Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Top 10 Robert Elswit Films

I often generalize a cinematographer’s craft into one short phrase. Gordon Willis, master of the dark. Emmanuel Lubezki, God of the fluid tracking shot, Robert Richardson, ruler of hot light, and so on. There are, of course, many more attributes that make these DPs so great, but the best way I can sum up my thoughts on Robert Elswit is that he is a master of proficiency. There’s tightness to his cinematography, a precision that feels wholly authentic. Elswit rarely relies on filters, shadows, or shaky camerawork to capture the narrative. His films look as crisp and real as possible. Granted, as you’ll see below, this isn’t consistent throughout his entire body of work, but it is apparent in many of the best films he’s lensed.

10. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

Say what you will about The River Wild, Tomorrow Never Dies, Salt and The Bourne Legacy, but they all contain at least one thrilling action sequence that would be harder than hell to shoot. The most technically impressive of such scenes is Tom Cruise scaling the Burj Khalifa tower in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. It’s pretty badass that Cruise did the stunt himself, but remember, there was a man behind the camera recording it all.

9. Redbelt (2008)

David Mamet’s Redbelt is the first precise-looking film on this list. When I watch this picture (or Mamet’s Heist, also shot by Elswit), I watch real life. There are no camera tricks or distracting color grading, instead, the camera feels so natural that we forget it’s even there. There’s also something to be said for Redbelt’s thrilling fight scenes, which are shot with control and captured in just a few takes. No jumbled camera movements and erratic editing – this is straight storytelling, and I dig it.

8. Syriana (2005)

So here’s the thing: watch Redbelt and Syriana back-to-back, and it’s impossible to tell that they were shot by the same man. As I said in my intro, Elswit’s precise control isn’t apparent in every one of his films, but when he does experiment, it’s always for damn good reason. Syriana, for example, couldn’t be shot any other way than it was. It’s handheld, fly-on-the-wall look is absolutely necessary for the film’s vérité approach.

7. Hard Eight (1996)

With the exception of The Master, Robert Elswit has shot every Paul Thomas Anderson film (including the upcoming Inherent Vice). Hard Eight (aka Sydney) was Anderson’s first feature, and he was determined to give his modestly-budgeted film an authentic look. He chose wisely in hiring Elswit as his DP, as Hard Eight’s casino scenes look nearly as good as any scenes ever captured inside a casino, including Martin Scorsese’s Casino (which had a production budget 17 times higher than Hard Eight’s).

6. Good Night and Good Luck. (2005)

Good Night and Good Luck is one of the best looking black and white films released so far this century. The deep black and lush grays so perfectly capture the mood of the era, and the sweat of the newsroom. Also, seldom has cigarette smoke been used to greater visual effect than it is in this film.

5. Michael Clayton (2007)

Has the blandness of office buildings ever looked more captivating? Has upstate New York ever looked colder and more isolated? Has Time Square ever looked more oddly inviting? The cinematography of Michael Clayton is a character itself; such cold hues and foreboding tones.

4. Magnolia (1999)

There’s that extended, glorious tracking shot through the television studio, that dangerous blue light behind Claudia’s windows, that flare from Officer Jim’s flashlight, that silhouette of Frank T.J. Mackey, and, lest we forget, the poetic beauty of those falling frogs. Very few tricks; just real life, captured in all its 35mm glory.

3. Boogie Nights (1997)

Boogie Nights is the best example of The Robert Elswit Precision. Aside from an occasional (and remarkable) long tracking shot, there’s nothing particularly flashy about the look of this film. Its first half (before the homicidal New Year’s party) is just slightly overexposed, giving the whole film a fresh, carefree vibe. The second half of the film adopts a darker atmosphere (again, this is very subtle), perfectly establishing where the characters are in their lives. Simply put, Robert Elswit knows Los Angeles, in all its sunshiny days, and all its lonely nights.

2. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)



Everything about Punch-Drunk Love is a little off the mark. The sound is often muddled or out of synch, the acting is silly and fantastical, and the look consistently bucks convention. From the film’s off-center framing, to its gorgeous blue lens flares, to its post card-esque silhouettes – very few things about Punch-Drunk Love should actually work, yet, somehow, it all does. There’s a confidence to this film that doesn’t nearly get enough credit. It’s not as “big” as Paul Thomas Anderson’s other movies, but it’s visually stunning all the same.

1. There Will Be Blood (2007)



There Will Be Blood is one of the finest looking films every captured. It is a perfect marriage of confident direction and brazen cinematography, one that justly earned Elswit his only Oscar (so far). As I said for Rodrigo Prieto’s work for Brokeback Mountain, one could literally choose any still from There Will Be Blood, and it could act as a testament to Elswit’s craft. From the vast landscape of its first frame, to the haunting violence of its final shot – everything here works to visual amazement.

