Her, the new film from director Spike Jonze, is an off-beat sci-fi romance set in Los Angeles in the not too distant future. It’s a take on the evolving nature of intimacy in an increasingly virtual modern world. A beguiling relationship develops into a love affair between Theodore, a soulful guy whose job involves writing heartfelt personal letters on behalf of other people, and Samantha, a sexy disembodied voice that is part of a new operating system on his smartphone. The characters are played by Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson. The latter is only a voice and never actually appears on the screen.
“Obviously this is a sci-fi film, but Spike wanted this world to be very warm and far from dystopian,” said Dutch director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema. “He didn’t want to make the film too formal or conceptual.”
The world of Her has evolved into “a place that is somewhat of a caricature of our world where everything is comfortable and everything is accessible, and Spike wanted this world reflected through the imagery,” he noted. “One of the hardest things in cinematography is infusing a soul into your images and making your images kind. We wanted the images to have a certain personality and a certain warmth but we didn’t want the images to draw attention to themselves.”
For van Hoytema, a key objective was to find ways to lens Phoenix who occupies so much screen time while keeping it varied and visually interesting. “It’s very challenging with only one face to work off,” he observed. “As a filmmaker you can usually resort to a cutaway or a reaction from another actor, but we didn’t have that possibility. At the same time as a cinematographer it is a pleasure to point a camera at a fantastic actor like Joaquin. He’s very giving. “
Defining the character of Samantha was another challenge. “We wanted to discover the world as Samantha is discovering it, through Theodore who is showing her different sides of his world. This is a very romantic and intimate film between two entities, and we put a lot of energy in treating her as a human being, and an evolving human being by trying to give her some tactility.”
Hoytema shot with the digital ARRI Alexa camera. “I’d used it before in commercials, but this was the first feature I shot digitally,” he noted. The DP said he loved the challenge, but a major reason for going digital was Jonze’ desire for long takes. Digital cameras are able to keep rolling, where film cameras have to be reloaded frequently. “This film was a perfect platform to try that camera out. We did a lot of things with this camera that would be hard to do on film,” he said though he continues to like shooting on film. “Every movie deserves its own specific language and this camera felt like a perfect choice,” he declared.
A lot of work was done to perfect the cinematography on Her in a lengthy digital intermediate finishing process in postproduction. “When you work on a very stretchy medium like video you leave a lot to post,” he said. He worked with his regular Swedish colorist, Mats Holmgren. “We did a very careful and slow color grading on it,” said the DP.
Hoytema has a cosmopolitan background. Though Dutch, he was born in Switzerland, and went to film school in Poland. He has worked a lot with Swedish directors like Tomas Alfredson on Let the Right One In, about a young girl vampire and a bullied schoolboy, which won numerous international honors. He worked again with Alfredson on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, based on a John LeCarre spy novel. That got him a BAFTA nomination for best cinematography along with a similar nod from the American Society of Cinematographers. In 2010 he was the DP for director David O. Russell on The Fighter. He has just finished shooting what is already one of next year’s most anticipated films, Interstellar directed by Christopher Nolan.