Working in the film business for 30 plus years as the go-to director of photography for Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino is not a bad way to make a living. An expert with color, hot light and, especially, immersing the audience in a film’s specific world, Robert Richardson is the man responsible for the look of some of the most iconic films made in the past few decades. And with three Oscars under his belt and no sign of fading to black, it looks like we’ll all be able to marvel at his work for several years to come.
There’s a crucial moment in Born on the Fourth of July that expertly captures the poetic hell of war. During a particularly confusing battle in Vietnam, Ron Kovic is pinned down and nearly blinded by the sunbathed sky around him. In a moment of panic, Kovic accidentally shoots and kills one of his own men. It’s an event that haunts Kovic for the rest of his life, one that is portrayed with poignant accuracy by Richardson.
9. Platoon (1986)
The power of Richardson’s cinematography of Platoon is the way it manages to blend in. There’s nothing intrusive about the look of this film – no fancy tricks, long takes, or extensive lighting – just an organic setting that makes the viewer feel like they are actually a soldier in Vietnam. Richardson doesn’t just shoot a dense jungle, he puts us there.
8. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
If you know even the fundamental basics of cinematography, you can appreciate what a fucking feat the Crazy 88 fight sequence is. And if you really watch the scene, you’ll notice that the camera doesn’t move much at all, just some simple panning and tracking. Compare it to most fight scenes today, in which the camera shakes furiously and each rapid editing cut begins with a new frame of reference, making it impossible to tell what the hell is going on. That’s lazy, cheap cinematography. This fight scene is all about framing and composition. Basics, simplicity. Ingenious.
7. Django Unchained (2012)
There’s a lot to love about the aesthetic style of Django Unchained – the over-saturated flashbacks, the impeccable slow motion, the Dutch angles that signify danger, the candlelit dinner from hell, and so on. But what I love most about the look of this film is that it puts us there. Django Unchained is about a time and a place, and whether we’re in the wet mud, the freezing snow or the sun bleached fields of Mississippi, Richardson is able to throw us right the hell in there.
6. Natural Born Killers (1994)
One of the main reasons Oliver Stone and Robert Richardson work so well together is that, occasionally, Stone insists that cinematography be an actual character in his movies. Watching Natural Born Killers, it’s impossible to not notice the camera. The differing film stocks, aspect ratios, color tones and styles are so purposefully blatant in this film. You can take a screenshot from any two separate scenes, and they look like they belong to different movies. The cinematography in Natural Born Killers is invasive and bold; a risk, certainly, but one that works.
5. Casino (1995)
Most every film Richardson shoots has a handful of sequences in which the frame is drowned out by extremely bright white light, yet nearly all of Casino’s interior scenes perfectly utilize this effect. Notable uses: cigarette smoke rises as Robert De Niro tries to figure out why Joe Pesci stabbed some poor bastard with a pen; Pesci argues with a hillbilly associate who insulted De Niro; and, in the film’s best shot, a handful of senior citizens slowly descend onto a casino floor in the new Las Vegas. This hot light doesn’t make sense literally speaking, yet it’s impossible to envision Casino without it.
4. Hugo (2011)
The specific texture of Hugo allows it to be hailed as one of the best looking 3D films ever shot. I’ve taken 3D to task many times on this blog, but when used properly, the format can be pleasingly all encompassing. There are no objects being thrown at the screen for added shock in this film; instead, Richardson’s use of 3D allows us to explore the world of Hugo in a most mesmerizing way.
3. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
The detail of a street in war-torn Paris, the way red make-up pierces the face of a petit blonde badass, a movie screen set ablaze in fury – Inglourious Basterds may not be as flashy as Richardson’s other collaborations with Quentin Tarantino, but it is indeed the most authentic-looking film the two have made together. At the risk of repeating myself, there is no better way I can think to describe the look of this film than to say Richardson makes us feel like we’re there. Right in the middle of the whole bloody affair.
2. The Aviator (2004)
The centered composition, the teal-colored vegetation, the hell of a blood red screening room – damn near every frame of Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator looks flawless. Its colors are vivid, its lights are white hot, and its set pieces are grand. The Aviator is a big throwback picture, one that beautifully captures an iconic figure during an iconic time.
1. JFK (1991)
Similarly to Natural Born Killers, you can choose a still from nearly any two separate scenes in JFK, and they look like they belong to entirely different movies. But unlike that batshit crazy bloodbath of a flick, JFK is more subtle by design. As the world watches and reacts to the murder of JFK in the beginning of the film, everything is desaturated in hazy grays and faded browns. When the film jumps ahead three years, its palette becomes bright and overexposed. JFK evolves with itself, always adopting the film stock and/or style that best captures the setting depicted in the film. I’ll always be entranced by its unique look.