Something happened with this year's Oscar nominations that marked another milestone on the ongoing sage of film and digital photography. For the first time ever, four of the Best Cinematography nominees were digital productions. The lone celluloid holdout? Robert D. Yeoman's work on Wes Anderson's “Grand Budapest Hotel.”
It's a noteworthy moment, particularly for a branch that was far more reticent to embrace digital work than members of the American Society of Cinematographers (who nominated “Collateral” and “Apocalypto” in the years before the branch finally gave in with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “Slumdog Millionaire”). And as the old world continues to be squeezed out, guys like Yeoman just hope the analog option remains available to them.
I hopped on the phone with Yeoman earlier today to discuss that and his work on the film, perhaps his most handsome collaboration with Anderson to date. Read through the back and forth below.
HitFix: This is probably the most handsome work you've done with Wes. There's something about the lighting that gives it this soft, evocative tone. As an overall project, what made it considerably different from anything else you guys have done together?
Robert D. Yeoman: Well, let's see. Several things. One being we were in this little town in Eastern Germany in the winter time. So the exterior light was always very overcast and very soft, and we purposely, on the very few sunny days we had, we'd go around to the other side in the shade and shoot in the shade and occasionally even through up a silk. Because Wes' concept was there weren't any sunny days. It was always winter here. Typically it was 8:30 in the morning until four in the afternoon. So it was very kind of controlled and scheduled so that we could shoot in the shade, basically, but luckily the skies were gray most of the time, so we didn't have to worry about it.
The interiors in the hotel lobby, there was a skylight at the very top that let light in. But unfortunately, it being winter time, we weren't able to go with natural light all the time. So we took a lot of our lights up there and bounced them into a giant muslin and then shown the light through that skylight, so we were kind of recreating the look of natural light there. And it allowed us to shoot any time of the day, or after it got dark outside. Also in the lobby of the hotel, in the background, we put a lot of warm practicals.
Yeah, “warm” is the word I'm after here. It's like fireside cozy or something.
That gave it a much more inviting, a much more pleasant feeling to it. And we tended to use a little bit warmer light on the actors as well. We didn't do a whole lot of lighting other than the practicals and the overhead skylight. We would bring in one or two little lights that we would soften through diffusion when we were shooting the actors' faces for close-ups and things. That was kind of the overall plan.
And for the '60s lobby, what we did was, back then, often, when the Communist regimes would come in in Eastern Europe, they would put fluorescent lighting in. They'd paint over a lot of the beautiful walls and make it a lot more stark, so we put a fake florescent ceiling in the lobby.
What helped inform the look early on? Did you guys look at any photography or art work or other movies?
Yeah, we watched a lot of old movies, which were black and white. The Ernst Lubitsch comedies, “Grand Hotel,” stuff like that. That kind of, in many ways, was even more about the format we were shooting, which was the square, 1.37 Academy format – which was what movies were shot on in the time – to kind of familiarize ourselves with the compositions and how when you shoot in a square format as opposed to a widescreen format. It offers many different compositional possibilities. So we watched those for that and I just think for me, the movie was a bit of a storybook, kind of a fairytale. And it was set in this kind of romanticized world of Eastern Europe where it was going through transition. I kind of took that for what I did and I tried to romanticize the light as best I could, using warm light, soft light.
We used a lot of China balls, which are just like a Chinese lantern type of thing, very soft light that is very warm and very pleasing on the actors' faces. Often times we would just light the whole plan and then I'd bring in a China ball. If someone was walking down a hallway, for instance, and I was on a dolly, we would have a China ball over the camera that would walk with us and give a kind of glow to the actors' faces. Wes was very supportive of it. He loved the idea. So that was our way of working a lot of time, to just light the overall space and then bring a China ball in close to the camera to give it another punch for the actors.
Yeah, and what was your initial response to the fact that Anderson wanted to shoot the majority of this film in that Academy ratio?
