The Five Best Shots of Cinematographer Darius Khondji
Seven Cover.jpg

Let's explore Darius Khondji's five best cinematic sequences and deconstruct the elements so you too can repeat these masterful approaches.

It would of course be very subjective to say that every cameraman has five best shots. It's hard to find five best photos for a famous photographer, but hand picking five shots from just one film, let alone two dozen films filled with hundreds of beautiful compositions, seems like an endless nightmare. Especially if the work you want to narrow down is that of legendary Iranian-French cameraman Darius Khondji.

So this may not be a list of the five best recordings by Darius Khondji, but five recordings from sequences that spoke to me. While Khondji has stated he doesn't think he has a distinctive style, many who study cinematography would tell you that he is an artist who likes to work in the shadows – and is a master at it.

Let's look at what they are and deconstruct the elements so you can replicate the shot.

1. Se7en

Seven (often stylized as Se7en), a film directed by David Fincher and written by Andrew Kevin Walker, may be my all-time favorite film directed by Khondji. It's the epitome of raw noir and it's been immensely photographed. While it is difficult to get away from the story, sometimes you will be impressed when you do so and analyze the recordings. Check out this take of Detective Lieutenant William Somerset, played by Morgan Freeman. His portrait is close enough in total darkness, with just a touch of light on his clothes and nose, to emphasize his presence. Most of the tonal range is in the background, but it works perfectly.

The backlight emphasizes the character's presence in the shot. Image via New Line Cinema.

My favorite shots from Se7en are the ones in the car. There is a certain elegance and simplicity to the way they are constructed. For example, there are only two shots of Pitt's character in the ending sequence for six minutes – a middle and a close-up. But let's talk about how Khondji shot the car's interior.

Se7en was shot dead on:

  • Aaton 35-III, Panavision Primo lenses
  • Panavision Panaflex Gold, Panavision Primo lenses
  • Panavision Panaflex Platinum, Panavision Primo lenses

And that was with:

  • Eastman EXR 200T 5287/7287 Neg. Movie
  • Eastman EXR 200T 5293/7293 Neg. Movie
  • Eastman EXR 50D 5245/7245 Neg. Movie

With many of the interiors of the car, you may find that it is quite light on the outside but relatively dark on the inside. To a point where the car should actually be relatively brighter when examined for longer than the moment on the screen.

Brad Pitt in Se7enWhile the interior of the car should be lighter, the noir freedoms create a sense of mood. Image via New Line Cinema.

But, of course, the creative freedom taken under these circumstances puts us in the dark foreboding of two detectives looking for a serial killer. To achieve this level of contrast, Khondji would underexpose the interior by two levels. In this way the exterior was brought to life.

The low budget version: Use your camera's measurement tool and point it outward for a meter reading. Bring the camera back inside and decrease the exposure two stops from where the outside was set. You now have a darkened interior where the background is properly exposed and illuminating your talent, as opposed to the daylight filling your vehicle.

2. The city of lost children

The City of Lost Children is a 1995 film directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. I've only seen this film once, and that was when I was sixteen in film studies in 2006. Even so, I can still remember the haunting and surrealistic images to this day. If that's not a sign of great filmmaking, I don't know what it is.

The film was shot on an Eastman EXR 100T 5248 and EXR 200T 5293.

This setting and scene stayed with me forever:

Daniel Emilfork in the city of lost childrenGreen tint and lens selection create an eerie dystopian atmosphere. Image via Sony Pictures Classics.

There were two key components: the choice of lens and the color cast to enhance the overall surreal element of the film. There is an eerie green that invades the film's color palette. This was, of course, compounded by the set and costume design, but there were also elements from cinematography.

First, green gels were placed over the lights whenever possible. Second, and most creatively, when the main set was built over a huge pool of water, they literally poured green pigment into the water to make it as dense green as possible. This in turn would also project a greenish ambient light from the water.

To add to the surrealist elements, the film used an 18mm lens that is extremely wide for narrative, let alone conversational scenes. However, using such a wide angle lens distorts the face and adds an element of the surreal.

The low budget version: Adjust your camera's hue setting to add more green to the picture. Or, you can preferably add green to your composition by using post production software like Resolve.

Wide angle lenses are perfect for surreal projects. However, keep in mind that if you use a cropped camera, your lens will not appear as wide as advertised. A 17.5mm lens on a Pocket 4K is almost 35mm.

3. Uncut gemstones

Uncut Gems was Khondji's latest feature work. If you look at his IMDb, it doesn't look like we'll see another Khondji shot feature in the coming year. But there's more than enough content to its backlog to take you through a month of Darius Khondji feature films.

