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HomeAwardsContender – Director of Photography Janusz Kaminski, Lincoln

Contender – Director of Photography Janusz Kaminski, Lincoln


Janusz Kaminski (Photo by David James).

In deciding on an appropriate look for Lincoln – powered by Daniel-Day Lewis’s mesmerizing portrayal of the nation’s 16th President and the eloquence of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tony Kushner’s screenplay – director Steven Spielberg and his long-time director of photography Janusz Kaminski opted for a “less is more” approach.

Kaminiski and his camera crew were always aware that the first consideration was to make the most out of the acting and the dialogue. “It was clear to me from the start that the camerawork should be restrained and respectful of the actors’ performances, and that we should photograph it in a most beautiful and elegant way,” noted the DP, who has now lensed 13 consecutive films for Spielberg and won Oscars for his cinematography on Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.

“It was a pretty formal approach. That’s what Steven wanted,” said Kaminski. “He was not interested in creating a movie that was as busy with the camera as our previous movies.” There were some long takes. “When you have an actor like Daniel marvelously delivering four or five pages of monologue, you wanted to just stay with him because he was so great as the President, so why play tricks with the camera,” he observed.

President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) looks across a battlefield in Steven Spielberg’s drama Lincoln from DreamWorks Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox. (Photo by: David James).

The DP said he often felt he was filming a play. However, there is no static feel to the cinematography. Kaminski’s combination of spot-on framing, unusual camera angles and satisfyingly slow camera movements make for an eye-filling visual experience. “There were a couple of nice moves,” he recalled.  “One was when Lincoln is trying to convince his listeners that his vision is the right vision and the camera starts from a beautiful wide shot then slowly creeps and moves into a close-up of Lincoln,” said the DP.

Much of the movie’s period look comes from a somber color scheme, with a bold dark palette that emphasizes browns, blacks and blues.  Early on, there was some thought of doing the film in sepia or black and white but that was rejected. Instead Kaminski opted for a spare naturalistic look that evoked what people think of as the mid-19th century without seeming archival.

“There was almost no color manipulation,” he said, so what viewers see on the screen is pretty much what he captured through the lens. “I didn’t have to do that much,” he noted. “The sets, the costumes, the makeup, the production design were all so convincingly period-like that I just lit it. It was relatively easy.”

Kaminski is known for his sophisticated lighting skills. (Photo by: David James).

Easy if you are Kaminski who is known for his sophisticated lighting skills. Photographing Lewis as Lincoln, he prevented light from reflecting from his eyes so they were always dark, as Spielberg wanted. He often lit him from him behind, or shot him from above. There is one beautiful shot of him standing as a silhouette looking out a white window through gauzy curtains. “If it didn’t work for dramatic reasons, I would just take a free hand and light the way that would improve the story,” he said.

Kaminski also added atmosphere. “What the movie allowed me to do was work with smoke and with naturalistic light sources,” he noted. “If there is no gas lamp or window in a room it’s dark, so we placed gas lamps and added windows in the frame. But we didn’t use them as a lighting source. You can’t make a Steven Spielberg movie with existing candles and gas lamps. You use them to create the impression that that’s where the light is coming from. But every shot is lit, even outdoors when Lincoln is riding through the battlefield.”

Both the DP and the director are keepers of the flame for film. Lincoln was shot in 35 mm, Kodak Visions3 500T color negative film 5219, which Kaminski called, “the best in the world.” He used lenses from the 1980s, Panavision Super Speeds, to get a somewhat softer look than the latest super sharp lenses offerings.

Kaminski recalled the reverential mood that hung over the shoot. “The set was very quiet, every actor was called by the character they played, Daniel was Mr. Lincoln and always in the state of being the President. Occasionally, we felt we were looking at Lincoln himself. We all felt we were making a movie of some significance.”

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