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HomeAwardsContender-Robert Elswit-Cinematographer-There Will Be Blood

Contender-Robert Elswit-Cinematographer-There Will Be Blood

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There Will Be Blood, an epic saga about a rapacious oil baron who strikes it rich when petroleum is discovered in California at the start of the 20th century, marks the fifth consecutive Paul Thomas Anderson film with Robert Elswit as his director of photography. In its scope and intensity, the film tops their previous collaborations on such films as Boogie Nights and Magnolia.
The film’s striking look and a tour de force performance by Daniel Day Lewis as demonic protagonist Daniel Plainview has turned There Will Be Blood into a gusher during this year’s awards season. Blood’s eight Oscar nominations has put it in the running for best picture, best director, best actor, best adapted screenplay, best production design and best cinematography, among others.
This is Elswit’s second Oscar nomination—he got his first for Good Night, and Good Luck in 2006. And he’s already received the American Society of Cinematographers’ award for best cinematography on a feature film for his work on Blood.
The nearly three-hour film posed a daunting series of challenges for the DP, with a multitude of demanding settings, ranging from the gripping opening where we first meet Plainview at the bottom of a barely lit 60-foot mineshaft, pick axe in hand, sparks flying; to a dramatic nighttime oil-derrick fire; to an emotional faith-healing episode in the local church; to the shocking finale, set years later, in the gleaming bowling alley in the Plainview’s ornate residence. In each case, Elswit comes through with his characteristic shooting style, careful composition and visual panache accomplished without flashy camerawork that calls attention to itself.
The film was shot in the wide-screen anamorphic format that Anderson prefers, using slower film stocks that required subtle lighting for the indoor scenes. “The idea is that you’re in an early 20th century environment where most of the places supposedly didn’t have electricity,” observes the DP. He adds: “You’re always pretending you’re lighting a room with oil lamps or fire. But you have to augment it enormously when you go to slower film stocks because of exposure issues, and do it a way that doesn’t look you’re actually using movie lights. You’re always playing that game between naturalism and more light.”
Lighting Lewis, who appears in three-quarters of the film, also presented challenges because he is often wearing a hat. “He has a wonderful face to look at and usually there’s nothing you can do wrong—except screw it up,” says Elswit. “But with his hat on, you have to get enough light into his eyes to see what he’s doing.” The DP discovered the way to go was to use the ample light bouncing off the ground. That was further augmented using white muslins laid on the ground. “So most of the fill light you see whenever he’s walking around for all the interior work is literally reflected, either from the white bleached muslins or from the ground itself,” explains the DP.
Elswit is also the cinematographer on Michael Clayton, also nominated for a best film Oscar, with first-time director Tony Gilroy also getting an Academy Award nod, along with star George Clooney. Elswit has worked on two other Clooney films: Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana.
These days the DP has his usual full platter. He was the cinematographer on Shine A Light, the soon-to-be-released Rolling Stones documentary directed by Martin Scorsese; and Redbelt, about a martial arts expert who goes into films, with David Mamet scripting and helming. And he’s currently shooting The Burning Plain, starring Kim Basinger and Charlize Theron, directed by Mexican director Guillermo Arriaga.
– By Jack Egan
2008 Win
ASC, Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in a Theatrical Release, There Will Be Blood
2008 Nominations
Oscar, Best Cinematography, There Will Be Blood
BAFTA Film Award, Best Cinematography, There Will Be Blood
2006 Nominations
Oscar, Best Cinematography, Good Night, and Good Luck
ASC , Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in a Theatrical Release, Good Night, and Good Luck
Independent Spirits Award, Best Cinematography, Good Night, and Good Luck
2005 Win
Camerimage, Golden Frog, Good Night, and Good Luck
1998 Nominations
Independent Spirits Award, Best Cinematography, Sydney

Written by Jack Egan

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