Watch: The Technique and Dreamlike Practices of DP Bruno Delbonnel
Learn how the four-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer creates the highly visual style of films like Amelie and Inside Llewyn Davis.
Bruno Delbonnel came to international attention when he built the world of Amelie Poulin through blitzes of light and color. Ensuing collaborations with directors like Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the Coen Brothers, and Tim Burton led to the development of a trademark softly-lit, dreamlike style that can be seen in all his films and is immediately recognizable in today's cinema landscape. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
In the same vein, Delbonnel loves keeping things simple. He uses the same film stock, camera, and lenses on nearly every picture he's ever shot—wide angle Cooke S4 prime lenses paired with an Arricam and loaded with Kodak film. The real artistry of his work, however, lies in the careful consideration of lighting on set, knowing that it will go through a round of intense color grading later on in post production. In laymen's terms, he lights for grading.
As Wolfcrow explains in its latest entry in the "Understanding the Cinematography of..." series, this technique allows Delbonnel greater freedom to manipulate contrast and color. The video below breaks down how Delbonnel achieves these looks and more.
Though Delbonnel went to film school, he claims to have learned everything he knows from watching films and deconstructing them. For our part, there is so much to learn from watching and deconstructing Delbonnel's own work.
Obviously, the man loves soft light, but he goes to further than any other cinematographer, often doubling and tripling the diffusion to get the softest look possible. This is built on top of his preference for using large light sources, which Delbonnel keeps as far away as possible, then cuts down levels with diffusions and scrims rather than using smaller, more closely placed fixtures. This soft light is matched with a velvet contrast that is achieved after Delbonnel creates a uniform patina over the image.
The pantina, a layer placed upon the image, is different from a simple tint because it covers a variety of specific tones. Delbonnel uses these to evoke warm skin tones for the sake of isolating faces. For this reason, the main actors are almost always the brightest part of the frame. Delbonnel also uses lighting to get his subjects to stand out from the background, which is always invariably darker. (He keeps some parts of the scene completely black if he can). This is why most exteriors serve as the backlight for his main characters. Generally, Delbonnel lights subjects from the side, employing three-quarters or split lighting style. He always avoids lighting from the front.