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Russell and Sandgren Bring Joy to the Big Screen

  • December 04, 2015

In American Hustle , Linus Sandgren, FSF and David O. Russell forged imagery that evoked the glitz of the 1970s. That film struck a chord, earning 10 Oscar® nominations, including a nod for Best Picture. Now Sandgren and Russell have reteamed for Joy , the story of a family across four generations that centers on the girl who grows up and establishes a powerful business dynasty. Like much of Russell's work, Joy is impossible to pigeonhole. It is a drama with quirky, dark humor and a unique humanity. The cast includes Jennifer Lawrence as Joy, and reunites her onscreen with Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper.

Edgar Ramirez, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro in JOY. TM & © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

As they did with American Hustle , Sandgren and Russell shot Joy on 35mm film. But the similarities end there. This time around, they devised a more classically cinematic approach with more specific lighting and deliberate framing. Taking inspiration from older black-and-white movies, the production design was often muted in color and contrast.

DP Linus Sandgren on set. Photo by Merie Weismiller Wallace.

"We lit more for a single direction, rather than a 360 lighting, which was our approach on American Hustle ," says Sandgren. "It was more of a noir approach, this time."

Two Steadicam operators helped with that. Even static shots were often accomplished with the camera on the rigs, which allowed for quick push-ins, for example. A 1.85:1 aspect ratio was used to compose more painterly, classic frames. The lenses were Zeiss Ultra Primes with special vintage coatings developed by CamTec to enhance flares and veiling.

Sandgren worked mostly with KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219. A few exterior scenes were done with KODAK VISION3 200T Color Negative Film 5213. Testing revealed the right exposure/development recipe for the film. The 500T was rated at E.I. 200, and the 200T was rated at E.I. 80.

"We pull processed the entire film, and I overexposed everything one and a third stop," Sandgren says. "I thought this gave the film much more beautiful highlights and blacks, and a richness in the details of the sets and costumes. The colors are slightly muted and the grain is finer. We lit with harder light to maintain strong contrast. The result is a smooth, soft image where you see all the details."

Shooting film didn't interfere with Russell's proclivity for a fast, flexible shoot.

Jennifer Lawrence in JOY. TM & © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

"Although we were shooting in a more traditional manner, David still wanted to maintain the flow and energy," says Sandgren. "He values extensive quality time with the actors during the shoot. He likes to keep the film alive and adapt as we are making it, so we did a lot of pre-lighting and ran everything through dimmers to allow for flexibility."

"Shooting 3-perf gave us about six minutes between reloads," he says. "By the time David talks to the actors, the camera is reloaded. Also, when the film is rolling, it intensifies the moment. There's more concentration around a take, which results in more magic moments. Add to that, our mutual love for the texture of celluloid."

Silhouettes and partial silhouettes are a key visual motif in the film. "David wanted to visually dive deeper into character's soul," says Sandgren. "We felt the silhouettes symbolized the interior of the person, making us feel more like we are with them or inside them, seeing the world around them. Often, we put ourselves in shadow, with the light on the other side of the subject or modeling them from the side."

Jennifer Lawrence in JOY. TM & © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

On day one of the 42-day shoot, production was cancelled due to a blizzard. But over the course of the project, shooting on Long Island in winter helped take the film in a monochromatic direction.

Jennifer Lawrence in JOY. TM & © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

"Joy learns that achieving her dreams is difficult, and it was nice to let the beautiful, snowy landscape work as a metaphor for the obstacles she faces. With the white snow and the black trees, it becomes graphic and black and white. Other worlds that Joy finds along the way, are more colorful, as a visual contrast to where she comes from."

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in JOY. TM & © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Film's ability to resolve subtle shades of white was a major advantage, he says. "With a contrasty lighting, the pull processing brings the range together, and the entire scene is exposed within that range. It looks very different than it would if we had shot on digital."