins was on the Alexa because we wanted to make Meryl Streep look fantastic and I think the Alexa creates an image that is very lush and very beautiful.
In the end I think all the modern digital cameras have pluses and minuses. One thing that you can do on the Alexa that you can’t do on a Red is you can get a return feed [into the viewfinder]. So if I’m on a multiple-camera shoot and I’m operating one camera, I can look through the eyepiece and I can switch and see what the other camera is doing.
The Camera: Red Epic
The Plot: A biopic tracing the rise and fall of seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong (played by Ben Foster).
The Scene: A recreation of an incident during the 2004 tour when Armstrong—angered by Italian cyclist Filippo Simeoni testifying against their mutual doctor—rode up next to Simeoni for an intimidating chat. Armstrong then turned to a cameraman who was filming the race from the back of a motorbike and gestured “zip it” toward the lens.
MM: Much of this scene plays out in medium close-ups while the actors are speeding on their bikes. What type of picture vehicle did you use to track alongside them?
DC: We used a Dodge tracking vehicle. We shot the whole film with two cameras, and for that shot we had both in the back of the tracking vehicle. We didn’t have either on a crane or anything. Both cameras were just on tripods. We had a stabilized head on one of the cameras and then just a normal head for the other. The beauty of the stabilizer is that it takes a lot of the bounce and shake out of the shot.
MM: How fast were the actors going?
DC: I think they were going between 20 and 30 miles an hour. We rehearsed the shot and chose a speed that the actors were comfortable with cycling very close to the tracking vehicle. One thing we didn’t want to do was use too long of a lens because the longer the lens you use on a tracking vehicle, the more you see the movement of the vehicle. If you stay in the midrange [of lens length], the camera doesn’t bounce around as much. So that meant that the cyclists had to be quite near the tracking vehicle. Ben Foster definitely did a lot of training for the film and became fit enough to be able to sit on the bike, cycle at speed, and look very comfortable. It’s quite tough to do the cycling and then also act. It’s a pretty amazing performance.
MM: To recreate the moment when Armstrong gestures to the cameraman, you actually had the real cameraman who captured that shot playing himself. How did that come about?
DC: We shot the bulk of the film in England and then we had about three weeks in France and Belgium. When we were setting up the French part of the shoot, we knew that we wanted to have a motorbike cameraman to feature in the story because that’s what they use to capture footage on the real Tour de France. It’s a very specialized job. So the local company that we were working through found the team of bike rider and cameraman who would normally cover the Tour de France in the summer months, and it just so happened to be the team [that recorded the original footage]. It was just a lucky accident, really, that we got the same cameraman who was looking through the viewfinder when that actually happened. So he was recreating something he’d filmed 10 years previous.
Watch the below clip where the cast and crew discuss some of the set-ups used on The Program. More interviews and deleted scenes can be found on We Are Colony.
The Camera: Red Epic Dragon
The Plot: A young mother (Brie Larson) and her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) struggle to adapt to the outside world after years of being held captive in a shed.
The Scene: Midway through the film, Jack escapes by stowing away in a rolled-up carpet in the back of a pickup truck.
MM: Let’s start with the “carpet cam” shot. What went into figuring out the best way to get Jack’s POV from inside the carpet?
DC: During prep we definitely went into detail about the type of carpet, how wide the carpet would be, how many times you could roll Jacob in the carpet, and what that meant when he tried to unravel the carpet in the back of the truck. That became quite interesting, the process of working out how a little kid in reality could unroll himself. As much as we could, we made it as real as possible.
MM: Was that prep theoretical or practical? Did you take carpets and physically work out those answers?
DC: We did it practically. Before we started shooting anything we got Jacob and rolled him up in a carpet and worked out how he could physically unravel it. Then coming out of that prep we thought it would be quite interesting to put the camera in the carpet. In reality we only needed a little bit of carpet to cover the lens so we designed a camera rig where we could build the end of the carpet around it and still make it feel like you were in the depths of the carpet. So we had to work out which lens to use and what the point of view would be and what we could actually see through the little hole in the carpet.
We tried to shoot the escape in a way that made the most of the fact that the kid had been a prisoner in the room for five years. We wanted it to be a visceral experience for the audience. The escape is interesting just from a narrative point of view because it happens halfway through the film, where normally that scene would be the climax. So there’s this big crescendo and then there’s still half the film to go. We thought about all sorts of ways to make it really exciting, but then leave enough space for the rest of the story to play out.
MM: Do you recall what lens millimeter you landed on for those POV shots?
DC: I think it was a 25mm or a 27mm. We were shooting on Panavision Primo spherical lenses.
MM: There’s also a shot where the camera appears to be in the carpet roll with Jack. Did you cheat that rather than do it practically?
DC: No, we just did that for real. We had Jacob in the carpet with the camera. There were some bits of trickery for some other shots in that scene, such as when we are looking straight down at the carpet in the truck bed, where we didn’t actually have to have the truck driving. But the bulk of it we shot for real in the truck.
The Danish Girl
The Camera: Red Epic Dragon
The Plot: A fictionalized dramatization of the story of Danish landscape artist and transgender pioneer Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne).
The Scene: Einar (now Lili) returns home to Copenhagen and crosses path with a former paramour (Ben Whishaw) at a harbor-side café.
MM: Compared to the logistics of the other two scenes we discussed, this café chat seems like it would be simpler to execute. What about the scene posed the most difficulty?
DC: Keeping the modern world out of the shot as much as we could. There were a lot of things we had to physically obscure because it’s cheaper to do it practically than to use CGI. We shot on that harbor for a good few days. It’s a real harbor in central Copenhagen called Nyhavn. We could only look in certain directions because some of the shops and restaurants were not that interested in shutting down and not having tourists spend money. So we would look one way, but right behind us there were hundreds of tourists having lunch every day. It was quite interesting to make it feel very period and do as much as possible in camera by doing things like using smoke, and using the sails from boats to obscure the things we didn’t want to see.
MM: Were there still a few things you had to paint out in post?
DC: Definitely. There were still little bits of cleaning up that we had to do, just because it’s difficult to take out things like modern lamp posts that you can’t get rid of on the day. So you do rely a little bit on CGI to help make it look authentic.
MM: In the films you’ve made with The Danish Girl director Tom Hooper, he certainly seems to love wide-angle lenses. How much more difficult does that make keeping out the modern world in a period film?
DC: What’s nice about shooting on wide lenses is that you get fantastic vistas and really interesting angles. But you’re right, that’s quite tricky. The other thing about wide-angle lenses is that they make the background quite small. So what’s near the lens is more important and you try to work out ways to put objects in the foreground to sell the period.
MM: With wide lenses, though, much more of the background is in sharp focus. So you can’t obscure non-period items by throwing the background into soft focus.
DC: That’s true; if you shot things on a longer lens then you can throw the focus out a lot more, and then you very much only need to concern yourself with what’s right in front of the camera. But the downside of using long lenses is that you miss all the texture of the environment you’re in. So you always have to weigh that as well. MM
The Program opens in theaters and on VOD on March 18, 2016, courtesy of Momentum Pictures. Room and The Danish Girl are now available on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD.