The American Society of Cinematographers

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ASC Close-Up

Masanobu Takayanagi, ASC, discusses how visual economy and "emotional accuracy" informed his approach to Spotlight.

Unit photography by Kerry Hayes, courtesy of Open Road Films.

The drama Spotlight tells the true story of how a group of determined reporters at The Boston Globe exposed the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-up of sexual abuse committed against children by dozens of local priests. The team, led by editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), and including Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James) and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), began publishing a series of articles in 2002 that went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Spotlight represents the second slice of Boston history for cinematographer and recent ASC inductee Masanobu Takayanagi, who also shot Black Mass (AC Oct.’15), about notorious Boston criminal Whitey Bulger. His credits also include True Story, Out of the Furnace and Silver Linings Playbook.

AC spoke with Takayanagi shortly before Spotlight arrived in theaters. Here are excerpts from the conversation:

American Cinematographer: When you read the script for Spotlight, what did you initially respond to?

Masanobu Takayanagi, ASC: I was finishing up Black Mass in Boston when I received the script, which, interestingly, was also about Boston. I responded really strongly to the subject matter, the emotions involved in the story, and how well written the script [by Josh Singer and director Tom McCarthy] was. And I had always admired Tom McCarthy’s work. I had a Skype conversation with Tom where we talked about the characters, the emotional notes of the story, and how to stay true to those things in our visual approach. I would say the whole point of the visual style was to not get in the way. We wanted to showcase the story, not the camera.

The movie has a lot of emotionally sensitive material and asks a lot of some of the actors. What’s your role in terms of helping to shape the performances?

Takayanagi: It was basically to stay out of the actors’ way, to create an environment where all they were thinking about was their characters and the content of the scene. I also wanted to avoid getting between the audience and the actors. We wanted camera moves that were subtle, not intrusive, because we wanted viewers to feel that they’re watching something real, as it really happened. Telling a true story like this one is not just about historical accuracy; it’s also about emotional accuracy.

Because Spotlight is set in a newsroom and focuses on investigative journalism, comparisons to All the President’s Men are inevitable. Did you and McCarthy discuss that film very much?

Takayanagi: We may have mentioned All the President’s Men to each other a couple of times, but we didn’t sit down and watch it together or anything like that. We didn’t think about specific shots to imitate. Another film from that era, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, was a strong influence, particularly in terms of its visual economy. We were always trying to simplify.    

It’s a deceptive simplicity, though, because sometimes those kinds of ‘invisible’ shots can be the hardest to conceive and execute. How did you decide when and how you would move the camera?

Takayanagi: Tom and I went through the script in prep and discussed the key emotional moments scene by scene. Then we found ways of expressing those with the camera. For example, there’s a scene where the reporters learn a shocking piece of news: that there were probably close to 90 priests in Boston who were guilty of abusing children. The reporters are all sitting around a phone, talking to a source on speakerphone. The camera starts on the phone and then slowly pulls back to reveal the characters and the room. We used an Aero crane with a Cinema Pro remote head and a 29mm prime, and had an excellent dolly grip, Ron Renzetti, who executed the move. The idea was to start on the voice that was revealing this horrible news and then move back to suggest the magnitude of it and how the revelation affected everyone in the room; the magnitude is underscored by having the characters gradually become smaller within the frame as the space around them grows. In another scene in the reporters’ office, we start wide in the space, with nothing happening, and then slowly dolly in on Michael Keaton — again, with a 29mm lens — as his character hears the news about an important verdict. It’s very subtle. Some of those visual ideas were planned very carefully, but most of the time Tom and I would just watch the rehearsals and then discuss what needed to be done. We trusted the story and the actors to guide the camera.  

A great deal of the film takes place in the Globe newsroom. How closely did you collaborate with production designer Stephen H. Carter on the creation of that set?

Takayanagi: We visited the real Globe newsroom, and in designing our set Stephen adhered to the reality of what we saw there, keeping in mind that the story our film tells is set in 2001-2002. He very carefully designed the set for our lighting, most of which was practical fluorescents — desk lamps, overhead fixtures, that kind of thing. For the windows in the Spotlight team’s small office, we had a few HMIs on platforms outside the windows so we could occasionally create the illusion of direct sunlight coming in the office. Apart from that, the window light was natural.

Lighting is one of the key ways you visually differentiate the reporters’ work environment from their domestic environments.

Takayanagi: Yes, their homes were lit mainly with tungsten lamps. Also, their domestic spaces are more intimate than their work environment at the Globe. In both settings, Tom and I tried to include as much of their environment in the frame as possible.

What were the factors that led you to choose digital capture?

Takayanagi: Tom and I originally wanted to shoot on film because we thought it would help evoke the period of the story, but we found that it would be logistically difficult in Canada because of the shortage of labs. We were shooting most of the movie in Toronto, and the only lab that was available near there was in Montreal. It would have created a long turnaround with the dailies and other issues, so in the end, we decided to go digital and use the [Arri] Alexa instead. I chose a mix of Panavision’s legacy prime lenses, Z Series Ultra and Super Speeds, as well as the older [generation of] Super Speeds. We also used three zoom lenses, Angenieux Optimo 24-290mm [T2.8] and 28-76mm [T2.6], and a Primo 11:1 [24-275mm T2.8].

When did you opt for zooms over primes, and why?

Takayanagi: As the story progressed, we relied more on zooms for the close-ups. I learned that by watching the work of the great John Seale [ASC, ACS], who always uses zooms very effectively in his cinematography. Tom and I used very subtle zoom-ins during certain close-ups to underscore the emotion of the moment. The audience may not notice this most of the time, but it definitely adds a deeper level to those scenes.


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