When Robert Elswit wasn’t available for Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson made the unusual choice to have no cinematographer. This is how he pulled it off.
Even though the demand for cinematographers has grown in recent years, filmmakers can't help but ask themselves, "Do I need a cinematographer?"
While most people will say yes, few will point out that some of the greatest filmmakers out there don't use a cinematographer. Reed Morano, Quentin Tarantino, and David Lynch have all served as their own cinematographers, but no film can compare to the beauty of the cinematographer-less film Phantom Thread.
Paul Thomas Anderson's film didn't intend on not having a cinematographer. Anderson wanted Robert Elswit, a cinematographer Anderson has worked with in the past on multiple projects, but Elswit had scheduling conflicts. Instead of finding another cinematographer to work with, Anderson had the confidence in his skill and his team's skill to create a visually stunning film.
To understand how Anderson and his team were able to pull this off, In Depth Cine broke down the cinematography of Phantom Thread to understand how Anderson's unusual decision came to be a success through his creation of a team, pre-production process, and the production process.
Collaborating with a technical team
Creating a film is not a one-person job. It takes a talented team of people to create a stunning film from camera angles to lighting to sound design and more. Every member of the crew contributes to the craft.
Usually, cinematographers are hired to oversee and manage the lighting and create the on-screen image. In Phantom Thread, Anderson worked closely with a tight-knit technical team to collaborate on how the images were produced instead of using a single DP. The same technical team working on Phantom Thread also worked with Anderson on Radiohead’s music video for "Daydreaming" to test different lighting techniques.
The importance of pre-production
Anderson is one of the few modern directors that has vast technical knowledge. Pre-production for Phantom Thread included testing the medium, lighting, production design, and different lenses for the film. All of Anderson’s projects are shot on film, and he shoots camera tests before production begins to nail down the visuals of the film.
The pre-production process is the perfect time to figure out how to choose the right film stock, lenses, and production design. For Phantom Thread, Anderson tested both daylight and tungsten Kodak Vision 3 film stocks. The outputs of the film stock are vastly different; the 50D is sharper, has a finer grain, and is more saturated, while the 200T is more sensitive and desaturated.
Most of the film stock used for a majority of the film was 500T which has a lower saturation and more prominent film grain. Anderson then push processed the 500T film stock to increase the look of the film, which increased the amount of grain in the image. This grainy look was desired to steer clear from the look of traditional period dramas which are usually shot in a cleaner style.
Another trick to create a more desaturated and dirtier look was using Low Con 1 filters. Low con filters are used to add a very subtle and misty glow to the highlights while reducing the harsh contrast of the shadows so more detail can be seen in the darker parts of the frame.
Different spherical lenses from Panavision were tested to find glass that would enhance the vintage softness the film was trying to achieve. Panavision SPs with old vintage glass from Zeiss Jena lenses created a warm, glare effect that can only be produced through the old coating on the glass. The Zeiss Jena lenses create softer skin tones while blooming the highlights in the frame. Panavision Super Speeds from the 1970s were used due to their slightly sharper images but vintage lens characteristics.
The final camera tested was the standard Panavision Primos. They have minimal ghosting, higher contrast, and less distortion in the frame. Even on the ultra-wide 17.5mm focal length, the vertical lines remain straight and barely distort. The pre-production process with the technical team helped Anderson refine the exact look he envisioned for the film.
Lighting and camera work on set
There were a few more things to set up on set before the cameras started rolling. Anderson would first do a private blocking with the actors on set before giving the floor to the technical team. Once they worked out how the scene would go, Anderson and his camera operator and first AC would go in with a pentafinder to see what lenses and angles the scene required.
After establishing the camera angles, lens, and movement, they would discuss with the camera operator and the gaffer how the scene would be lit. The technical team would set up the scene with the actors, and they would shoot it. Rather than having each scene meticulously pre-planned, Anderson chose to be more flexible, organic, and collaborative. The lighting is very natural and traditionally cinematic. There is typically a main source of light that would be where the natural light occurred in the scene, and the team would amplify the light through soft-lit or heavily diffused LED lights.
To mimic the soft and natural light source at the lower levels for the high ISO rated film, the gaffer used Arri Skypanels and LiteGear LiteTiles. Most interior scenes in Phantom Thread used various LiteTiles to provide soft light on the actors. These thin LED fixtures are easy to rig and run on low power. The gaffer added an egg crate snap-on grid to the LED fixtures to control the direction of the soft light while minimizing how the light spreads.
When the team did choose to not use LED lights with strong output, they used an Arri M18 HMI, which is diffused by bouncing the light before it passes through a diffuser to soften the source of light. All of the practical lights in the house were rewired and put on dimmers so the team could alter the amount of light needed for the shot. All of the lighting used in the film followed the natural light sources while creating the desired levels of exposure across the frame.
Anderson tends to stick with traditional film movements in his projects. His smooth camera movements are achieved by using grip rigs such as a dolly and a Steadicam. Most of his tracking shots over rough terrain are done by using a long-track dolly to keep with the overall tone of the film.
When the camera was unable to create a wanted level of texture in the film, the team used a haze machine for some of the interior shots to create a dreamlike tone in the grainy image.
In the end, cinematographers are still needed. Anderson and his team were able to create beautiful visuals because of Anderson’s incredible technical understanding of cinematography, his resources to hire a supremely experienced technical crew, and his skill as a filmmaker. Few producers would fund a film without a DP creating and overseeing the visuals. Very few directors have the knowledge, skill, and track record that would allow them to create a film without a cinematographer.
While it’s an industry standard to have an official DP working on your next project, you can still collaborate closely with them and expand your knowledge on the technical side of cinematography. In time, you could be skilled enough to start a technical team of your own. The beauty of filmmaking is experimenting and expanding your knowledge of the craft.
Are there any other films that you know of that don’t have a cinematographer? Let us know your thoughts on those films in the comments below!