By Iain Blair
Even though it didn’t actually win the Best Picture Oscar, La La Land was honored with five Academy Awards this year, including one for Best Cinematography for Linus Sandgren. This Swedish director of photography, known for his kinetic work with David O. Russell on American Hustle and Joy, collaborated closely with La La Land’s Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle.
Shooting with anamorphic lenses and 35mm film on Panavision Millennium XL2s (with one 16mm sequence) — and capturing his first musical — Sandgren rose to the challenge set by Chazelle (“make it look magical rather than realistic”) by continually pushing the film’s technical and creative boundaries.
That approach is showcased in the bravura opening traffic jam sequence where the camera feels like one of the dancers and part of the choreography. Designed to look like one unbroken shot, it’s actually three, carefully rehearsed, then shot on the freeway ramp over a weekend and stitched together invisibly and seamlessly. For another tour-de-force sequence where stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone literally fly up into the stars of the Griffith Observatory planetarium, the team used wires and bluescreen on a set, as filming wasn’t allowed in the real location.
I recently talked to Sandgren about shooting the film, working with Chazelle (see our interview with the director), the digital workflow and the importance of post to him as a DP.
Is it fair to say that the camera functions almost like another character in this film?
Yes, our whole approach was to let the camera act as both a curious character, with very active movement, as well as a musical instrument, so we had to move the camera to the rhythm of the music. We also designed many scenes in three- to six-minute-long single takes that often included a Steadicam that had to step on or off a crane, and sometimes we needed to shoot the scene in a very limited timeframe of about 20 minutes.
Was the framing also quite demanding?
Damien wanted the film to be very anamorphic and do it in 35mm with the old scope format — before the standard became 2.40:1 — so we did it in 2.55:1 like the old CinemaScope. Then I talked to Panavision and they built some new ground glasses for us, which added to the magic we were trying to capture in the look.
Damien told me that you and colorist Natasha Leonnet actually set the template for the look and color palette even before the shoot?
Yes, we began with the tests. To me, it’s really important to try and establish the look in camera as much as possible, so that it’s as natural as possible in post and you don’t have to tweak too much later. So in the test, in order to get that “Technicolor look,” we explored introducing blues and cyans into the blacks, and we tested anything from push process (over-developing) and under-exposing, and pull process (under-develop) and over-exposing the film. The push process gave us more contrast and grain, while the pull process gave us a softer look and finer grain, which we thought was more pleasing.
How did you deal with the dailies?
We decided we were going to use Efilm’s Cinemascan dailies, which meant we scanned all the negative with an Arri scanner instead of the telecine version, and then in post we re-scanned the negative in 6K and downconverted it to 4K. All the tests were done with Natasha, but for the shoot itself, I used my dailies colorist, Matt Wallach from EC3 Lab, which is the location operation run by Efilm and Company 3 together. It’s the same workflow I used on Joy and also on the upcoming Battle of the Sexes. Each day of the shoot the film was sent to Fotokem, who under-developed it one stop, and then it was scanned at EC3.
Where did you do the DI?
With Natasha at Efilm. She got all the settings from the EDL and we generally tried to stay with the dailies look, which we were all pretty happy with. We used some windows and worked on the blacks, and me and Damien had about three to four weeks working on the DI, but not every day. We’d go back and forth, and Natasha also did some work by herself. I’m really involved with the whole DI process, and I even ended up doing a last remote session with Natasha from Company 3’s place in London when I was there at the end of the DI.
Obviously, the shoot’s the main focus for any DP, but just how important is the whole post process for you?
It’s incredibly important, and I love the DI and post process. The most important thing for me is that the film’s look is already established before we start shooting, and therefore it’s very important to involve post production creatives in preproduction. I could never shoot a project where people say, “Don’t worry, we’ll fix the look in post.” I want to go into the DI knowing that we already have the look, and then we can work on fine-tuning it.