The American Society of Cinematographers

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There Will Be Blood
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There Will Be Blood
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Robert Elswit, ASC reteams with director Paul Thomas Anderson on There Will Be Blood, the saga of an unsociable oil prospector who strikes it rich but loses his soul.


Unit photography by François Duhamel, SMPSP and Melinda Sue Gordon, SMPSP
There Will Be Blood tells the story of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a gruff, misanthropic oil prospector plying his trade in the American West at the turn of the 20th century. Using an orphaned boy to disarm potential clients, Plainview takes full advantage of the oil boom, cutting a single-minded swath through untapped gushers in Southern California. Along the way, he clashes with anyone who dares cross him, including a pious small-town preacher, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), and a man claiming to be Plainview’s half brother, Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor). Plainview wins most of his battles, but his contempt for others eventually consumes him. 

Some might view Plainview as a monster, and, in fact, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson says he modeled the character partially on an icon of the horror genre: Count Dracula. “I just had it in my head, underneath it all, that we were making a horror film,” he says. “Maybe we go to horror movies because we want to see something horrible happen, in the same way we might get excited to look at a car crash. In some ways, Plainview’s story is a bit like a car crash, one that just keeps getting worse.” 

Nevertheless, Anderson maintains sympathy for his lead character, noting the difficult circumstances pioneering prospectors faced. “A lot of the first oil men started out as gold miners or silver prospectors, and when they made the transition to oil, they were required to be salesmen and speak a lot more than they probably wanted to. I think their natural instinct was to work quietly alone, and I imagine being thrust into situations where they had to sell themselves was endlessly frustrating.

“It’s hard for me not to see Plainview as a little bit heroic — he’s enormously ambitious, and I can sympathize with his quest for survival, particularly during that time in the West,” he adds.

 

To realize this tale of a driven man who goes off the deep end, Anderson once again tapped cinematographer Robert Elswit, ASC, who had shot all of the director’s previous features: Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love. Anderson recalls that he first noticed Elswit’s skill while watching Waterland (1992), directed by Stephen Gyllenhall, and the two were eventually introduced by a mutual acquaintance, actor John C. Reilly. “Paul is 20 years younger than me, but I liked him right away,” recalls Elswit, whose recent credits include Michael Clayton and Good Night, and Good Luck (AC Nov. ’05). “He had so much energy and enthusiasm. He also loved some of the same movies I love — particularly films from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, many of which are somewhat obscure. Even at 25, Paul was an encyclopedia of American film, and he was very aware of what pictorial style meant. He can respond immediately to something he sees and understands instinctively why it works or why it doesn’t.” 

Pondering his relationship with Elswit, Anderson laughs before offering, “It’s kind of a miracle anything gets done, really. We’ve worked together so long the relationship has its own set of advantages, but it also has enormous dysfunction. Bob and I disagree just as often as we agree, but the relationship wouldn’t be as good if we agreed on everything. Sometimes I’ll sit right over his shoulder and all he’ll want me to do is go away. At other times, we have a great time sitting together and coming up with ideas. Or, sometimes, I’ll get distracted and he’ll put something together that’s really lovely.”  

Elswit notes that Anderson’s methods can be quite unorthodox, so much so that the cinematographer has occasionally had to dismiss crewmembers who couldn’t grasp the director’s freewheeling approach to filmmaking. “Paul has very clear ideas, but he doesn’t want to plan out every little thing in advance,” says Elswit. “Actors love him because they feel free to play, create and discover. Cinematographers want to control things as much as we can, but what I’ve learned from Paul is how much better it can be to let accidents happen rather than try to force everything to be a certain way. He wants to see things unfold on the set, and if something isn’t working, he’s willing to stop in his tracks and start all over again. So there’s a constant recharging and renewal of creative energy. 

“That way of working is particularly difficult if you’re the focus puller or the dolly grip,” continues Elswit. “Those guys are used to more precise timings and methods. When you work with Paul, you’re shooting with anamorphic lenses and there are no marks on the ground. There is no hair-and-makeup or wardrobe on set. There are no final touches, there’s no ringing of the bell, there’s no announcement that we’re shooting. There’s also no standard rehearsal, really; once we figure out what the shot will be, there’s a little bit of rehearsal, but then it starts to change and the rehearsal turns into the shooting. It’s a very organic approach, and you have to be ready for immediate changes. That’s why we have the same crew over and over again — Paul has to work with people who are incredibly alert and aware on set. Everyone is truly a filmmaker.” 

“I enjoy the technical side of filmmaking, but I’m only able to enjoy it because I have true technicians with me,” admits Anderson, who has no formal film education. “I actually learned a lot of what I know by reading American Cinematographer. Some of the articles could get a bit technical, but that just made me want to learn more. I’m still a bit of a Luddite, though, and I probably think I know a bit more than I do.” 

Elswit says he appreciates Anderson’s combination of experimentation and old-school filmmaking principles, qualities that blend to powerful effect in There Will Be Blood. On the technical side, “Paul knew he wanted to make an anamorphic film because he prefers the anamorphic lens system to shooting Super 35mm and doing an anamorphic release print. We did Hard Eight in Super 35, but every movie we’ve done since has been anamorphic. He just likes the look those lenses produce. When you shoot in anamorphic, there’s a different feeling, a different way of staging and different depth of field. Paul loves older films, and those qualities mean something to him.” 

The production employed a range of Panavision anamorphic lenses that were modified for the filmmakers by lens designer Dan Sasaki, who has since joined A&S Precision to create lenses for Dalsa Digital Cinema. Elswit’s primary lenses were C-Series lenses Sasaki had originally prepared for Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris. Additionally, the production used a full set of E-Series lenses; two modified spherical Panavision SP lenses, a 35mm and 55mm whose optics were roughly 40 years old; and a set of Super High Speed lenses (ranging from 35mm to 85mm) whose optics were based on modifications Sasaki had made to another set for Memoirs of a Geisha (AC Jan. ’06). 

Sasaki also tricked up a vintage 43mm lens that was built around the optical element of a 1910 Pathé camera Anderson had bought and used for select scenes in Magnolia. According to Barry “Baz” Idoine, Elswit’s 1st AC, “The C-Series lenses were generally used for interiors that didn’t require high-speed lenses. The Es had lower contrast and resolution than standard Es and a softer look than the modified Cs; that set was often used for exteriors to soften the harsh desert daylight a bit. The Super High Speed lenses were really amazing — they were so fresh from the machine shop they weren’t even anodized. We used those for night sequences, of course, but Bob also used them to capture some dusk sequences that were just phenomenal. The SP lenses were anamorphized by Dan after we’d done some tests with them. The 43mm lens definitely had a vintage look — desaturated, low-contrast, vignetting and low-resolution.” 

Sasaki explains, “The main modifications I made [to the C- and E-Series lenses] involved replacing the old taking lenses with more modern glass, but we also changed the cylinder prescriptions a little to make the lenses flatter. The Es were optimized for maximum fidelity, but we made the Cs more vulnerable to flaring with modifications that would cause the light to scatter a bit more; in some of them, we introduced reflective material, and in others, we removed the anti-reflective coatings from the lenses. Paul didn’t want the flares to look like the kind you might see in a music video; he wanted the controlled, organic look you’d get from a dated lens.
 

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