24 comments:

  1. Oh, Michael Clayton. The cinematography in this movie, along with great music really builds up incredible atmosphere. And it's so gorgeous too. Boogie Nights is just brilliant, I love these tracking shots!

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    1. So good, both of 'em. He really made Michael Clayton look and feel like one of those great American '70s flicks. An Boogie Nights... those tracking shots are the best.

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  2. Amazing, simply amazing. I love Elswit and I am so happy to find we both have the same no. 1! I still cannot believe that the man did Michael Clayton & TWBB in the same year, much like Deakins did Jesse James, Zodiac and No Country if I'm not mistaken.

    Probably my favourite shot of his illustrious career so far (apart from the brilliant opening scene of Boogie Nights) is the last one of TWBB, with Daniel sitting next to Eli's dead body in the bowling alley (Sorry if I spoiled it for anyone!). I swear, when Brahms started to play, I literally gasped and couldn't move at all. One of the best final scenes in recent history.

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    1. Just proves how great of a movie year 2007 was. Harris Savides actually shot Zodiac, but still, all of those films you mentioned look amazing.

      And yeah, that final scene of TWBB knocked the wind out of me. What a perfect way to end a perfect film. "I'm finished."

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    2. Oh my mistake. Damn, I miss Savides :(

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    3. Ah, me too. He was so, so good. THE master of digital cinematography.

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  3. One of the best DPs working today. Great post, and I couldn't agree more with some of these entries. His work alongside PTA is stunning...I almost find it sad that The Master is probably my favorite looking PTA film (but that isn't really a knock, since they are all stunning).

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    1. Oh The Master is definitely a stunning film. The cinematography is so purposeful in that film - PTA clearly wants you to be aware of the camera, which is so cool. I prefer the look of TWBB more, but it's a damn tough call.

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  4. Elswit is definitely among the greatest DPs of our times. His work in "There will be blood" is simply spectacular and the whole list is fantastic. I also love his work in "The Burning plain", hauntingly beautiful.

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    1. Nice man, so glad you're a fan. The Burning Plain came in at number 11 because yeah, that film looks and feels so cold. I really loved the visual style of that movie.

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  5. Oh yes good sir. As much as I love Roger Deakins and Christopher Doyle and the other guys you mentioned above, Elswit is probably the one I'm most fond of. Everything he touches just burns itself into my eyes and mind. I'm not sure I could pick a PTA film as number one honestly, I love all of them for very different reasons. But after those it's definitely Clayton. That film just looks perfect. Those cold and somber tones just enhance that picture so much. This man is incapable of making a bad looking film (if he can make Gigli look good, this man can do the same for anything).

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    1. Glad you like the list man! It was damn difficult to rank Boogie, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk. TWBB will always be top for me, but the important thing is that they all look amazing. I did want to mention Gigli somehow, for the exact reason you just said. Ha, fuckin' Gigli.

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  6. I'm pitifully under informed about who the great cinematographers are. I didn't know who Elswit was before reading this post. That said I like to think I recognize great work in the field when I see it. I've seen eight of the ten movies listed and they are all indeed gorgeous. Great work once again, Alex.

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    1. Thanks man. That's cool to hear that this post could help cement who Elswit is and what incredible films he's shot. Really appreciate you reading and commenting!

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  7. Elswit is another of those great DPs. The scenes of the oil tower on fire was an image that scared the hell out of me. I remember the screening where I was recovering from that blast of the oil well. The shots of the fire against the sky.... that is photography at its best and certainly reminded me of some of the work that Nestor Almendros did in Days of Heaven. I would described what was shot against the sky with that image of fire as.... Biblical.

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    1. You could say that scene is... one goddamn hell of a show. Arguably the crowning achievement of Elswit's entire career. Beautiful.

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  8. This guy did some wonderful movies! I'm so bad at remembers DP's names, but I think this one will stick with me now. Thanks for highlighting him!

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    1. Thank YOU for reading. I'm so happy that his name will stick with you now! He's one of the all-time greats.

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  9. another example of something that shouldn't work in PDL, that iris shot.

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    1. A great shot indeed. Definitely should not work. Boy does it ever.

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  10. Man, this list is SO GOOD! I might put The Town and The Burning Plain on there, but I still need to see Redbelt and Hard Eight.

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    1. Thanks! I was really close to throwing those up there, because they both feel so cold. But the precision of Redbelt and Hard Eight won out for me.

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  11. How would look your list now?

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    1. He had such a good 2014.

      10. Syriana
      9. Hard Eight
      8. GN&GL
      7. Michael Clayton
      6. Nightcrawler
      5. Inherent Vice
      4. Magnolia
      3. Boogie
      2. P-DL
      1. TWBB

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