Director of photography Danny Cohen lensed two movies released this year, and they couldn’t be more different in subject matter and in their look. Room is about a mother, Ma, and her 5-year-old son Jack. The two have been kept locked up for years in a 10 x 10 room by Old Nick, their tormentor and Ma’s abductor when she was a teenager. The Danish Girl tells the true story of Einar Wegener, a married man in 1930s’ Denmark, who underwent the world’s first transgender operation and became a woman, Lili Elbe.
Cohen, nominated for a best cinematography Oscar for The King’s Speech, was challenged with visually capturing within a tightly confined space the tender interaction between Jack, a five-year-old (Jacob Tremblay),whose entire life has been spent in one room, and his loving mother (Brie Larson), who has tried, given the circumstances, to make his life as normal as possible. The photography followed the principle that the essence of Room is far more vast than its real-world dimensions. The actual real world is the setting of the second half of the movie, after Ma and Jack manage to escape.
During prep Cohen worked with production designer Ethan Tobman and director Lenny Abrahamson to come up with a shooting strategy. “On a soundstage Ethan built a mockup the size of the room,” noted the DP. The next question was whether the room should be built in a modular way, so that walls could be taken out, or should be four fixed walls. “In the end most of what we shot was within the solid walls,” he noted, “but tiles or bits of the wall were made to come off, allowing us to also poke the camera lens through these openings.”
The constraint turned out to be a plus. “It was important to get the spatial sense of the relationship between the actors, and always feel there’s that pressure on them,” he said. Instead of being limited to one camera, Cohen decided to use two fluidly roaming cameras crammed into Tobman’s minute set, requiring two camera operators (one was DP Cohen) and a focus puller to capture Larson and Tremblay who were constantly moving around — for a total of five bodies.
“With an 8-year-old actor I felt you should have two cameras so you’d have enough coverage,” noted the cinematographer. “At the same time, we wanted a very dynamic, handheld feel, so we had to find ways to give both cameras the flexibility to move with the action.” Takes were limited to two or three so the gifted young actor would stay fresh and not get tired out. He was nominated on Wednesday in the best supporting actor category by the Screen Actors Guild – almost unheard of for someone of his age.
Two new-generation Red Epic Dragon 6K cameras were employed for the shoot. The Dragon is one of thesmallest professional digital cameras around. “It was quite interesting to work witha brand-spanking-new camera,” said Cohen, “and its size was perfect for our needs.” It was equipped with Primo lenses.
Cohen shot Room first and then started The Danish Girl, directed by Tom Hooper, soon afterwards. “You couldn’t get two more opposite stories,” he said. The DP and Hooper have been frequent collaborators – on The Kings Speech and the movie version of the musical Les Misérables, which garnered Cohen BAFTA and American Society of Cinematographers nominations for his camerawork.
The Danish Girl stars Eddie Redmayne as Einar Wegenar, a successful landscape painter married to Gerda, played by Alicia Vikander, who is also an artist. Redmayne in another transformative performance (last year he won the best actor Oscar for The Theory of Everything, about astrophysicist Stephen Hawking) starts modeling for his wife as a female model, and recognizes he feels more like a woman and starts dressing as one. He then goes through with the world’s first sex reassignment surgery and becomes Lili Elbe, with Gerda sticking by him.
“Tom in prep said he was really keen to exploit Eddie’s facial structure – he’s got a fantastically powerful face, high cheek bones, amazing translucent skin – and to make him look really exceptional, because the story is really exceptional,” said the DP. “So I used lighting that was super soft to make him look romantic and glamorous and as beautiful as possible. I stayed away from filters, and stuck just to this soft lighting.”
A goal was to keep the viewer’s interest without it becoming too repetitive. “Tom doesn’t like to sit with an image too long, so he encouraged me to shoot it in a way that kept things moving forward,” he said. Cohen again shot digitally with the Red Dragon, but used Arri Master Prime lenses rather than Panavision Primos. “Tom wanted as much of the film to be shot wide open, in order to have a very shallow depth of field so as to bring the actors up from the background, so they popped in relation to the environment.”
The bulk of the film was shot on set in London for interiors. The production also filmed in Brussels and in Copenhagen for a few weeks. “When we were looking for locations in Copenhagen, I found the light had that faint Scandinavian quality and when I shot I tried to achieve that quiet northern cool feeling.”
The shoot lasted 50 days, and there were 10 days of rehearsals beforehand when the actors would go through the script. “I sat in on some of that and it was interesting to see the process from when they begin the script, and then where they take it.” Cohen found it to be useful. “I would get the structure, say where Lili is in relation to a window, it would give me a heads up on where to put the light and what it would feel like.”
The Danish Girl starts out traditionally, “with the relationship between a man and woman,” said the DP. “Then it turns into two women and I had to figure out how to light the couple in different ways to reflect the change.”