I was very excited about it. I had never done that before. I was a little bit nervous. We had typically shot the widescreen before, which is always very exciting visually and offers a lot of great opportunities compositionally, but this was a whole different direction. I kind of approached it like, “Alright, cool. This is going to be something different.” And we constantly kind of pushed ourselves to find unusual compositions using a lot of head room, for instance, framing actors how you would not always see them framed, to push the limits a little bit. It has its restrictions and has its advantages like anything else, but in the end, we both enjoyed it. The chance to try something different was very exciting to me.
I was going to ask, yeah, if it felt limiting at all. But I guess it's a mixed bag.
It is a mix. I mean you're limited in that, with 2.40, for instance, you can get several actors very close to the camera, because it's a very wide, skinny frame. And Wes likes to do master-type shots, where he has a lot of his actors in the same frame. So we had to find new ways to get everybody in the shots. An example would be the scene where Edward Norton pops out of the floor in the prison and his head is coming through the hole in the floor and all the other soldiers are gathered around him. It's not a long, narrow frame, but we were able to get everybody in. Sometimes it meant – for instance, when Harvey Keitel and the prisoners are there kind of chopping a hole in the floor – pushing everybody close together. On a wider frame it's easier, but here we just pushed them closer together and it worked beautifully.
How about shooting on film? I've talked to a lot of DPs this year and just kind of gauged the reaction to the film vs. digital debate, which has hit a fever pitch of late. Do you have any general thoughts on that?
Well I've always been a film person. I've come up through film. I love the look of film. I love shooting film. The process is different and it has a different feeling, a different texture on screen. I do shoot digitally. I shot a lot of commercials digitally and my last feature I shot digitally. The digital cameras have come a long way, particularly for low-light situations. The Alexa performs beautifully. I know there's a lot of pressure from people at the studios and post-production people to shoot digitally and all the labs are going out of business and it's becoming more and more difficult to shoot film. But I know I'd always like to shoot film, though I've certainly come to embrace a lot of the advances digital cameras have. I hate to say it but it might not be too far down the road until everything is shot digitally. But, you know, I think it's sad. Film has been a wonderful friend to us in the movie business for so long and I hope we continue to have it as a possibility, for sure.
Is Wes a purist in this. Do you think there would ever be a project for which he would inherently think digital was the way to go?
He is a bit of a purist and I think for this particular film, because it was period, he felt that film was the right way to go. That said, as a director, with digital you have a much better idea on the set of what you are getting and a lot of directors prefer to have that. I certainly can't blame anyone for wanting to know exactly what you're getting. There's a certain leap of faith you have with film. But it's a nice feeling, certainly, to be at the end of the day and know exactly what we got. It's one of the advantages that digital has, for sure.
And I wanted to ask you that specifically because, intriguingly enough and for the first time ever, we have four digital Oscar nominees in the category. And you're the only film representative.
I noticed that. Usually it's the other way around. But, you know, it's a sign of the times. Certainly Roger Deakins, Emmanuel Lubezki, these are amazing cinematographers and I think it just shows in a certain situation, they chose digital for a particular reason. So it's an option that is open to us now. It is a little disconcerting in some ways to me, but that said, it's a sign of the times. That's where we're all headed.
Have you had a chance to see the work from your fellow nominated cinematographers?
I've yet to see “Ida.” I've been trying to see all of them in a theater. I saw “Birdman” twice. I would like to comment that everything I've seen, they're all wondrously shot films and what I like so much about them is they are not super heavy on the production aspect. Certainly all the films have been manipulated, but it's just so nice to see cinematography as opposed to a big effects movie. That's more what I'm drawn to, is those types of films and cinematography. “Mr. Turner,” for instance, and certainly “Birdman.” There's a certain amount of manipulation there as well, but it's more pure cinematography and that's something I greatly appreciate. And I think it's a great group of films nominated and I applaud whoever voted for them.
Well, that would be your peers!
Yeah! Well they did a good job. And I'm not just saying that because I got nominated. I think all of the films are representative of really good, solid, pure cinematography, and I'm really happy about that.