Catching up with Academy Award®-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit

Robert Elswit (AFI Class of 1977) is one of the most versatile and dynamic cinematographers working today. Cutting his teeth as a visual effects camera operator on landmark films such as THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, Elswit graduated with an MFA in Cinematography from AFI and transitioned to working as a full-time cinematographer on his first feature, THE END OF AUGUST, based on Kate Chopin’s novel “The Awakening” and directed by fellow AFI Alum Bob Graham (AFI Class of 1976).


Since then, Elswit has forged strong collaborations with filmmakers George Clooney, Curtis Hanson, Paul Thomas Anderson and Tony and Dan Gilroy, crafting some of the most indelible images onscreen from the stark black and white visuals in GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK to the sprawling desert landscape of THERE WILL BE BLOOD, for which he won an Academy Award®. Continuing to explore the full range of his talents, he has oscillated from acclaimed character-driven dramas (PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, MICHAEL CLAYTON) to stylistic neo-noirs (INHERENT VICE, NIGHTCRAWLER) to major blockbusters – including filming installments of the James Bond, Jason Bourne and Mission Impossible franchises. Recently, he filmed KING RICHARD – AFI FEST’s Closing Night film – which charts the rise of Venus and Serena Williams in the pantheon of tennis wunderkinds, as well as the instrumental role of their father, played by Will Smith.


AFI spoke with Elswit about how his experience making KING RICHARD, reteaming with Steven Zaillian on THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY which he is currently shooting across Italy and his advice for the next generation of aspiring cinematographers.


AFI: What piqued your interest in studying cinematography?


Robert: I fell in love with old movies from the ‘30s and ‘40s that were shown over and over again on TV when I was growing up. It was like magic. I became engrossed and thoroughly engaged with the characters and stories in ways that never happened with regular episodic TV shows. Certainly, the material had much to do with that. But how did they get the film to look like that I wondered. They were able to create a world in monochrome that was rich and filled with meaning, and one I completely believed in it.


Most of the old movies were in black and white, and even as a kid I knew there was an extraordinary difference between the look of older feature films and the average episodic TV shows that were made back then. I noticed the credit “Director of Photography” and decided that must be the person responsible. I tried to remember some of the names that came up repeatedly. I wanted to be able to make images like they did. It all seemed very romantic.


AFI: What drew you to KING RICHARD, and what was your collaboration like with director Reinaldo Marcus Green, star Will Smith, and Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton who played Venus and Serena?


Robert: I had met Rei a few years earlier at the Sundance Directors Lab. He was one of the directing fellows in the workshop and was shooting scenes from what would become his first film, MONSTERS AND MEN. When I finally saw the finished film, I thought it was simply remarkable. The film is structured around the murder of a Black man by the police in New York City – very similar to what happened to Eric Garner. But the story is centered on the very personal struggles that three other Black men go through who are indirectly connected to the killing. They’re each confronted with difficult decisions about how to respond to the killing and how those choices will affect each of them and the other people in their lives.


When Rei asked me to work on KING RICHARD, he made it clear that he wasn’t just interested in recounting how Richard and his two daughters revolutionized women’s tennis, but he also wanted to center the story on the relationships within the Williams family and the world around them. The script was solid, and I knew that neither Rei nor Will would make a one-dimensional hagiography of Richard Williams.


AFI: Reinaldo mentioned in an interview that LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE was a major touchstone for him in making the film. What cinematic or artistic influences inspired you while crafting the look of KING RICHARD?


Robert: We looked at every tennis movie ever made, but most of the tennis in KING RICHARD is watching the girls practice with their mom and dad and then the subsequent conflicts Richard has with the two coaches who take on Venus and Serena. Eventually the story becomes about a young girl who grows up under the larger than life, overbearing presence of her dad. The script did a wonderful job of making the relationships within the family central to Richard’s struggle to maintain control and make decisions about everything in his girls’ lives and how Venus and her mom felt about it. We watch Venus grow up and at the end make her first attempt at taking charge of her own life.


One device that many sports films employ that we wanted to avoid in KING RICHARD was play-by-play analysis, depicting two people you’ve never seen before sitting in a booth explaining to the audience what’s going on during Venus’ two pro matches in the movie. I think it’s a deadly cliché, and if we did our jobs right, you wouldn’t need to have anyone tell you the score or who was winning or anything else. You’d see it in the actors’ performances. And we were blessed with an amazing group of actors. Will and the extraordinary Aunjanue Ellis, along with Demi Singleton, Danielle Lawson, Mikayla Bartholomew and Layla Crawford and the great Jon Bernthal and of course Saniyya Sidney, who plays Venus, tell us all we need to know about what’s going on during each match.


