Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Top 10 Robert Richardson Films

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.

10. Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

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.


28 comments:

  1. I love the look of those Stone movies Richardson does. Platoon, JFK, Nixon, Heaven & Earth (on and on) - all amazing looking films that fit 100% with the story of the film and is nearly impossible to separate from the film itself. I think my personal favorite would be Heaven and Earth. Everything in that movie just feels so picturesque and almost like a dream. I would rank his work with Scorsese after that but this guy is impossibly talented.

    I'd be curious to see what some of your favorite Christopher Doyle films are.

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    1. Heaven and Earth fell at no. 11 here. I love the look of that film and really wanted to include it, but it barely didn't make the cut. Really happy to hear you admire Richardson's films.

      Doyle has such a vast filmography that it wouldn't seem fair for me to cover is work until I've seen more of it. But everything I've seen has been shot perfectly.

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    2. Well all I'll say is that whenever you decide to check out more of Doyle's work, do not overlook the films he did with Pen-Ek Ratanaruang. The two films they did together (Last Life in the Universe and Invisible Waves) are some of the most beautifully atmospheric films I've ever seen.

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    3. Also thanks for the add on vimeo good sir!

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    4. Okay cool, I'll definitely make note of his films with Ratanaruang - thanks for the heads up. No problem about the follow! You working on any new films right now?

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    5. I have a few scripts (of varying lengths) that I'm hoping to maybe film before the summer is over but nothing is concrete at this point. Thanks for asking! How's Wait coming along?

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    6. Awesome man, hope you get one off the ground soon! Dude, Wait is nearly finished and that is just insane. I can't believe it's getting closer to being done!

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  2. Richardson is one of the best as those films you listed are among the best. I have no arguments with this list. It's perfect while I would also mention his work in Errol Morris' Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control which added to the craziness of the film as there's also stuff like The Horse Whisperer and Salvador that I love as Richardson is one of the best.

    I'm also with Mask on Christopher Doyle as well.

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    1. I love what he did with Fast, Cheap & Out of Control as well. All of Morris' films are superbly shot, which is not something you can say about many documentaries. The Horse Whisperer looks damn fine too.

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  3. Great post, man. Robert Richardson is such a brilliant cinematographer and such an innovator. I mean, if someone looks at the way he uses the third dimension in "Hugo", he's just in awe of his work. He's so astonishing.I'd say that him, Roger Deakins and Emmanuel Lubezki are my favorite cinematographers right now. I think Richardson's best work is the one in "Inglourious basterds". It takes so much effort to produce something that astonishing, there's no doubt about that. The result is just... there are no adjectives to describe his work in Tarantino's film. But his work in "The Aviator" is also outstanding. I haven't see "JFK", but I'm planning to watch it pretty soon.

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    1. Awesome man, so glad to hear you're a fan. Basterds, Hugo, The Aviator... the man is a legend. Really, he can do no wrong. I'm dying to hear what you think of JFK. One of the fastest long movies ever made. It just flies by.

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    2. Wow, just finished watching "JFK". First of all, I really loved the film and I have to agree with you that the pacing is great (3 hours fly by indeed), but man, Richardson's work here is literally his "magnum opus". This is his masterpiece. If he dan't won the Oscar for Best Cinematography for this film, it would be a scandal. Wow, speechless.

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    3. * I meant "if he hadn't won" (haha)

      His work is really mind-blowing in "JFK". But you're damn right that he can do no wrong. What about "Shutter Island"?

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    4. You're exactly like me... you get a movie recommendation and you literally watch it as soon as possible. So glad you liked JFK and appreciated Richardson's work in it.

      You know, despite some stellar performances, I have to admit that Shutter Island never did it for me. I was stunned that they were able to sell the end as a twist, because I called that about 20 minutes into the film. And when I see something like that coming from so far away (especially in a "twist" movie) then it seriously dampens the overall impact of the film for me. Richardson's work is strong in it, but not Top 10 worthy in my opinion.

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    5. Oh yeah, man, I think I'm definitely like you on that level. I really try to watch a movie recommended from someone whose opinion on movies I truly appreciate as soon as possible. I was really impressed by Richardson's work on "JFK" and I loved the film as a whole.

      I totally get what you think of "Shutter Island", even if personally I think of the film as an instant classic. I think the movie's focus wasn't on the "twist" but on the psychological journey of DiCaprio's character and I found that plunge into darkness truly amazing. I strongly believe that this one of the most chilling films I've ever seen. And to me it's so masterfully directed, superbly acted (especially from DiCaprio and Williams) and brilliantly written that I was in awe of the work done here by everyone. Even on a technical level. The score is still haunting to me and I found Richardson's work there just hypnotic. It was divinely dark and so complex, but hey, that's just me, of course.

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    6. Martin Scorsese is my third favorite director of all time (directly behind Bergman and Herzog), but I do find myself struggling to fully embrace a few of his films. Believe me, I would LOVE to like Shutter Island more, but alas, it just never fully hit me.

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  4. Ooooo nice list. I still haven't seen JFK properly. Must fix that soon.

    My favourite among these is Inglourious for sure. That film is just stunning. I will also always love the Crazy 88 sequence in Kill Bill vol 1.

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    1. Thanks! Basterds really does look like it takes place during that time. Its cinematography is so damn precise. I love it. JFK is amazing, moves by damn quick.

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  5. Great post! The Tarantino films are my favorite on here, and I love what you said about the Crazy 88 scene. That's so true.

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    1. Thanks! What a remarkable feat that Crazy 88 scene is. The fact that it's so simple is much of what makes it so great.

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  6. Awesome post! Richardson is definitely one of the best DP's in the business, and these shots are all clearly the work of a true artistic genius. My personal favourites are his partnerships with Scorsese, particularly The Aviator. What a glorious looking film! My second favourite is definitely JFK though, which I've been meaning to re-watch.

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    1. Thanks Aditya! I didn't realize how superb the composition of The Aviator was until I rewatched it for this post. But really, every shot is ingenious. Love the look of that film.

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  7. Natural Born Killers is such a brilliantly shot film. The camera work there is insane! Inglourious Basterds is also just stunning to look at. Great top five.

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    1. Thanks bud. The look and style of NBK so perfectly fits the tone of that film. Movie is batshit crazy. And I love it.

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  8. Great list, I love it. Robert Richardson sure has worked with a number of the great directors over the years. I think my personal favorite among these would probably be Inglourious Basterds or Casino, both are just so good, granted every film on this list is at least good, with many of them being great. The only one I haven't seen is Natural Born Killers, the local video store doesn't have it. I think the only thing I may disagree with is Born on the Fourth of July and trade it for Wall Street. Something about the lighting in Wall Street just does it for me. The scenes in Gordon's office, beautiful. Anyway great list, lots of good films on here.

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    1. Thanks man, really appreciate you reading. Heaven & Earth, Wall Street and Born on the Fourth of July all vied for the 10th spot on this list. I so agree with you on the look of Wall Street - for an office movie, it really does look great.

      Definitely check out NBK when you have a chance. Movie is nuts.

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  9. Love this man's work! All of these are brilliantly shot. Oh, I forgot how beautiful the cinematography in The Aviator is. Thrilled to see Hugo so high on here as well. Great work man!

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    1. Thanks dude! I forgot how gorgeous The Aviator was as well. But I was going through it for this post, struggling to pick just a few screen caps. They're all so perfect.

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