The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents December 2008 Return to Table of Contents
Let the Right One In
Page 2
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A lonely boy and a vampire fall in love in Let the Right One In, photographed by Hoyte van Hoytema, FSF, NSC.

Photos courtesy of Hoyte van Hoytema, FSF, NSC.
12-year-old Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is a shy boy, bullied and lonely — lonely, that is, until Eli (Lina Leandersson), a girl his age, moves into the neighborhood. Eli stays inside during the day and appears impervious to the frigid cold, and her arrival coincides with a wave of unsolved murders in the area. Before long, Oskar realizes his new friend is a vampire. Thus begins the Swedish film Let the Right One In.

Directed by Tomas Alfredson and adapted from the novel by John Adjvide Lindqvist, Let the Right One In was photographed by Hoyte van Hoytema, FSF, NSC, who won the 2008 Kodak Nordic Vision Award and the photography prize at the 2008 Fantasia Film Festival for his work on the picture. A native of the Netherlands, van Hoytema studied cinematography at Poland’s esteemed National Film, Television and Theatre School in Lodz.

The cinematographer recalls that he was immediately struck by the unique voice in Lindqvist’s screenplay. “It was so simple, yet profoundly ambiguous. It was quiet, yet there were screaming undertones. It was gentle, yet so raw and dark.” In these varied tones, van Hoytema saw an opportunity to explore what he enjoys most about filmmaking. “I see cinematography as a great blend of music, painting, poetry and technique, and I sometimes think my interest in filmmaking comes from the fact that I wanted to be a musician, painter or writer but wasn’t good enough at any of them to be noticed! As a cinematographer, I can combine those things into one language.”

From the outset, van Hoytema recognized that focusing on the realism inherent in the screenplay would give the film’s supernatural elements maximum impact. “One of the things that was so appealing in the script was that the vampire issue was just one element of the whole,” he explains. “Our approach was to try to tell a story about Oskar and make the presence of Eli very matter-of-fact. We were not trying to make a vampire movie as much as trying to construct a tender love story.”

During his discussions with Alfredson in prep, van Hoytema recalls that “it was quite obvious Tomas did not want this film to be a collection of quotes from his or my own film gods. He wanted the visual language to be as pure and as unspoiled as possible, though we did turn to [painter] Hans Holbein as a reference point.” He explains that Holbein’s “eyelines are quite unexpected — they can be deep in the bottom of the frame or very far off outside the frame, almost profile, and then again sometimes very close. In Let the Right One In, we tried to make Oskar meet Eli’s eyes very gradually. In the beginning, Oskar hides himself not only from the people around him, but also from the camera. As the story evolves, we slowly meet his eyes as he tries to open up.

“We storyboarded all the difficult visual-effects shots because there were so many people involved in them, but when we were working in the studio, we tried to be flexible as well,” he continues. “I would say we storyboarded shooting principles, mostly. We knew what we wanted out of certain scenes, and often our solution to a problem came from our desire to not have a lot of cuts.”

Unlike in a typical horror movie, van Hoytema points out, “the danger in this film isn’t hidden in the darkness. It exists in everyday situations, under dull fluorescent lights and streetlamps. Light means vulnerability for both Eli and Oskar, who try to live life as unnoticed as possible. We didn’t want the film to look boring, but we also didn’t want to create easy places for our characters to hide.” To suggest this notion of a world where light is a threat, van Hoytema and Alfredson concocted a method they called “spray light.” The cinematographer explains, “If you could capture dull electrical light in a can and spray it like hairspray across Eli’s apartment, it would have the same result as what we created. We took advantage of the absence of a ceiling to boom in Kino Flos and direct them through frames of diffusion overhead. We weren’t so much bothered by motivating the light practically; in fact, in the apartment, there are often practicals in the frame, but they are switched off.”

Shooting in Super 35mm for a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, van Hoytema used a single Arri 535B, and he notes that the heavy camera suited the film’s style. “There is almost no handheld work in the film, and not many cuts,” he explains. “There’s an advantage in having a camera that is stuck to the ground like a statue once it’s placed — everybody on the set starts to work from this center outward.” The camera did suffer, though, from the extreme cold during the production. In the coldest locations, some 50 miles from the Arctic Circle, “it took ages for the Arri to reach its speed. It seemed like the oil in the camera turned to glue after each setup. We wasted many meters of film on that!”

Using Zeiss Distagon High Speed prime lenses, van Hoytema shot mostly wide open (T1.3). “A shallow depth of field was one of the things Tomas and I wanted to be part of the language,” he says. “In addition to creating a feeling of intimacy between Oskar and Eli, it added some rawness to a stylized, cold world. Of course, this was very tough on my excellent focus puller, Daniel Kask.” It also gave the images additional texture. “The operating became a bit more three-dimensional. Apart from panning and tilting in a two-dimensional plane, I could move within the depth of the image. This kind of short focal depth doesn’t only focus you on a face or performance, but can drag attention to pores in the skin, eyelids and other minute details.”

Aside from neutral-density filters, Van Hoytema avoided filtration, and he used gels — Plus and Minus Green, CTO and CTB — only to normalize colors and take the “character” out of the light. “We also replaced the existing sodium-vapor bulbs in the streetlamps with white bulbs,” he notes. “We really did our best to keep the look as neutral as possible,” he notes. He consistently diffused his lighting, particularly for the tender scenes between Oskar and Eli. “There is hardly any hard light in the film,” he says. “When Eli climbs into bed with Oskar, for example, we made a frame of layers of white diffusion the size of the bed and brought it as low as we could, moving it as far as possible from the Kino Flos above it.”

The filmmakers sought to emphasize the handful of shots that are overtly dramatic by making them rare. One such shot appears in the film’s climax. With the camera submerged in a pool, a bully tries to drown Oskar in the foreground, and evidence of Eli’s activities appears elsewhere in the frame; the lower half of a struggling body is dragged through the water, and then a decapitated head sinks into the pool before the camera surfaces to reveal the aftermath of a massacre. “That was a very difficult shot to accomplish — it took many hours and many people,” recalls van Hoytema. “For me, the shot is about balance and directing the eye. An important detail is the focus pulling away from Oskar, along with the kicking feet traveling through the pool, in order to lay the focus exactly where the head enters the water.”

He was similarly deliberate with camera moves. “Most tracking shots were done with an ordinary Panther dolly on tracks, with the exception of some Technocrane shots. I didn’t think Steadicam was right for this film because it has a certain subjectivity that makes you very aware of the camera, whereas a horizontal track that moves from A to B with a certain speed can [go unnoticed] during the shot because the movement is predictable. The tracking shots have their own rhythm; they don’t follow the action but keep moving at their own pace. The actors increase and decrease their tone and speed, but the camera keeps moving calmly, like the rhythm section of a good band.”


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