• Nightcrawler

Robert Elswit has been getting a lot of attention lately for his work on Dan Gilroy’s satirical thriller Nightcrawler and Paul Thomas Anderson’s upcoming Inherent Vice. This attention is deserved, though it hardly represents a breakthrough for the 64-year-old cinematographer, who won an Academy Award in 2008 for Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. (Barring The Master, he’s shot all of Anderson’s movies—the director regularly credits him with determining the films’ style.) Still, the sheer number of interviews with Elswit that have appeared online in the past several weeks confirm that he’s attained a level of popular recognition that few in his profession achieve. Like Gordon Willis, Nestor Almendros, or Harris Savides, Elswit has the power to raise the overall quality of any film he works on, employing a distinctive yet adaptable style that enhances whatever mood his collaborators wish to generate. His style is so integral to Nightcrawler that he practically qualifies as the film’s coauthor.

In fact Elswit worked closely with Gilroy in the film’s preproduction—one might say he grafted his style onto Nightcrawler before the cameras ever rolled. “I was able to spend weeks and weeks of prep with [Gilroy] . . . going to every single location, all the ones [we shot] at night,” Elswit recently said in a lengthy interview with the San Diego Reader. He further explained to Kristopher Tapley at Hitflix that “for practical reasons—because the schedule was so short—we really had to find locations that I didn’t have to do much to, that already had enough ambient light, streetlights, storefront lights, things like that, because we couldn’t really spend the time to light anything except the foregrounds where the actors were.”

  • Nightcrawler

Elswit shot the night scenes digitally, since the technology allows one to get clear images with minimal lighting setups. Compared with the daytime scenes, which Elswit shot on 35-millimeter film, the nocturnal sequences look slicker and dreamier. (“I found it beautiful,” Gilroy recently told journalist James Rocchi, “in the sense that you can see far and the neon lights sort of popped out and the yellow sodium vapor lights really gave it an interesting sort of glow.”) On one level Nightcrawler is a knockout photo essay about the dark corners of LA—Gilroy and Elswit avoided famous locations, focusing instead on “the functional side of the city, the strip malls and the [suburban] sprawl.” Often shooting in deep focus, Elswit creates images that allow us to look far into the distance—some of the settings seem to go on forever, suggesting a post-industrial desert.

  • Magnolia
  • Gigli
  • Redbelt

Few cameramen can shoot LA as expressively as Elswit, who grew up in Venice and knows the area like the back of his hand. Many critics praised Anderson for the panoramic views of the city in Boogie Nights and Magnolia, but Elswit deserves as much credit for these achievements, which he’s replicated in films for other directors. Take another look at David Mamet’s Redbelt or Martin Brest’s Gigli and you’ll find shots remarkably similar to those of Anderson’s LA stories, images that show off Elswit’s command of California sunshine and the moony tones of the city at night. The much-maligned Gigli is far more beautiful than it has any right to look—the soft blue light hovering in the background of the bedroom scenes conjures a romantic mood that corresponds to nothing else in the film. On the other hand, the shadowy scenes in Redbelt express a city full of mysteries. That film, like Mamet’s Heist, features numerous examples of the kind of shot Elswit does best, wherein small bursts of light interrupt smooth seas of black. (Heist might represent the most effectively subtle work Elswit’s done. The cinematography in that film succeeds in evoking classic film noir without ever suggesting a pastiche. The images rarely call attention to themselves, yet the movie would feel so much flimsier without them.)

  • Heist
  • Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler gives Elswit a chance to showcase both his menacing side and romantic side. In turn, Elswit’s nighttime photography communicates the danger of the protagonist’s work (videotaping violent crime scenes for TV news) as well as the thrill he gets from it. This is in keeping with the film’s purposely slippery point-of-view, which veers between an objective critique of sensationalistic journalism and a subjective portrait of Jake Gyllenhaal’s antihero. Ultimately the film’s most impressive technical achievement might be that it’s nearly impossible to determine where Gilroy’s work ends and Elswit’s begins.