Tech Support Interview: Janusz Kaminski on capturing the landscape in 'War Horse'

Posted by · 9:49 am · December 15th, 2011

Steven Spielberg has Diane Keaton to thank for opening his eyes to the work of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. The director happened to see Keaton’s TV movie “Wildflower” in 1991 and liked the photography so much, he hired Kaminski to shoot a TV movie for his company, Gregory Hoblit’s “Class of ’61.” From there the two collaborated on 1993’s “Schindler’s List” and the rest was history.

Kaminski has shot 11 of Spielberg’s features since, working almost exclusively with the director. “War Horse” is the latest example of their combined visual eye, a sweeping epic with nods to classic cinema and a fierce reverence for the landscape it captures.

Indeed, the environment is a key element of a cinematographer’s arsenal. “An essential part of the job is to tell the story through non-verbal means,” Kaminski says. “Placing the actor within their environment is essential not just from the cinematographer’s point of view but from the storytelling point of view. So whether a character lives in Manhattan or whether he lives in Montana, it shapes him.

“If you get the guy from Montana and bring him to New York, most likely you would want to show how displaced they feel. If you think of ‘Midnight Cowboy,’ when he comes into New York, it’s a totally different life for him. The camera reflected that. Adam Holender – who happened to be Polish as well – he captured that. It’s an iconic movie from a cinematographer’s point of view because it captured New York the way nobody else did.”

With “War Horse,” though, some of the visual cues are “Gone with the Wind,” perhaps, or the cinema of John Ford. Spielberg has always held Ford in the highest esteem, and the Ford’s films were nothing if not odes to the way landscape shaped a people. That was part of the goal on “War Horse.”

“You go to Devon and it’s so beautiful and you see the landscape and you start realizing how essential that land was for farmers,” Kaminski says of the England location of the shoot. “So you start placing the actors within that landscape and what it means. You want to be wider; you want to show the beauty of the land. You want to show how ragged and rough that land is and also how beautiful the land is. You want to idealize that life to some degree, and we do, always in the movies, we idealize. Even in the movies that are totally brutal, like ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ The land is covered in dust and hopeless. And yet it’s still amazing to look at because it shapes the lives of the people.”

In this film, which is largely pegged to World War I, it’s interesting to note Kaminski going back to war with Spielberg. The last time they did as much it was 1998 and “Saving Private Ryan” was changing perception of what war cinema could be. But things were handled differently this time around, largely because neither Kaminski nor Spielberg feel that “War Horse” ought to be considered a war film.

“It’s about a horse going through the different battlefields, but it’s about what the horse represents, this untamed spirit and the need to be alive,” Kaminski says. “The biggest difference between that and ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is the way we convey the images. In ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ you’re right there with the soldiers with a hand-held camera going through the field, going through the barbed-wire fence. Here we’re looking at the horse going at full speed across the landscape, troops moving across the field. The camera is a little bit farther back. You’re watching the war from a little bit more distance with not as much emotion involved, because the camera is not in there.”

It’s a unique approach considering the intimacy of World War I as a military conflict. Soldiers were dug in in the trenches for years, the threat of battle right there in their face. World War II was a more “fluid” war, as Spielberg has called it, with various theatres and more mobile combat. Yet he and Kaminski chose to tell that story with gritty intimacy, while treating this one with a more visually removed signature.

This being the twelfth collaboration between Kaminski and Spielberg, the relationship has naturally progressed. Kaminski says he enjoys working with the director because of how of a piece with the whole Spielberg’s films are. However different they appear from one another, there is a current of similarity to them and Kaminski likes that consistency. But also, being a craftsman, he naturally appreciates the ease of work at this stage.

“He’s a very decisive director,” Kaminski says. “He shoots what he needs. There isn’t a consortium of studio executives who suggest what needs to be done. I love his work ethics. He’s always working and in the editing room between the set-ups. He’s just a good role model for how I want to live my life.”

“War Horse” opens nationwide on Christmas Day.

NOTE: This is the first installment of this year’s Tech Support interview series. Stay tuned throughout the rest of the season for chats with several of the year’s below-the-line talent.

For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.

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