Director of photography Masanobu Takayanagi shot two notable films released recently, Black Mass and Spotlight. Both happen to be set in Boston and are based on real events that shook the town to the core and got splashed all over the headlines. “They are two very different stories that take place in two different periods and were shot in two different formats,” said the DP.
Known for his controlled camerawork that above all serves a film’s storytelling, Takayanagi collaborated with his directors to create distinct atmospheres for each of the movies. “But the game plan was the same,” he noted, “to get at the emotions of each film and let the look grow naturally out of the plot and its characters.”
Set in the 1970s, Black Mass, directed by Scott Cooper, is the story of James “Whitey” Bulger an Irish mobster who with the strange connivance of the F.B.I. became Boston’s ruthless crime lord and rose to the top of the “most wanted” list. Spotlight tells the tale of how in the 1990s a team of painstaking investigative reporters at the Boston Globe blew the lid off the scandal of how the city’s powerful Catholic Archdiocese deliberately covered up the behavior of numerous pedophile priests.
Black Mass is the DP’s second film with Cooper. They previously worked together on thriller Out of the Furnace (2003). “I think we have similar aesthetics,” said Takayanagi. “We spent a lot of time during preproduction going over the script, finding the emotional beats to hit. By the time we got on the set it was very smooth. He gives me lots of freedom and trust and I understand what he likes.”
“The film is to me really about the dark side of humanity and I kept the characters in the shadows a lot,” he noted. “When there’s a violent scene, I backed off a bit instead of going in close. Sometimes the camera didn’t move. I didn’t force any kinetic energy. I just let things happen.”
Transformed by makeup with thinning grey hair and a sharply-receding hairline, Johnny Depp does a star turn as the aging Bulger. “I didn’t do anything very special with Johnny,” said the DP. “I shaped my lighting for the space around him, I didn’t so much light for his face,” he noted. “But sometimes I directed some light to bring out those piercing blue eyes.” Depp was outfitted with blue contact lenses to heighten the effect.
The Miami scenes in Black Mass were filmed in Revere Beach outside of Boston and the production designer convincingly transformed the New England seashore town into a vibrant version of Little Miami. “I tried to emphasize the color with the lighting, especially in the nightclub sequence where I used strobes.”
Takayanagi shot Black Mass on film using a Panavision XLT camera and anamorphic lenses. Spotlight was the first time he employed a digital camera on a feature, using the ARRI Alexa.
In contrast to the somewhat noirish feel of Black Mass, Spotlight has a fresh clarity in its colors that make for an unforced natural look, appropriate for the many scenes that take place in the Boston Globe newsroom and other offices.
The movie is plot and character driven and has a stellar acting ensemble featuring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery and Liev Schreiber. Given the number of characters that populate many of the scenes, “Tom and I made a conscious choice not to frame too tight,” said the DP. “I tried to include more space around the characters, in the headroom, or to the right or left to show the environment surrounding the characters.”
Although the movie was shot in Toronto where the newspaper’s offices were replicated down to the inch on sets, the DP spent a lot of time along with other members of the crew and cast at the Boston paper absorbing the atmosphere. “It motivated us visually to be in the real environment of the Boston Globe, the offices and the presses,” he pointed out. “I tried to express what I felt when visiting and I also tried to replicate the lighting.”
Some shooting did take place in Boston to capture the town’s historic architecture and exteriors like that of the Globe. Though few in days, the Boston lensing was spread over many months. “We went back for a few weekends to get different seasons — one in summer, a fall weekend for the autumn look and in winter for the snow,” he said.
Besides having the two well-regarded movies come this year, he recently became a member of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC). Takanayagi’s other credits include Silver Linings Playbook for director David O. Russell, Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior and Joe Carnahan’s The Grey. His big breakthrough came on Babel, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. The DP on the film was Rodrigo Prieto but Takanayagi was head of the second unit that shot the one-third of the movie that takes place in Japan.
Though born in Japan, Takanayagi’s working career has largely been in this country. He studied at Cal State University Long Beach and later graduated from the American Film Institute. For his thesis project Takayanagi received the John F. Seitz Heritage Award for outstanding cinematography from the ASC in 2003.