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Shooting The Holiday Blockbuster: Hoyte van Hoytema and “Spectre”

Since ‘tis the season of the Holiday blockbuster, I thought I’d examine the craftsmen behind some of the more anticipated films being released this time of the year. And what better way to start off by focusing on the latest entry in that granddaddy of all franchises, “Spectre.” Since 1961 the James Bond series has improbably remained popular well into the 21st century.  Which is saying a lot considering it all came from the pen of an ex WWII military intelligence officer. Supposedly, Ian Fleming used his own experience as inspiration for the adventures featuring the spy with a license to kill. But since the bulk of his novels were written during the 1950s they are very much steeped in a post world war, British colonial mindset. Once a film adaptation got underway, the 1960s were already promising something more culturally progressive and the Bond films more or less attempted to reflect that.Although Bond features a long tradition of great cinematography, it was “Skyfall’s” Roger Deakins who got singled out for his contribution as Director of Photography. And the accolades were well deserved. Personally, I felt he was equally instrumental in achieving “Skyfall’s” creative success as well as the film’s director Sam Mendes and present 007 Daniel Craig. This I know is an odd statement to make considering how vital a cinematographer’s role is to the making of a film. Another interesting tidbit regarding Deakins’ involvement was his use of the Arri Alexa M, Arri Alexa Plus and Red Epic cameras thus signaling the first (and thus far only) time a James Bond film was shot digitally. But since James Bond has always had one foot in the present with the other firmly stuck in the past, it should not surprise anyone that the latest installment returns to the classic, analog format.

“Skyfall” DP Roger Deakins captures the shadows and light during a fight sequence set in an
abandoned building in Shanghai.

While “Spectre” cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s career might seem too young for some, it is already rich with quality work. “Let The Right One In” is, in my humble opinion, one of the best horror films of the 21st century which is at least partially due to van Hoyten’s atmospheric photography. Other titles include the excellent “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” Spike Jones’ “Her” and Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar.” In fact, after having viewed those last two titles, Mendes decided van Hoytema was the right man for “Spectre.”The Daniel Craig era seems to have ushered in some very high profile talent behind the camera as well as in front of it. Both Mendes and “Quantum of Solace” director Marc Forster were the first Oscar nominated/Oscar winning filmmakers to helm a 007 adventure. Prior to this, the production “stars” might have included the odd, previously well regarded director (Michael Apted of “The World Is Not Enough” comes to mind). But unless you’re a true, blue fan of the series, the only names working behind the camera that might ring a bell is soundtrack composer John Barry and legendary set designer Ken Adams. The first four Bond flicks (“Dr. No,” “From Russia With Love,” “Goldfinger” and “Thunderball”) were all shot by Ted Moore. For “You Only Live Twice” camera duties were taken on by the great Freddie Young who had already won two Oscars for his work on “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago.” The result is some of the best cinematography in the entire series. Eventually Moore would return to DP duties from “Diamonds Are Forever” to “The Man With The Golden Gun.” And then many lensmen would step up to the plate right up to the early part of the 21st century. Who woulda’ thunk that a movie series would last this long?Next  to Freddie Young, “Skyfall’s” Roger Deakins had been the most lauded cinematographer to date. The recipient of a whopping twelve Oscar nominations (although he has never won an Academy award, he has accumulated his fair share of ASC , Independent Spirit and BAFTA awards), Deakins had already cut his teeth working with the likes of Frank Darabont, Edward Zwick and the Coen Brothers. It was his relationship with Sam Mendes that brought him to Bond after manning the camera for “Jarhead” and “Revolutionary Road.”Hoyte van Hoytema ain’t no slouch either having collected an impressive list of credits within the span of a decade. Yet his visual sense seems to feature a cooler, almost monochromatic feel compared to the vibrant display of shadows and light presented in “Skyfall’s” Shanghai sequences. While looking at the trailer to “Spectre,” van Hoytema appears to be applying a similar look to the heavy contrast tones of “Tinker Tailor” and “Interstellar.” It’s a far cry from the saturated, pop-art colors of Bond films past.

Van Hoytema’s cinematography represents a darker vibe in “Spectre.” Compare the top image to the more stylistic, technicolor feel of “You Only Live Twice” (bottom)

MGM/COLUMBIA PICTURES/EON

The Dutch-Swedish cinematographer studied at the Polish National Film School in Lodz and got his start shooting documentaries and serials for Scandinavian television. After the financial and critical success of Tomas Alfredson’s “Let The Right One In,” van Hoytema became a sought after DP within the international film industry. Professionally, he seems just as comfortable working within the confines of digital as well as celluloid as he has been quoted as remaining pretty neutral on the subject. Yet, van Hoytema’s tool kit consisted of Arri Alexa analog cameras, Panavision Primo 70 and Zeiss Master anamorphic lenses, not to mention what must’ve been reels and reels of Kodak 35 mm film stock. The result should speak for itself, however. If the film’s trailer is any indication, van Hoytema has a keen eye for framing his shots in ways that are reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick. And that’s not a bad thing at all.

Scenes from “Spectre”

MGM/COLUMBIA PICTURES/EON

(Speaking of Kubrick and Bond: while shooting “The Spy Who Loved Me,” the crew where confronted with having to light a set made up entirely of reflective surfaces. No one knew how to do this without having the camera appear on said surfaces and props.  Set designer Ken Adams knew Kubrick was working in the adjacent soundstage and asked for his advice. Kubrick then proceeded to light the entire set, much to the amazement of everyone working that day)

If anything, van Hoytema’s cinematography represents the James Bond of our times: grittier, a little more grounded in reality than the previous 007 entries. The pulpy, almost comic book feel of the 1960s and 70s said more about what made James Bond good box office than anything having to do with the character as Fleming originally conceived him. While Bond was never a John Le Carre style administrative drone navigating the grey psychological recesses of the Cold War, he wasn’t quite the vodka martini swelling, sophisticated, super human ladies man presented on the screen, either. Bond could hurt. He could bleed. And he actually fell in love with his women. Thanks to the reboot that was “Casino Royale” and Daniel Craig’s interpretation of the character, the series has moved into a realm that feels more, well, distinctly Ian Fleming than most of the previous films. And it appears that Hoyte van Hoytema has brought the look to match.

“Spectre,” directed by Sam Mendes, featuring cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema, will have it’s North American premiere on November 6.


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