Filmmaker Stories

Linus Sandgren, FSF – 'La La Land' Ask a Filmmaker Answers

February 21, 2017

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Linus Sandgren accepts the Oscar® for Achievement in Cinematography for work on “La La Land” during the live ABC Telecast of The 89th Oscars® at the Dolby® Theatre in Hollywood, CA on Sunday, February 26, 2017. Photo credit: Aaron Poole / ©A.M.P.A.S.

The questions are in and the answers are back! A big thank you to Oscar®-nominated cinematographer Linus Sandgren, FSF for participating in our Ask A Filmmaker series and for answering your questions on how he shot this modern musical.

  1. What did a day on the set of “La La Land” look like for you?

    A lot of the film’s visual work was done in prep. We had been working out the shots for each scene in the film. I made very detailed diagrams with every shot of the scene, from a top angle, together with Damien. We also worked out the lighting in advance, by visiting the sets many times, and we instructed our rigging crews how to prep a lot of the lighting for us. In this way, our shooting days were much more efficient. So, a normal day for me started with finalizing the lighting for an hour, and going through with grips and operators how we were supposed to move through the set with the cameras. This was followed by an hour or so of technical prep and then we would start rehearsing. I would sit next to Damien by a monitor, and with a headset guide the crane operator, and the camera operator through the shot. It was all about getting the rhythm right. Then we would set up a new shot in the same way.

  2. What was your process in collaborating with Damien Chazelle to create the visual style of the film?

    Damien wanted the film to be modern and contemporary and at the same time influenced by the old Hollywood productions, including musicals and other films shot in Technicolor and CinemaScope. We both love the old-fashioned way of filmmaking where everything, including special effects are made in camera, whether it shows or not. It's the craft of analog filmmaking that's so beautiful, and I believe that is a great part of the look of the film. Damien wanted Los Angeles to be a character in the film, and since the film has these fantastical musical numbers, we tried to make all scenes somewhat heightened. The contrast of the urban LA with the nature it's in, with the magical sunsets and blue nights. We decided to give the nights of LA the colors of mercury vapor street lights instead of the sodium vapor, to make LA more romantic. The saturation of Technicolor films was a guide, and we made the sets, the costumes and the light colorful, so that we could capture the desired look in camera without manipulating saturation in post.

  3. What were the messages/symbolisms of the color choices for lightings?

    The colors changed with the emotional arcs of the film. Especially for Mia and Sebastian's costumes that got more muted as they got more mature. For LA nights, the cool cyan color street lights with pinks and blue skies were the colors for the magic and romantic LA, while the orange street lights were the reality, where Mia goes when she visits her parents. Sebastian's apartment was very beige and pale, since his character doesn't care much of how he lives, but magical romance found its way to his apartment too at night, when the green neon sign outside his window illuminates his living room, in a romantic moment, and when a scarf paints his walls red in his bedroom at night, where Mia pitches her play for Sebastian. In scenes others scenes when Sebastian meets Keith in his rehearsal studio, colors are subdued.

  4. In the opening sequence, was the dance number done as one shot?

    The dance number has two cuts, one in each 180-degree whip pan. This was because two parts of the move had to be done with a techno crane, and one part had to be done on a Steadicam that steps up on a crane. We had to shoot the shots at very narrow and different windows of the day to avoid the crane casting visible shadows.

  5. I was wondering how you choose your daylight exposures, especially when shooting into the sun so that the actor is backlit, and when you were in hard sun. I know with film, the highlights are held extremely well, so do you even care about them that much, knowing this, or are you always trying to meter in the middle and modifying the light with overheads, bounce, etc.?

    Film certainly handles the highlights better than digital. It depends, but I like generally to not use artificial light in day exteriors. If any, I prefer big bounces, ideally with sky blue tint. But, in shots like in the opening number, where the camera turns 180, we had very limited possibilities with bounces. We had one 12x12 bounce to the left of camera when the band is revealed in the truck. But what I often do when the camera moves a lot is that I change the exposure in the shot. I use a remote Preston single channel unit for the iris. In the backlight situation on the freeway, I stayed closer to shadow exposure than sun exposure about 1 under shadow exposure, and in the side light, I would expose 1 over sun exposure.

  6. I watched a 35mm print of "La La Land" at the New Beverly Theatre. I am assuming this was a film-out from a digital intermediate. What are your thoughts on digital intermediate (film to digital to film) versus printing straight from the negative in terms of the "quality" of the image?

