May 29, 2013

Film review. An analysis of the cinematography of The Great Gatsby by Baz Luhrmann

This week I've seen The Great Gatsby, a film by Baz Luhrmann, the director of Mouline Rouge!, Australia and Romeo + Juliet. It was the opening of last Cannes Film Festival, screening that divided critics and audience.

The Plot. An(other) adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel where a wannabe writer is attracted from the life of his mysterious rich neighbour, Jay Gatsby, finding himself helping him out with his obsessions and discovering the reasons of his eccentricity.

Cinematography: Simon Duggan
Camera: Red Epic
Lenses: Zeiss Ultra Prime
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Format: Redcode RAW
Film Stock: -

Simon Duggan is a New Zealander cinematographer known for Knowing, I Robot, Live Free or Die Hard and Underworld: Evolution, so I wasn't expecting at all a realistic light work. Along with the Red Epic, he chose Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses to shoot the film, not because of their wide aperture (ƒ1.9, which he didn't quite use apart for a pair of shots) but because of the excellent quality image they can record having thus a very low weight, characteristics very suitable for 3D rigs.
Definitely, Baz Luhrmann had Mouline Rouge! in mind while shooting The Great Gatsby: it is visually a "circus" as the first one was and the two films have in commons lots of shot types. Duggan's cinematography goes along with it helping the director's vision.  Camera never stands still in the first half of the movie: dollys, pans, cranes... the camera is moved in every direction with all the possible means, employed for creating a vertiginous sense of rhythm rather than highlighting the agitation of the characters in frame.

Duggan uses a quite theatrical light, especially during the first half: it is never justified, most of the time coming from above and with a very strong rim light even in interiors with a sunlit window in frame. But this may be a bit excessive and only is understandable when we are introduced into Gatsby's castle, the heart of the circus.

Another trick Duggan employed to achieve the wanted theatrical effect is how he illuminated the characters compared to the background: the main actors just pop out from the scene as they had a spot light following them everywhere, even outdoor and in night shots (in which we always feel the presence of strong artificial HMI light), so that characters are bright while everything else of the scene falls into darkness. This is sometimes emphasized by the dress style: main actors in colourful dresses among a multitude wearing greyish and dark clothes. Colours play an important part in the theatrical vision as well as in cinematography itself (Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses are the perfect choice for their colour reproduction): we experiment a kaleidoscopic carnival of colours throughout the film, right till  its denouement, where they disappear along with Gatsby's dreams.

Another interesting use of light Duggan made is how he illuminated the character of Daisy. ‹‹Doesn't she seem to illuminate it all?›› says Gatsby and so is the impression the spectator has, since her very first appearance. She is lit with a soft light like everybody else, but she is far luminous. There's no shadow in her face nor the 1:2 contrast normally employed for other actors and she is always at least a stop brighter then everyone else, in the way Hollywood industry used to light its stars, like Greta Garbo, to make them stand out.
All of the above aspects, though, are softened in the last quarter of the film, accordingly to to the development of events and characters, who leave the theatrical-style-of-life for more intimate situations.

Some continuity errors, the use of diffusion filters when Gatsby remembers his past (diffusion filters were the only way to shoot remembrances till some years ago, I guess Duggan employed them because the story is set in the 20ies, but the whole movie has a little to do with those years) and some close up shots that are too hard (because of the extreme sharpness of the Zeiss lenses)  are the negative aspects of his cinematography that serves really well a film that doesn't  offer much more than 2:30 hours of fair entertainment.

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