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Road to Oscars 2022. The Cinematography of "West Side Story"

last episode for this season. Today we’re talking about West Side Story.

West Side Story is a 2021 musical romantic drama directed by Steven Spielberg.

DoP Janus Kamiński really took this project to his heart, having collaborated with Spielberg in the span of 30 years and 18 movies together.

The movie is shot on 35 mm film to recall the nostalgia of the era in which the story is set.

The main theme is, of course, love. So, the movie adaptation of the play should ooze this feeling.

To enhance it, Kamiński should have not been subtle: grit and washed out colours were simply not allowed.

As earlier mentioned, the film is the cinematographic adaptation of the famous 1957 theatrical play.

It's never easy to do so, you always have to be careful and have your final result clear in mind.

This one would have been merging old Hollywood classicism with a modern and dynamic look.

The general idea is to make a movie out of the stage play, not just make a stage play,

This is why the camera keeps on moving, especially during the dance scenes; the camera follows all dancers, it goes through the group, swooping across it so that we can really see and feel the movement, like the camera itself was dancing.

Everything feels festive, busy, almost chaotic or - better yet - "happily" chaotic. There's people, there's dancing, there's music, there's colour.. there's a good feeling around the movie. All these aspects made Kamiński very proud of his work.

Janus Kamiński
Janus Kamiński

It's really important for Kamiński to exactly recreate the vibe of Hollywood studio era and to pay tribute to the original Broadway stage production. Kamiński is not American native and he always associated Broadway with glamour and beauty.

He also wanted to preserve that glossy romanticism of the '50s and '60s. To make the movie as accurate as possible, the crew needed to also set up the look of 1957 Manhattan. What a challenge!

The project was very big because they wanted to be free in moving around the set, without having to worry about what was showing. Displaying the entire New York life was the goal, just like how it really was at the time.

The tricky part was to maintain the consistent feel of romance, gorgeousness and seduction throughout all shots.

This could have been achieved by "simply" using the right light, a beauty enhancing light.

You bring on set lots and lots of lighting equipment and you control it, you shape it, you create it until you really get what you want (a bit time-consuming, isn't it?).

It's not sufficient to use the natural light of the sun, it's considered an "ugly light", especially during certain hours of the day.

Ansel Elgort as Tony and Rachel Zegler as Maria
Ansel Elgort as Tony and Rachel Zegler as Maria

That's when we meet another key element: deciding when to shoot during the day. This required some sort of strategy on how to proceed. For example, when the light was low, when there was backlight, the plan was to display wider shots, avoiding all those shadows that would have ruined the whole representation.

Here comes in help the artistry of the cinematographer: he creates a sense of beauty even when the light is ugly.

Well, that's it for this year. Which film do you think will win "Best Cinematography" Academy Award?

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