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Road to Oscars. The Cinematography of "Nomadland"

Let's continue our series while we wait for the magical Night of the Academy Awards.

Today we're talking about Nomadland.


Nomadland is a 2020 American drama movie about a woman named Fern who lost her husband and her job and decides to travel around the United States.

Chloé Zhao wrote, edited, produced and of course directed this self-discovery film, while her real-life partner Joshua James Richards was in charge as Director of Photography.


This is a surprisingly low budget film but the end result is brilliant.

The most important aspect of this picture is the use of natural lighting. Viewers get to see beautiful landscapes during both dawn and dusk and are immediately immersed in a wonderful poetic scenario.


The choice of natural lighting highlights even better the touch of authenticity the whole movie revolves around.

Most characters are real life nomads and are not accustomed to acting, filming crew, cameras and so on. So the approach was the most ratural and realistic possible.

All actors, for example, did not wear any makeup, there are no filters and very few of the lightings, as said before, is artificial. This serves a lot when it comes to accentuate the natural beauty of nomads and the realism of their history.


Many of the scenes are shot with wide-angle lenses and often in backlight, to give a sense of intimacy. Characters are portraied up close and with an accentuated depth of field, so that viewers can really focus their attention there.


Almost every scene have one thing in common: the sky. The sky is the thread that ties the whole film together and sets up the mood of each sequence.

Joshua James Richards
Joshua James Richards

It’s all about being true and not being fancy. No beauty lights are required, no perspective techniques are involved. That’s just not the point.


In this movie, Fern meets new people on the road and they are all going through different situations, just like her. The funny thing is that you really get to bond with them even if they stay in your life for a very small amount of time.

This shortness of time is the reason why DoP Richards decided to get really up close to the actors with his camera. This way the viewers connect with them, they build a relationship very quickly, even just for a few minutes.


You really care about them and their stories, you don’t even think about how they look. You just sit there, listen and respect their dignity as human beings.


Fern is most definetely the protagonist of this flick, that's why the whole story is told from her point of view, even camera-wise. Emotions are on display and they are so powerful the way they are portraited.

The movie was made with a limited crew, so they felt like experimenting a lot. In fact, landscapes shot in a certain moment of the day (the so-called "magic hour") are actually a reflection of Fern's emotional journey.


Fern (Frances McDormand) and Dave (David Strathairn) in a movie scene
Fern (Frances McDormand) and Dave (David Strathairn) in a movie scene

It goes without saying that location scouting was so important to serve this goal. The American landscape offers a great variety of places, but to really embrace the raw emotions, they needed desert-like, wide-open spaces.




You can really feel spontaneous there and this also means losing big camera cranes and heavy filming equipment.

Many, many scenes are in fact shot with a handheld camera, to give the illusion to actually be into the story.


Well, that's it for today. Stay tuned for the next movie: The Trial of the Chicago 7.

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