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Robert Elswit: Blood, Sweat and Oscar

Robert Elswit: Blood, Sweat and Oscar

Articles - Cinematography

There Will Be Blood earned both Oscar and American Society of Cinematographers Outstanding Achievement Award nominations for Robert Elswit, ASC—and he claimed top honors in both competitions. It is an encore performance for Elswit, who earned plaudits from his peers in both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the ASC in 2005 for George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck. MM caught up with Elswit right before the Oscar ceremony to discuss There Will Be Blood, his fifth collaboration with writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson in 10 years.

Bob Fisher (MM): When did Paul Thomas Anderson first speak with you about collaborating with him on There Will Be Blood?

Rob Elswit (RE): Our first conversations occurred about a year before we began production. I had just returned from filming Syriana and was preparing to work with George Clooney on Good Night, and Good Luck. Paul’s screenplay was based on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel, Oil! We didn’t go into specifics. That isn’t the way he works.

MM: Where was the film shot?

RE: We shot about 80 percent of the film at a location that production designer Jack Fisk and Paul found the previous summer in Marfa, Texas, which doubled for Bakersfield, California at the turn of the 20th century. Jack designed and built a one-street frontier town with modest wooden buildings, a church and an oil derrick. There was a place where they could stand on top of a hill and look around a 360-degree arc and not see a single structure, road or power line. That really appealed to Paul, because it meant that we could shoot in any direction without having to fix things in digital post-production. The church was built on a hill. The preacher is a young boy named Eli Sunday, whose father’s ranch house was nearby. I was awed when I saw the sets.

MM: Where was the other 20 percent of the film shot?

RE: The film opens with Daniel Plainview deep in an underground mineshaft, pounding the ground with a pick until he strikes oil. There is no dialogue. The pictures tell the story. We filmed that scene in a silver mine in Shafter, Texas, near the Mexican border. The mines were dug by hand at the turn of the century. We found a shaft that was 60 to 70 feet underground that was connected with a tunnel that was dug during the 1920s or ’30s.We built a truss rig that supported 6, 12 and 18K Par lights over the mouth of the shaft. The story is partially based on the life of oil mogul Edward Doheny, whose former mansion in Beverly Hills provided the setting for the final scene. There is a bowling alley in the mansion that we used as a stage when I was a student at AFI.

MM: Is there anything in the visual grammar, including the way the camera moves, lighting and choice of lenses, that mimics the period?

RE: There was no attempt to imitate the pictorial style of that era, though we did use an uncoated lens from a 1910 Pathe camera to render kind of a vintage, period look with lower contrast and resolution images for seven or eight transitional shots. Panavision added an anamorphic barrel element, so it could be mounted on the cameras we were using. There were chromatic aberrations at the edges of the image circle and huge color shifts, but it was reasonably sharp, and when we stopped down, it rendered a wonderful low-contrast look. Mainly, we used E series and C series lenses and modified Panavision SP spherical 35 and 55 mm lenses with 40-year-old optics and a set of Super High Speed lenses that were modified by Dan Sasaki at Panavision.

MM: How did you light for the period and settings for the story?

RE: The interiors were supposed to be in homes lit with oil lanterns and candles at night. We figured out how to simulate that warmer look while shooting with a 200-speed film by using ambient sources like table lamps, which we sometimes augmented with a 2K or another light through muslin and a gel.

MM: I’ve heard you speak about the collaborative role played by the crew.

RE: Paul and I share a feeling that it is very important for everyone who is working with us has to be a real filmmaker in addition to being technically competent. We don’t want people waiting to be told what to do. We want them actively engaged in watching and listening to everything that is said in conversations between Paul and I, and Paul and the actors, so they are thinking ahead and reacting to what is happening. Everyone has to be completely tuned into everything that is going on.

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