Home / An Interview With Academy Award-Winning Cinematographer Robert Elswit

An Interview With Academy Award-Winning Cinematographer Robert Elswit

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Robert Elswit, a member of the American Society of Cinematographers, won the Academy Award this year as cinematographer for There Will Be Blood. My favorite movie of 2007, the film will be released on DVD on April 8 by Paramount Home Entertainment. The movie was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won two. In addition to Elswit's well deserved win, Daniel Day-Lewis took home the Oscar for Best Actor.

The general public can rarely rattle off the name of the cinematographer of their favorite film, yet without their magic to light a romantic scene properly, create tension in a thriller or embellish the dark surroundings in a scary movie, there would be no enjoyment of any film.

Elswit came by his love of movies naturally; his parents were theatrical agents so he grew up around the business. "I loved the old movies from the '30s and '40s that played on TV every week. So early on it was a dream of mine to be part of that business," said Elswit.

He started filming TV programs in the 1980s and soon was working on feature films. His vast repertoire includes such films as The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Boogie Nights, Good Night, and Good Luck, Syriana, and Michael Clayton. Elswit and director Paul Thomas Anderson work well together. "I've worked on all of Paul's films," he said. "I always know there will be some kind of critical acclaim for Paul's movie, like a Berlin film festival award or something but there's little chance it'll get the kind of response that this film got. I was surprised and pleased."

Almost all of There Will Be Blood was shot in the small Texas town of Marfa. This made Elswit's job much easier than to have to move to different locations. "Production designer Jack Fisk found this incredible little town that was once an oil town, and we built all of our sets there and used many of the extras whose families had worked in the oil fields. If that hadn't been done so well, I don't think the film would have worked out nearly as well."

In addition to many early California-looking scenes, many were about oil — running along the ground, gurgling in the wells or shooting high in the sky. I was curious what was used for the oil.

"Steve Cremin, the special effects guy, discovered on the movie Jarhead, where the troops were covered with oil, that there's a compound fast food restaurants use to color milkshakes. But it's an organic food product so it was environmentally friendly. It really looks like oil. Steve is an amazing special effects guy that did everything including all the work to set the oil well on fire and keep it contained."

There's a scene in the beginning of the film where Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) is digging in a deep hole to plant dynamite. How difficult was that to light and film?

"There was already a hole from a real silver mind on the property that was about 75 feet down and 100 yrs old, pretty much the way you see Daniel dig it," said Elswit. "It was done by men who used small sticks to dig it. At the bottom, someone in the '30s had created a tunnel under the same mountain that cut through the bottom of the shaft, and that's what we used as access for our crew to shoot and build scaffolding for lighting units."

Daniel Day-Lewis played the role of the hardened oil man with such aplomb he received unanimous praise and awards from critics' groups across the globe. How much of that performance rests on the shoulders of the cinematographer?

"Unless it's a romantic film where you want to light say George Clooney to look like George Clooney, none," said Elswit. "With today's movies being more realistic, it's a balancing act. But most of my movies are not about beautiful people, it's about mood, atmosphere and place and that's what you have to capture."

Elswit did a phenomenal job of making There Will Be Blood so engaging. He is now working on filming the thriller Duplicity with Julia Roberts and Clive Owens and drama The Burning Plain with Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger.

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About Diana Saenger

  • Nice get. I thought his work in Blood was fabulous. It reminded me of Ansel Adams photography.