November 8, 2019

Watch the 'Joker' DP Break Down Two Key Scenes

Joker cinematographer Lawrence Sher has been busy recently explaining his colorful and exciting work on Todd Phillips' hit DC comics movie. Here, he breaks down how he and Phillips pulled off the movie's two most iconic scenes.

It's been a fun time covering Joker here at No Film School.

Especially with Warner Bros. making an awards push for the most profitable comic book movie ever, the filmmakers have been making the rounds on how they made this controversial movie. 

Recently, extra attention has been paid to the cinematography of Joker and Todd Phillips DP, Lawrence Sher, talked to Variety and offered a breakdown on two of Joker's most memorable scenes: Joker's (Joaquin Phoenix) iconic dance and descent down the stairs and the subway sequence.

Joker Stair Dancing Scene 

The stair dancing scene was one of the most shocking moments of the original Joker trailer. It got everyone hyped to see the movie and when we saw how it played out in context of the final film, it helped illustrate the full transformation of Arthur Fleck from aimless man to monster with a mission. 

Sher told Variety

"The stairs are such a part of Arthur’s world and his ascension of the character and where he’s going. There’s this idea that the stairwell is something arduous that Arthur had to endure every day just to get home because of what it represented. You can think about his ascension going home -- the movie is a lot about dichotomies and about two sides of our own self. We are all good, and we all have the potential to be bad. Every time he goes home, he’s trying to be the better part of himself. He’s fighting to be the most human and, at the end of the movie, when he’s finally taking on Joker, and the truest part of himself -- even if it’s the most chaotic and violent and filled with rage. He’s doing it in celebration. It’s easier to go downstairs than upstairs."

He’s not just going down the stairs, which are symbolic of him going down into the darker part of himself, he’s celebrating that.

Check out the first thirty seconds of the clip below and then let's cover Sher's shooting style.

So what did Sher have to say about the actual cinematography? 

"The main thing here is that the early shots of him walking up the stairs are slow. The camera work at the beginning of the movie is methodically slow and so is his walk. The shot at the top of the stairs is static, and there’s no camera movement. In the end, we put a crane so we could move back and forth with him. As he dances and gives it that energy, it’s a celebration. It’s a dance scene and it’s not done in the same brooding fashion as the beginning of the movie."

I like knowing the mixture of shots they used to get the final edit. I would have guessed it was all on a jib, but knowing they used a few static shots in there for coverage and establishing is interesting. All the movement is guided by his movement, as we get more absorbed into his world. 

This helps us really see his POV moving forward and keeps us on the edge of our seats. 

Joker Subway scene 

Go to about 33 seconds into the below clip to see what is being discussed here.

As Sher puts it, "The subway scene was all handheld. In part, it’s also one of those transitional scenes in which Joker and Arthur are by himself." 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lPkGMoU2rl0

Aside from the terrifying laugh, this scene also makes you empathize with Arthur. 

We're on his level, trying to deal with his emotions and our own fear for him. 

Sher said: 

"Everything we tried to do there is to try to draw the audience into Arthur’s point of view. The shots of Arthur are very close, but on wider lenses. They’re intimate within very close proximity to him. Even the shot of the boys is from him sitting in his seat. We had the camera in proximity where he would be, so it’s what he would see. From a compositional standpoint, we tried not to be at his eye-level. The flexibility of the handheld camera work allowed us to be on that train and give it the feel of being live on that train even though we shot it on a stage, but also be able to fluidly move around as the boys taunted him. It was all shot single camera. Our camera operator Geoffrey Haley is one of the best in the world and he was on the train by himself with the actors."

The intimacy described here is what makes the scene pop. We feel like we're inside a powder keg ready to explode. 

Another cool thing here is how much trust Sher puts into his crew. Letting the camera op do the work inside to keep the train sparse so the actors have more room to perform.

In fact, when it came to shooting on the set in ways that helped service the actors' performances, Sher leaned heavily on his crew, and on LED lights. 

LED lights are versatile and can be used on any kind of set. They can illuminate backgrounds, highlight faces, or just run the length of a wall to create depth. LEDs can work alone or with a dimmer to fit any scene necessary. 

Given the ambiguous, '70s-feeling time period that the movie is set in, it doesn't seem like LEDs existed. So the filmmakers had to be careful using them and hiding that use.

"The colors in the movie are a heightened reality sense of what the city felt like back then, and the way they photographed on film -- even though we shot digitally. If we were outside, we would use sodium vapor lights with orange and a bit of green. If we were shooting inside; we’d have all these mixtures of fluorescents which were never clean white light. They were always filtered with a bit of green. The subway cars were dirty, and so we had a lot of green spike in them. The look was motivated by the authenticity of what the subway cars looked like and photographed like back in the day. You can color-correct out the green spike, but we liked the dirtiness of Gotham City to always be present." 

They used these LEDs in combination with other lights to preserve the film's gritty visual aesthetic. There's almost a green hue over the entire movie. Since it was shot on digital, that look was manipulated in post to make everything seem like it was shot on '70s era film stock. 

Pretty cool. 

What's next? Learn about Joker and color

Sher explains the impact color has on the film. Check it out!     

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