At Uncut Gems, we're going to deviate from picking a specific shot and instead talk about the texture of each shot, as this is quite creative and applies to all shots throughout the movie.

Uncut Gems was recorded in two different formats – digitally with the ALEXA Mini and the celluloid camera ALEXA LT & ST with 5219 negative film. The negative film was used in the daytime sequences but the mini was used for nighttime sequences. Khondji told Kodak that a creative decision had been made to highlight the grain of the film.

I don't like it when the picture is too clean as it just isn't for the purpose of storytelling and Josh and Benny agree. . . We all wanted texture from the grain. We did indoor and outdoor tests, experimented with different types of push and pull processing in the lab, and found that pushing around a stop was the formula that gave us the nicest result in terms of texture. We shot the whole film from a single source.

-Darius Khondji

Adam Sandler in uncut gemstonesThe grainy aspect of the film added to the main character's static lifestyle. Image via A24.

Moving the daylight film up one level will spread the grain more widely in daylight and encourage the underground rawness that story chases after. Even so, there would be a problem with such clean ALEXA images. So the ISO was increased to 1600, a notch faster than the ARRI recommended 800. This brought out the night landscape and also increased the sensor noise.

However, to blend the sensor noise and film grain seamlessly, grain was added to the ALEXA film material from the exposed 5219 film. In night sequences, the grain would subtly transform the background scenes.

The low budget version: If you increase the ISO from the manufacturer's base ISO, sensor noise occurs. Consumer cameras don't look as organic or smooth as the noise of an ALEXA. Therefore, if you intend to increase the ISO to emphasize the graininess of your image, it is a good idea to test extensively beforehand to see how detrimental the increase in ISO can be.

4. The lost city of Z.

The Lost City of Z could be one of the most criminally underrated films in recent years. It is Khondji's second collaboration with James Gray that received widespread recognition but underperformed at the box office with just $ 19 million in returns on a budget of $ 30 million. Apart from the fact that the film takes place in the Amazon jungle, the film is (of course) beautifully shot with many outstanding sequences.

The shot I'm going to talk about in this section is from the last sequence of the film and is spoiler-heavy. Please skip this if you want to see the film.

Spoiler!

In the final sequence, both Percy Fawcett and his son Jack are captured by the natives. It's a breathtakingly beautiful scene. The character knows that this will be the last time he will be with his son and that his final moments will be alive. He gives his son knowledge, wisdom and hope in his last seconds. In cinematography this is reflected visually as the only light source is fire. There is only fire and darkness.

Illumination in the lost city of Z.The only source of light in the final scene came from the actor's torches. Image via Amazon Studios.

There is no overhead lighting or backlighting to bring the characters out of the dark, and indeed there should be. In the book conversations with Darius Khondji, he states that the local authorities would build a road to the place so that the filmmakers could transport a crane and light the background. Closer to the shoot, however, they found that they couldn't build the road anymore, and instead the entire scene is naturally lit.

Not only did Khondji have to set fires everywhere – along the paths, the water, and in the hills – he also had to push the film two stops and keep the opening wide open.

The low budget version: If you only want to film with practical light at night, you need a lens with a very fast aperture such as f / 1.8 or f / 1.4. Also, you need to increase the ISO. If your camera's base ISO is 800, turn it up to 3200.

5. Se7en

Ok, I know there are many movies from Darius Khondji's impressive résumé, but I want to come back to Se7en for one more take. So many shots in Se7en like this one are only touched by light instead of being illuminated with some form of directional light. While there are some practical aspects to the scene, there isn't a general sense of enlightenment directed at Freeman, and so is Khondji in the book Conversations with Darius Khondji.

Morgan Freeman in Se7enStrategically placed light sources create a threatening ambience. Image via New Line Cinema.

I would say that for the most part I like to use what I call the "remnants" of light – not the direct and strongest parts of the light, but rather the last vestiges of it. So I use these gigantic lights to light up a scene, but the light I actually end up photographing is much less powerful. Usually my lens is open at f / 1.4 or f / 2.8 because while they use big lights they are either very far away or hit a large screen that is broken up by some layers of diffusion.

-Darius Khondji

It's also important to note that he doesn't use fill light when shooting digitally, but when he does (or shoots movies) it would only ever be done from a 30 degree angle to the main light. While we usually expect the fill light to be on the opposite side of the key, it is 2-3 stops less than the key. In thrillers, the fill is a top light sometimes, and that's what we can often see in Se7en – the remnants of the light.

The low budget version: Instead of a directional and hard light, use a lot of bounce light and do not use a fill light to imitate a high-contrast dark image.

If you want an incredibly insightful look at Darius Khondji's career, be sure to check out Conversations with Darius Khondji.

Cover picture via New Line Cinema.

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