AFI: Can you describe your and Reinaldo Marcus Green’s preparation process for the film?


Robert: We had a very short prep schedule on KING RICHARD. The sequences we had sorted out were the opening scenes with the family, and that’s what we started shooting. But we really hadn’t spent as much time planning the junior tennis sequence or the matches at the end of the movie or really most of the rest of the movie after the family leaves Compton.


After 15 days of shooting, COVID hit, and we had to shut down. The pandemic and the seven-month shutdown was a horrible disaster for the world. For us, we didn’t know if Warner Bros. would let us go back to finish the film. But, after a few weeks, Rei and I decided to hope for the best, and we began using our down time to carefully plan the rest of KING RICHARD. We were able to storyboard and shot list all the tennis sequences and carefully go through the script and plan out the rest of the movie. We just hoped they would decide to let us start up again.


AFI: What camera and lenses did you use to shoot KING RICHARD?


Robert: We used the regular/standard Alexa and Alexa Mini – not the large sensor Alexa LF like we are now since Warner Bros didn’t require us to shoot 4K. We used the PVintage Prime lenses which are the older Panavision Ultra Speed and Super Speed lenses rehoused to be a bit more user friendly – markings on both sides of the barrel, focus scales spread out, and the Primo zooms were 17.4-75mm 4:1 and 24-275mm 11:1.


AFI: You’ve worked on James Bond, Jason Bourne and Mission Impossible franchises over the course of the last several decades as the technology of filmmaking has evolved rapidly. Can you discuss the advantages and disadvantages to some of these technological advancements?


Robert: It’s fun to work on big, complicated movies, and it’s certainly true that the technology of what we now call image capture has changed dramatically. I’m very happy that when I was in film school actual motion picture film was still being used by Fellows for our projects. Using film is a wonderful way to learn and develop lighting skills for up-and-coming cinematographers and to become aware and understand color temperature and dynamic range. Shooting motion picture film is limiting and unforgiving. That’s why it’s a great way for students to learn when they’re starting out. I think it’s a shame that actual film has disappeared from most film school programs. When we shot a project in film school in 16mm, we finished it exactly the way a professional cinematographer would grade their movie. You went to a lab and sat with a timer and made an answer print. It was a great way to learn. But now we live in an era where you can shoot a feature film on an iPhone. I am ultimately hoping to shoot 16mm on my next show.


AFI: As someone who’s made iconic films with directors like Curtis Hanson, Paul Thomas Anderson and Tony and Dan Gilroy as well as films across all genres and budgets, what do you think is most important when assembling your crew? What are the elements that you believe are critical in your collaborators? And what would you say is the most important skillset for someone looking to make the jump from a camera operator to a cinematographer?


Robert: It’s essential that you find skilled people to work with in grip, electric and camera. I’ve been blessed that I’ve been able to get some of the same people to go out with me each time. It’s wonderful if your keys are actually filmmakers. By that, I mean they understand and are invested in what the writer and the director are trying to accomplish. When that happens, you get wonderful creative suggestions – and everyone figures out better ways of doing things than I do.


As for making the jump from a camera operator to a cinematographer, my advice is to read scripts – lots and lots of scripts – and try to understand what it is that directors actually do. It’s also important to learn why choices are made by directors and DPs and how usually, but not always, those choices grow out of their ideas about the script. Sometimes they just do things a certain way because people like to do things a certain way. The ideas about design lighting and composition have nothing to do with the script. Not usually a good thing, but it’s important to understand the difference.


AFI: Can you share any upcoming projects that you’re excited to be a part of?


Robert: I’m currently in Italy with Steve Zaillian. He wrote and is directing an eight-episode version of Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley” for Showtime, starring Andrew Scott. He has a very different take on the story and the character than Anthony Minghella’s earlier film. Steven’s Ripley is a little older and a little more of a complicated, sympathetic and sensitive sociopathic con man. Also, Steven’s script is very faithful to Highsmith’s original. We’re hoping it will have a black and white, darkly humorous film noir quality to it. If it’s successful, Showtime will supposedly let him make the other four Ripley novels, one a year. It’s a very long schedule and shooting all over Italy. I had to sign on for a year, and we’re a little over halfway done.


We’re based in Rome and living here is wonderful. I was able to take a few of my regular crew with me, and I have a fantastic Italian crew. Also, my wife and I qualified as foster parents during the pandemic and, a month after KING RICHARD shut down, we were asked to foster a two-day-old baby boy. We’ve had him for 17 months now, and the county has given us permission to adopt him sometime in March or April. His name is Ben, and having my wife and him over here while I’ve been shooting has been an incredible joy.


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