    The quality of the colors in the image is technically better film to film, but it's very unusual to make films with no VFX at all, even if it's minimal, certain shots need to go through a digital process, and then you need to go through the DI. To me, the most important thing is to capture the image in the way that best serves the desired final look. I still find that celluloid captures both subtle shades of colors, skin tone colors and contrast much richer than digital cameras. When the image gets digitized, the negative has captured colors that the digital camera didn't see. And so therefore, even in a digital post process, the colors are richer by being shot on film. The print, made from the DI will keep blacks true black and colors rich, making the intended look more correct, while sometimes a digital projector environment lacks in quality. However, improvements like Dolby Vision, where a laser projector and an environment with black seats and minimal spill from exit signs, makes the digital print look stunning. So, if I can do a direct print from the original net, that would be my preference, but if you need to digitize the footage, Dolby Vision is my preference.

  7. What were the benefits of shooting 1 stop overexposed and then pulling the negative from the developing chemicals early vs. just developing them normally and bringing the exposure down in post?

    It always comes down to testing, where I shoot many versions of exposures in combination with processes. I really love the developing process, I normally either push process or pull process to be more expressive in either direction of its effects. Normal developing gets a normal contrast. Push process (over developing) makes the contrast stronger, colors more saturated and the grain more prominent, which I did in The Hundred-Foot Journey with a 1/2 stop and an upcoming film Battle of the Sexes, with a full stop. Pull process (under developing) makes the contrast less strong, colors slightly muted and the grain finer. I did this in Promised Land, Joy and La La Land. The rating of the stock (exposure) was determined in the testing, and basically kept the saturation at a desired level. For Promised Land and Joy I didn't overexpose as much as I did in La La Land, and therefore the image was less saturated in these films. But La La Land also had so many colors in the sets, costumes and lighting, that if it would have been push processed, colors would've felt too electric and especially grainier. The effect of the pull process is baked in to the negative and couldn't have been recreated in post.

  8. In the part with the jazz whip/pan sequence in the film, how were you able to keep them in perfect frame and focus with such quick movements from left to right? Was there some sort of manual stop on a swivel or something? Such an amazing scene.

    The pan was not only horizontal pan but also tilting between them. It's a matter of putting your body in a position so that you create the stops with your body. Always in La La Land, the challenge was to get the camera to hit the beats of the music, and it was the same here, where my operator Ari Robbins, had to practice to get the musical flow, and then we shot a good amount of takes to get it right.

  9. During the scene with Sebastian on the piano and Mia in the crowd, you were using incredible whip pans between the two actors. I saw in the BTS that Damien Chazelle was timing the whips, but how did you design the lighting for that scene? It looks incredible, especially above the piano but I couldn't for the life of me figure out how it was lit!?

    We wanted contrast in this scene, so we lit the band with hard, small Par can spotlights, while the audience had softer sources from above, so we would get a more dramatic effect between them in the pans. The key was to put the camera in the shadow side of the light.

  10. I heard that Panavision specially adapted a 40mm anamorphic lens to be closer focus. Could you explain a little bit about that and what lens choices you used throughout the film?

    A demand for dynamic movements became apparent in prep, when Damien and I started to design the shots for the film. To capture dance head to toe in CinemaScope, you need to use a fairly wide angle, like a 35mm or 40mm lens. But we also wanted to sometimes be able to move in close on piano keys or a face in scenes where we also wanted to be very wide. The normal close focus of a 40mm anamorphic lens is about 3 feet, so Dan Sasaki at Panavision modified one 40mm lens by changing elements to get to a 19" close focus. But he also changed lens elements on many lenses for us to get the lenses to cover 2.55:1 instead of the 2.40:1, as well as make us a special 18mm anamorphic lens for our 16mm anamorphic home movie footage.

  11. Do you think film school is necessary to become a cinematographer (or director)? And can you recommend good film schools in Europe?

    I think it’s a little bit up to each individual what is the best education. Cinematography is not only the theory of visual storytelling, it's also leadership, collaboration with many departments, and a bit of economics, politics and social skills. Learning film history in one way or another is very useful to understand the language of visual storytelling. You can study art or photography as well. And watch movies, read literature. I think it's much more crucial, though, to learn the craft by working in any position on a set, and learn about other crafts. And after or parallel with that, I think it's important to find the style of your own by working on different type of projects as much as possible.

  12. Linus, you are having a shot at being the second Swede ever to get an Oscar. I myself am a Swede trying to make it as cinematographer. What is your best, true advice?

    Read the script, listen to the director, make sure you two ground your visual storytelling in the script and find your own reasons behind every shot. Don't just shoot shots, shoot them the way they need to be shot to tell the story the way you think best tells the story. If the image can tell the story without dialogue or sound, it can be very powerful.