Capturing the Bleak NY Winter for the Coens: Behind the Cinematography of 'Inside Llewyn Davis'

Inside Llewyn DavisOf the many amazing films that were released in 2013, few looked as unique, or as stylistically gorgeous, as the Coens' love song to the 1960's NY folk scene, Inside Llewyn DavisOf course, Roger Deakins, the regular cinematographer for the Coen brothers, was not available to shoot the film, so the prolific filmmaking duo turned to another industry legend, acclaimed French DP Bruno Delbonnel, who is most known for his stunning work on Amélie. The fine folks at Cinefii recently sat down with Delbonnel at the Cameraimage Festival in Poland, where he revealed many of the techniques that he used to create the unique aesthetic of Inside Llewyn Davis, as well as some insights into what it's like to work with Joel and Ethan Coen.

First, let's take a look at the trailer for Inside Llewyn Davis, which gives you just a hint of the aesthetic of the film:

And here's the Cinefii interview with Bruno Delbonnel:

Video is no longer available:

There are a few interesting pieces from this interview that stand out to me. First and foremost is the type of relationship that Delbonnel forged with the Coens and how the duo works in order to create their films. Here's what Delbonnel said about the process:

I ask them sometimes what is the purpose of the scene and what it is conveying, we discuss it, but in very, very few sentences. They are very practical, they don’t go into psychological detail. It’s very very simple, it’s very very precise, so all emotion is coming from them and they are brilliant at that.

It's interesting to hear that the Coen brothers don't go into great depth about the emotional and psychological state of their characters with the DP, especially considering that the product that ultimately ends up on the screen is always chock-full of seemingly psychological cinematography. It's both a testament to their prowess as filmmakers and, of course, the prowess of the cinematographers they choose to shoot their films.

Delbonnel also talks about how he lit the film, and how he chose to emphasize the overwhelming sense of sadness that permeates the iconic Coen humor.

I wanted to have something through all the movie which was this kind of sadness, and that is when I decided that the light is always falling off. There is no light lighting on the walls or anything, it’s just like, the same light which is lighting the actor is lighting the set there is no complimentary light, the lighting is always falling off to darkness, as if the light barely reaches into the apartment.

Here are a few frames that really emphasize this technique of letting the light fall into blackness, and keeping the fill levels at a minimum:

The cinematography of Inside Llewyn Davis is absolutely fantastic, so if you haven't yet had a chance to see it yet, I can't recommend it highly enough. Also, make sure to check back on Cinefii's website for more of these fantastic interviews (or just wait for me to share them, because I invariably will).

What did you guys think of the cinematography of Inside Llewyn Davis? Leave your thoughts down in the comments!

Link - Bruno Delbonnel AFC ASC Illuminates On Inside Llewyn Davis -- Cinefii

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the Coens are by far the best filmmakers out there - they've mastered the making of very complex films that on the surface don't seem that complex - fargo perfect example of this - which is why they never talk about what their films 'mean' - Roger Deakins has said the same thing about working for them - they never discuss what it means or subtext - they are brilliant, too smart for most people who watch films, including those who imagine themselves smart about film.

March 24, 2014 at 10:47AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Originally, when looking at the trailer, I almost immediately "disliked" the look of Inside Llewyn Davis, as it felt so stylized. Then... well of course, you watch the film. And the drab, cool, melancholy becomes a crucial element to the film's emotional center. Just to learn again, that styles are styles, but of course, but utilized to enhance the film, not our own personal aesthetics.

March 24, 2014 at 11:21AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


I love Coens, but I really hate the awful cheap looking (Magic Bullet like) soft filter in Llewyn Davis. It really kills the amazing cinematography.

March 24, 2014 at 2:53PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Agreed on the soft filter look. I understand that it's being used to heighten the tone of the film, but it's just too distracting when it looks like a run of the mill preset effect.

