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Contender-Michael Ballhaus-DP-Departed


Director Martin Scorsese asked director of photography Michael Ballhaus to watch some 1940s crime classics to use as a template while preparing to film The Departed. For the suspenseful mob-and-cops story of secret informants and snitches set in Boston “we wanted to have a lot of dark elements, and initially Marty thought of doing the whole film in old style black-and-white,” Ballhaus recalls.Fortunately Scorsese opted for color. That allowed the cinematographer—who has teamed with the director on six previous movies including the 1990 gangster classic Goodfellas—to translate the feel of noir into contrasting palettes.These ranged from the murky black-brown for the gangsters’ milieu to the coolly efficient blues and grays for the warren of offices at police headquarters. In between was the warmer environment of the psychiatrist, played by Vera Farmiga, which serves as a neutral safe space amidst the scheming outside world.One of the most effective scenes in The Departed comes near the beginning where Jack Nicholson, playing the devilish mobster-in-chief Costello, emerges as a dark heap from the depths of his hell-like hangout. Another highlight was the climactic shootout filmed in a shipyard the size of four football fields. “It was a challenge to light,” Ballhaus notes. “It took five nights, and we used up to four cameras constantly moving and shooting a lot, which made the scene in the film so exciting.”I don’t think Marty and I have ever talked so much about lighting,” continues Ballhaus. “The whole film was somewhat influenced by film noir. We lit it almost like a black-and-white film, especially in the police station, which didn’t have much color. But even if you don’t have a lot of it, color is still something you can use in a dramatic way.”The numerous past collaborations between Scorsese and Ballhaus—starting in 1985 with After Hours and including The Color of Money, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Age of Innocence, and Gangs of New York—provided a familiar framework for The Departed. “Because we had worked together before there were reference points that allowed us to communicate in a kind of shorthand,” says Ballhaus “Marty would say, ‘remember that scene in Goodfellas, let’s try something like that again.’”Ballhaus, a member of the American Society of Cinematographers, will receive that group’s International Achievement Award at its 2007 awards event dinner. He was born in Germany, where he made his mark as the cinematographer for director Rainer Werner Fassbinder on 16 films from 1968 up to Fassbinder’s death in 1978.He has worked on 38 films in the United States beginning in 1982 with Baby It’s You, directed by John Sayles. Besides his long association with Scorsese, Ballhaus has been cinematographer for top directors like Mike Nichols, James Brooks, Robert Redford, Wolfgang Petersen and Barry Levinson. Some of his credits include The Fabulous Baker Boys, Broadcast News, Something’s Gotta Give, Working Girl and Quiz Show. “I’ve been very fortunate to work with some of the world’s greatest directors,” says Ballhaus. 2003: Nominated, Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Gangs of New York; Nominated, American Society of Cinematographers award for Outstanding Achievement in Film Cinematography, Gangs of New York; Nominated, BAFTA Film Award for Best Cinematography, Gangs of New York. 1994: Nominated, BAFTA Film Award for Best Cinematography, The Age of Innocence. 1991: Nominated, BAFTA Film Award for Best Cinematography, Goodfellas. 1990: Nominated, Academy Award for Best Cinematography, The Fabulous Baker Boys; Nominated, British Society of Cinematographers award for Best Cinematography, Goodfellas. 1998: Nominated, Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Broadcast News.

Written by Jack Egan

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