Janusz Kaminski earned his fourth Academy Award nomination for his striking cinematography on Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. He also took top honors at the 2007 Camerimage International Festival of the Art of Cinematography for the film, and was nominated for an American Society of Cinematographers Outstanding Achievement Award. Kaminski is a two-time Oscar winner for two of the more than a dozen films he has worked on with Steven Spielberg: Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. (They will team up once again for the upcoming Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.)

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is based on a book written by Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was struck down in the prime of his life by a stroke that left him paralyzed except for his left eyelid. The film follows his attempts to retain his humanity and to communicate with the outside world. Kaminski and Schnabel tell the story in part through extensive point-of-view shots that use selective focus, skewed framing and hand cranking to depict the world as seen through Bauby’s eye.

David Heuring (MM): You used a wide variety of camera techniques to put the audience in Bauby’s place. How did you decide which techniques were right?

Janusz Kaminski (JK): Some of them I knew from previous films and commercials. I had used the ARRI Shift & Tilt lens system on other projects. I played with shutter angles and frame rates extensively on both Saving Private Ryan and Minority Report. The important thing is to have a clear idea of what you want to achieve, giving the audience the experience of the character. If these tools had not existed, I would have come up with some other way of putting the image partially out of focus. It’s very seldom that you have a story that allows for this kind of alteration of the image. Our character has impaired vision, and he’s coming out of unconsciousness. He fantasizes and has flashbacks, and he’s using his imagination to survive. All this creates tremendous visual opportunities.

MM: How do you know when such a technique is enough, or too much?

JK: It’s tricky. You have to realize the power of it. This movie allowed for unconventional scenes like that to go on for much longer than usual. You can take it as far as you want, but you can’t be too extra-experimental or too artistic, because then you remove the audience from the story. It comes from the ability to communicate and to use the tools, not to be gimmicky, but to reflect the story. All the techniques have to be used in accordance with the emotional, aesthetic impact you want to convey to the audience. If it’s a gimmick, it’s just a gimmick, and it stays a gimmick.

MM: Tell us about your collaboration with Julian Schnabel.

JK: Working with Julian was great, because he’s not interested in conventional storytelling. What I was providing him was what he was interested in, and he was never afraid or intimidated. He embraced it. Not all directors have that vision. With Julian, someone who has a sophisticated visual sense, it’s a nice collaboration. I’m always very conscious of that. I’m always very conscious of that, and it’s why I work with Steven Spielberg. On top of his great storytelling ability, he has visual sophistication, and he allows himself to be taken on a journey. We learn a lot from each other.

MM: On The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, you used traditional in-camera and photochemical techniques for the most part. Why?

JK: Digital has its place. You can use it to your advantage and you can use it to a disadvantage. We used some digital effects techniques to enhance some of the ‘blinks’ you see in the film. For certain movies, to be able to take the reality to another level with a DI is a great advantage. But for some movies, it can easily start to look too manipulated, and it can detract from the story. It doesn’t look organic. You could never make this movie digitally. You would have a totally different sense or aesthetic, and people just wouldn’t respond to it the same way they respond with film.

MM: What do your fourth Academy Award and ASC nominations mean for you personally?

JK: Both the Oscar and ASC Award nominations are very meaningful to me. It reassures me that what I do is working, not just in terms of my visual storytelling, but also how I conduct my business, the career management side of being a cinematographer. That allows me to pick and choose. Without working on War of the Worlds, I would never have been able to shoot, or had the opportunity to shoot, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It takes a lot to be able to maintain a career. My first Academy Award was in 1993 for Schindler’s List, so I’ve been in a position to make a significant contribution for 15 years, and that’s great.