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.
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.