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Contender – Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, The Theory of Everything

December 3, 2014 | By

LR-Benoit Delhomme-email

Benoît Delhomme

Benoît Delhomme

The Theory of Everything is a biopic about Stephen Hawking, the brilliant English cosmologist who was afflicted with motor neuron disease when he was 21. Though severely limited in his ability to move or speak, he nonetheless developed breakthrough theories about the origins of the universe. And as author of 10-million copy bestseller A Brief History of Time, he became and remains well known to a worldwide audience from his many public appearances.

The movie presents a somewhat less familiar picture of Hawking, uncannily portrayed by Eddie Redmayne: his romance and marriage to Jane (Felicity Jones), his wife for 30 years until they divorced. She provided a bedrock of emotional and physical support, so he could continue with his work. Her own book, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, was the basis for the film.

The obvious challenge for director of photography Benoît Delhomme, who worked closely with director James Marsh, was to make this complex, cerebral story cinematic. But that didn’t faze the French cinematographer. “Many people might think that making a film about someone in a wheelchair would be very difficult for it to be visual,” he said. “I never had that fear. I thought I had so much to say.”

The wheelchair on the one hand defines Hawking, becoming almost one with his body. But the DP also wanted to depict it separately. “In the beginning the wheelchair is sad for him, but then it becomes something very noble,” he observed. “So you begin to accept the wheelchair as almost another character.”

The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything

Delhomme’s camerawork was controlled and deliberate, by and large functioning as an empathetic observer, with carefully framed shots to fill the widescreen format, often with a single visage. “My pleasure as a DP is both in doing the big wide shot, where I can show off the lighting, and in the close-up where I can capture what the actor has to give to the camera – the soul of the actor,” he noted.

Hawking’s face, as portrayed by Redmayne, “was my landscape, and I wanted the light to be rich,” he said. “Stephen is like the sun in the room, the other actors gravitate around him like planets, they come to him because he is so charismatic, so the camera didn’t need to move too much. Many times I have strong light on him, maybe strong sunlight on his face, because that’s the energy he needs.”

Not many takes were required for the numerous tight close-ups. “Eddie was so well prepared. To play Stephen he knew he had to be perfect,” said the DP.

Though the camera movement was restrained, the palette of Theory was far from muted. One surprising inspiration for Delhomme was Douglas Sirk, the director of 1950s melodramas like Imitation of Life, Magnificent Obsession and Written on the Wind that were known for their rich, symbolic and subversive hues. “I was thinking that Douglas Sirk could have done this movie as a melodrama, but it would have been too much,” he observed. “I thought if I do 20 percent of his effects, it would already be enough.”

TTOE_D48_ 13300.NEFDelhomme likes to use strong primary colors at key moments to make the audience feel that something important is happening. In one scene in Theory, Stephen has a backdrop of deep red curtains lit from behind. Says the DP: “I wanted him to be in this red glow, watching this black-and-white TV when Jane comes into the room,” explained the DP. “It’s such a beautiful and important scene. They don’t want to talk. He’s thinking he’s going to die. With the red curtains lit by the sun, I wanted to give this effect as if it was coming from inside his body, inside the womb in a way.”

One innovative idea the director came up with was to do a segment as if it were a home movie, suggesting it look like it was shot with a Super 8. It was actually shot with a Super 16 camera, and grain was added to make it look more like a home movie.

The DP shot digitally on an ARRI Alexa. He is agnostic on the controversy over whether film looks better than digital. “The lighting is more important and the ideas are more important than which camera is going to record your images.” He used bold effects like strong sunlight, and lens flaring “always with this idea that the film goes from the huge scale of the universe, in a way, to the very small scale of this couple.”

Delhomme is also the cinematographer on another of this year’s releases, A Most Wanted Man directed by Anton Corbijn which was Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last film. The DP has over the years worked with a diverse group of directors including Anthony Minghella, David Mamet, Lone Scherfig and Al Pacino. He first gained prominence in 1992 for the first film he shot, The Scent of Green Papaya, set in Vietnam (though lensed entirely on sound stages in Paris) for first-time director Tran Ahn Hun. It was praised for its sensuous imagery. It won the Camera d’Or Award at the Cannes International Film Festival. Delhomme also received a Camerimage nomination.

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