For The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, director of photography Janusz Kaminski did his own pre-prep. Kaminski experimented with his eyesight and tried out many offbeat lenses and unconventional camera techniques to find ways to tell the unusual true-life story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a French magazine editor who was paralyzed by “locked-in syndrome” and could only communicate by blinking his one good eye.
“I would spend time laying down and looking through one eye, and from that perspective the world looks totally different,” says Kaminski, who is Steven Spielberg’s cinematographer of choice. “If you stuck your face into my face and are talking to me, I can’t really escape because I’m not moving, but I can focus on the world behind you, or I can focus on your nose, and say, ‘those are some really big nostrils.’”
The film begins as Bauby slowly emerges from a deep coma and ends with his death. In between, he learns to communicate and, through memory, imagination, fantasy and humor, stops pitying himself and learns to live within his limitations, incredibly writing his own story through endless eyeblinks, that are taken down letter by letter by his caretaker nurses. The book, which has the same title as the film, was published just days before he passed away in 1997 and has been a best-seller in France ever since.
The subtitled French film earned Kamniski the prestigious technical achievement award at last spring’s Cannes Film Festival for his cinematography and the best director honor for Julian Schnabel, the renowned painter turned director whose past film credits include Basquiat, about the American post-modernist painter, and Before Night Falls.
Kaminski ingeniously found ways to film the many stages of Bauby’s evolving internal and external experience. For some scenes, he resorted to a “squishy lens” that could go in and out of focus selectively. There was a 40mm lens that opened only to a 2 f-stop. “When you put the lens on the camera, it’s out of focus but you can twist it by the gooseneck connection and bring it into focus or only partly.”
Kaminski tried Vaseline on the lens. “The image becomes smeared and even more abstract.” Then he’d throw the film out of speed and then back into speed while using that lens. “You don’t even know why it’s weird,” he says. “But you know it feels like what a person sees who’s waking up from a coma.”
Especially remarkable is the way Kaminski creates a visual equivalent to the experience of dying, as seen from the inside. “I tried to find images that convey the process of the brain cells dying off,” he says. “In my opinion, that was the most challenging, to find a way to do the death sequence.”
Since finishing Diving Bell, Kaminski directed his second movie, Hania, a modestly-budgeted Polish-language film. And then he went to work on another Spielberg extravaganza, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, now in postproduction for release in 2008. “I like being a cinematographer who occasionally directs,” Kaminski says.
— Jack Egan
Cannes Film Festival, Technical Grand Prize, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
AFI Film Award, Cinematographer of the Year, Artificial Intelligence
Oscar, Best Cinematography, Saving Private Ryan
ASC, Outstanding Achievement in Theatrical Releases, Saving Private Ryan
ASC, Outstanding Achievement in Theatrical Releases, Amistad
BAFTA, Best Cinematography, Saving Private Ryan
Camerimage Golden Frog, Saving Private Ryan
Oscar, Best Cinematography, Schindler’s List
ASC, Outstanding Achievement in Theatrical Releases, Schindler’s List
BAFTA, Best Cinematography Award, Schindler’s List
Written by Jack Egan