As a long-time employee of Steven Spielberg, Janusz Kamiński has made a significant contribution to bringing a wide range of film classics to life.
If there is one thing that stands out about both Janusz Kamiński's career and cinematography, it is the sheer size and range of his skills. Starting with Grim Prairie Tales in 1990, an indie horror film on a budget, Kamiński has worked at an amazing rate, often completing several projects per year. He is in four decades of productive creation.
And while Kamiński has worked with several notable directors such as Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire), Judd Apatow (Funny People) and James L. Brooks (How Do You Know), Kamiński may always be known as the right man at the perennial Hollywood Writer Steven Spielberg – with whom Kamiński worked (and counts) on 18 films.
Since his first major break with Spielberg on Schindler's list, Kamiński has worked with the blockbuster director during a later career revival. Her work spans a wide range of projects and hits, from grainy war films like Saving Private Ryan to high profile action sci-fi films like Minority Report to acclaimed biographies like Lincoln and even 3D animated journeys like The Adventures of Tintin.
Along the way, as a dutiful partner of Spielberg's obvious and eclectic storytelling talents, Kamiński was able to similarly adapt his film styles to projects and narrative of all kinds. At the center of his work, however, many of his core cinematography principles remain the same and form the guiding light that all cameramen and filmmakers can follow as they face far-reaching projects and advanced technology.
Starting in light and darkness
Cinematography is one of those professions that allows you to tell the world who you are. Because you work with light, you work with darkness, you work with composition. And everything that comes from learning, but it also comes from within … If you want to know something about me, watch my films.
I go back to Kamiński's filmography and I think it's great that the first shot in his first collaboration with Spielberg isn't a giant sci-fi robot, epic fight scene, or mysterious 3D animation. It's just a close-up of the darkness, lit by the striking of a lone match on Schindler's list.
Kamiński certainly had many opportunities to show off his creativity and skills in the field of cinematography throughout his career, but it is his first collaboration that serves as the best example of how he looks at cinematography. The power of light and darkness is the real key to each of his compositions. Whether you're doing dramatic low-key or sensible high-key footage in your projects, using these basic elements is very important so that cameramen can start bringing their projects to life.
A "form follows function" mentality
I think every story has its own portrayal. Of course, I am unaware of the one making my own little impression. I sit there and think that's what I'll do. I express myself through cinematography. And apparently it is very obvious to you and others that there is some resemblance from one to another – or certain motifs or elements from one movie to another.
As a DP, Kamiński had to adapt his style to a wide variety of projects. In order to meet these requirements, he has developed a mentality that shapes the visual appearance of his projects. Kamiński admits that he will always express himself and add his own character to anything he works on – consciously and unconsciously – but he also recognizes that not every project should look the same. In fact, most of the time, they will be dramatically different.
The light structures for a historical black-and-white drama film like Schindler's List will differ in principle, but they will differ for a romantic comedy like Jerry Maguire or a child-friendly animated adventure like The BFG. In either case, however, Kamiński finds a way to adapt its form to follow the function of the director's story he is trying to portray.
De-glamourized and naturalistic storytelling
I think, strangely enough, the idea of de-glamourizing the images has always been interested. I didn't want that classic Hollywood light. You know, looking a little more naturalistic …
One of the best ways to fully immerse yourself in Kamiński's cinematography is to break it down into three different types of films that he has worked on – again largely in collaboration with Spielberg. The first grouping are his naturalistic war, espionage, espionage and drama films, including examples such as Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, Bridge of Spies and The Post. You can hear Kamiński talk about his naturalistic process of “de-glamourizing” his images in this great panel discussion with his other recognized DP colleagues, including Hoyte Van Hoytema, Rachel Morrison and Roger Deakins.
For these projects, Kamiński uses elements of documentary storytelling, a penchant for actual camera movement, including handheld and steadicam setups at close range, and grainy film bleach with bleached saturation and increased contrast.
Bring key sci-fi and adventure spectacles to life
The second cinematographic style that could help you classify many of Kamiński's projects like a big budget blockbuster group, including big action, adventure, and sci-fi films. This includes the franchises for which Spielberg and Kamiński are perhaps best known to audiences around the world.
In drawing from previous installments (as is the case when Kamiński picks up on the Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones franchises from previous DPs) and influences (as is the case when Kamiński by Stanley Kubrick for AI and Orson Welles for War of the Worlds draws), Kamiński has been hired repeatedly to bring some of the most ambitious major film spectacles to life.
He does this by combining his own unique naturalistic looks and techniques with Spielberg's heavy emphasis on pre-visualization technology and a keen eye for control and detail. In this series about the making of The War of the Worlds, you can see a lot more about the intense pre-production Kamiński and Spielberg production process.
Comprehensive cinematography for CGI and animation
Finally, the third cinematography grouping of Kamiński's films is the forward-thinking styling that emerges from CGI and animation. From the fully computer-animated 3D adventure film The Adventures of Tintin to the hybrid live action and the computer-generated feature The BFG to many similar elements in CGI-heavy projects such as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Ready Player One Kamiński had to go further empathize with new technologies to bring his cinematic sensitivity to life.
At this point in Kamiński's joint career at Spielberg, he has moved a long way from that initial black and white take of the game as he was challenged to take on the pioneers of modern technological filmmaking. While the glasses have grown, the shots remain the same.
With Ready Player One as the best example of how new technologies will shape the future of cinematography, Kamiński decided to combine both CGI renderings of alien worlds and characters with some of the most complex renderings of human characters and real world environments. You can see some cool VFX breakdowns from Digital Domain, as well as the behind-the-scenes feature shown above, which – while focusing on Spielberg's insights, of course – Kamiński can see there on the set with viewfinder in hand. Think about how he will adapt to take the next shot.
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Cover photo by Janusz Kamiński with Steven Spielberg on the set of The Post via 20th Century Fox.