March 24, 2014 at 3:55PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


It's interesting that it is considered cheap looking because a filter can achieve it now, when here it is created by the caliber of colorist that could well have coded it from the ground up. That may not be the case, but Peter Doyle is as respected as it gets in the colorist world, and their use of the look here is not as simple as scrolling through some magic bullet filters and chucking them on, it is much more nuanced than that. The fact you can recreate it easily with your plugins and that that 'cheapens' it is an unfortunate byproduct with how easily people can access these techniques with little investment in deliberately achieving the look.

March 24, 2014 at 8:09PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


The Coen brothers are among the best filmmakers ever and I really like the work of Delbonnel but this particular film stands out as an example of failure in photography. The overall look was really out of place, plastic and overstylized, it's really kept me from getting involved with the story. However, I must say that the whole film didn't cut it for me.

March 25, 2014 at 3:20AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


I'm just curious, did you see it on a theater screen? I feel like on the big screen, the effect is very subtle, but compressed smaller it looks blurry and cheaper.

March 25, 2014 at 9:24AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Daniel Rutledge

It might have been because of heightened expectations going, but I was extremely disappointed by this film. I found it a boring, confounding mess without any characters worth caring an ounce about. Not a very deep or rewarding Coen brothers experience at all.

March 24, 2014 at 5:53PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


How much cinematographic prep work would a film like this take? In other words, a DP says to a director, "I want to shoot from a widely diffused source via an XYZ filter through a yellow curtain into the dark corner only illuminated by a 30 watt tungsten bulb". The director replies, "I want to see how it looks on film/screen before I approve it. Let's get the stand-ins and shoot a few rolls/SSD's". Or is it more common to have "a great DP knows what he's doing" approach and just accept the artistic choices s/he made?

March 24, 2014 at 11:31PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


I'd really love to see a few raw frames, maybe from a deleted scene and see if it's all DI and not actually a little bit more glass diffusion that's been heightened/toned down in post to unify the look

March 25, 2014 at 3:41AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Here's another interview with Delbonnel with a lot of technical information some of us might find interesting. They processed dailies with a rough color grade so the team could get a feel for the rough look of the film as they were going along, and then it was refined and mastered in post.

Turns out the blooms were mostly in post, but that doesn't stop me from loving the unique look of the film.

March 25, 2014 at 10:29AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Even though I wasn't particularly a fan of the film, I was impressed by the cinematography. I agree though about the filtering. It was a bit distracting... but maybe that's a result of the whole magic bullet thing? However, I must say that the effect looked much more professional than what you can achieve with a preset.. It just wasn't my cup of tea.

March 26, 2014 at 9:23AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


I don't think this look was made with a plugin. I did a tutorial to show how to achieve that grade in Resolve :
(English subtitles are available)

September 18, 2014 at 10:58PM

Nicolas Lossec

Awesome interview with an equally awesome DP. Delbonnel is one of the most brilliant stylists working in film today - Amelie and A Very Long Engagement look like nothing else I've ever seen - and though I do enjoy the Coen's long-lasting relationship with Roger Deakins, it's nice to see them branch out every once in a while and go for a look that is completely different than their norm.

The Coen Brothers are always about working slightly outside of their comfort zone with each new film and I found the cinematography in Llewyn Davis to be really fresh and exciting (and of course, absolutely beautiful). I also think the film in general is really amazing and kind of underrated/misunderstood! Glad to see it highlighted here :)

December 26, 2014 at 9:18AM

Oren Soffer
Director of Photography

Just been introduced to this film by a friend. I was immediately struck by the softness of the image (not lack of focus) but that quality that has alot to do with the glass used. I wasn't surprised to learn (and I hope IMDB is correct here) that Delbonnel used Cooke S4 lenses. Its a quality I've seen from other movies filmed with them. But in this case the combination of optics and treatment, both lighting and colour, creates a sadness discussed above but also a luminosity that is at once uplifting and beautiful.

March 7, 2018 at 6:18AM, Edited March 7, 6:18AM