Linus Sandgren

Released this last December, the Lionsgate musical La La Land has gone on to gross more than $340 million, eleven times its original budget of $30 million. Securing not only seven Golden Globe wins, one for every single nomination that the film received, La La Land is also currently tied with Titanic for most Academy Award nominations ever, including a nod for Best Cinematography for DoP Linus Sandgren, FSF, as well as Best Actress and Best Actor for stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.

They decided that the aesthetics of the film were going to be inspired not just by the romanticism of classic Hollywood but also the techniques and classic lighting.

Fresh from the highly esteemed drama Whiplash, director Damien Chazelle caught Linus Sandgren’s freeflowing, intrinsic camerawork in the David O Russell films Joy and American Hustle. Already in the midst of preparations for the dance numbers with choreographer Mandy Moore, he met with the cinematographer and immediately brought him onto the project. Sandgren had also been quite impressed by Whiplash, and was very enthusiastic to work with the director. “The first meeting, we discussed a lot about the colors and the look of Los Angeles, being sort of a character itself,” explains Sandgren, “The romantic part of old Hollywood was a big influence for the film. And in those discussions, we connected, and had a very similar view.” They decided that the aesthetics of the film were going to be inspired not just by the romanticism of classic Hollywood but also the techniques and classic lighting.

“They made everything in-camera back then,” he explains. “There’s always a risk shooting greenscreen that those things are going to look fake, and we decided that even if there were going to be any visual effects, they would be glass paintings on set. it was an approach to try to give authenticity to the footage. I think that the more you capture in-camera, the more the audience will feel it’s real.” Opening with what appears to be a seamless single take that lasts nearly five minutes, for example, Sandgren sets the stage in La La Land with a masterful dance sequence that required shutting down both the north- and southbound 110 Highway in Los Angeles. Shooting the extended dance sequence at the location, largely in natural light, Sandgren faced a number of limitations like shifting shadows and a massive concrete median that restricted his camera and crane movements.

“The opening number,” Sandgren continues, “is all real, but we couldn’t do it in one single take. There are so many factors when you shoot any scene, but in this case, we had to shoot it on a crane when we had thought we were going to shoot on Steadicam originally. Because of the location and its many obstacles, like the median in the middle, we had to go to a crane setup. But the crane casts shadows, so if we did that all in one long, single take, that there would have been shadowing of the dancers. We already had two whip pans in the choreography, and in those two 180-degree pans, we did a quick cut during each. It’s a classic effect, as well.”

“The opening number,” Sandgren continues, “is all real, but we couldn’t do it in one single take.”

“We shot the entire final sequence between 7:20 and 7:40 in the evening.”

Sandgren said they had a similar approach to shooting the now iconic dance scene on Mulholland Drive. “That had to be shot in the magic hour,” he says, “within a twenty minute timeframe, and Damien didn’t want to have anything to cut away to at all. He wanted it to be in one single take. So we had to rehearse everything, a lot, and play it risky in the moment. We had rehearsed for days before using iPhones and stuff, but for that particular scene we rehearsed with crane and camera and dancers the entire day, and then we started shooting. We shot the entire final sequence between 7:20 and 7:40 in the evening.”

There was a lot of location work on La La Land, like the Mulholland and 110 sequences, and Sandgren’s camera acted in many ways as a dancer itself, fluidly following and interjecting its own choreographed movements, often with Sandgren on Steadicam. He also chose to light very intimately, employing classic Hollywood lighting techniques like spotlights, which helped him to separate characters from the background and also acted as a visual metaphor for the hopes, dreams and aspirations of the main characters, largely actors and musicians trying to make it big in Los Angeles.

“We create the spotlight on them and all the light dims away,” he says, metaphorically, “and it becomes  between us, the viewers, and the character. The camera was supposed to react emotionally, and engage the audience with visual storytelling that is also emotional. The camera also had to be a bit of a musical instrument, because we didn’t want to just shoot it, but actually shoot in a way that the camera moved along, landing on a beat, and moving away again, or raising up with the frame to the music.”

“We had planned this all out, but when we shot, it was really hard to actually nail those rhythms,” Sandgren laughs, “because, the crane doesn’t always move as quickly as it needs to, or it’s hard to change direction on a crane or camera while it’s already in motion. When the camera follows Emma into the Hollywood party, for example, she walks out towards a swimming pool, and we’re following her while the tempo increases. I have one exact beat where the stuntman is supposed to do a flip from the roof and land in the water. Then the camera had to land at the same time in the water, and each time, either the stuntman, or the camera, was never on beat. Sometimes it was quite frustrating. Those kind of obstacles throughout the shoot were, I think, the more tricky ones to deal with, and we had to trust our ability to get there eventually.”

“Sometimes it was quite frustrating. Those kind of obstacles throughout the shoot were, I think, the more tricky ones to deal with, and we had to trust our ability to get there eventually.”

Sandgren has shot several music videos, but as his first musical, he admits that the learning curve was one of the reasons that he was so intrigued in shooting La La Land with Chazelle. The director had an entire library of musicals that they looked to for inspiration, and the team chose to shoot Kodak 5219 500T and Kodak 5207 250D for daytime exteriors, filmming with the Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2 camera and classic Panavision C-Series anamorphics and Panavision E-Series lenses.

“What we took from those musicals a lot, visually, was the aesthetics of old Hollywood,” he says. “I think what we really aimed for was to try to achieve that technicolor look in camera. And Hollywood, for us, was also a very anamorphic medium, with films from the fifties like a Star is Born and wide-screening format in 2.55:1 CinemaScope. That was more important to us than more well-known musicals, like, Singing in the Rain, which is actually a 4:3 aspect ratio.”

Sandgren also used color not only as a throwback to the halcyon days of monochromatic dance numbers, but also as a way to remove the subjects visually from the background, and even to separate sets, as he did with a frenetic dance number featuring Emma Stone and her friends as they are getting ready for the same pool party in the Hollywood Hills.

Sandgren says that he and Chazelle would collaborate on each scene with Mary Zophres, the costume designer, and David Wasco and Sandy Wasco, the production designer and set decorator, to decide what is important to each sequence, and whether or not color decisions would fall to set design, like backdrop, or to lighting and costume design.

“Shooting so much on location,” he laughs, “we would decide on a location, and then look at it and say, ‘How can we make this look like it’s all shot on a backlot (laughs)’. So we would add gas streetlights, or we would light to be a little more theatrical. We tried to hide the reality by creating an homage to romantic Hollywood movies.”

“Generally, the night exteriors, and club interiors,” he continues, “used more colorful lighting, but otherwise day exteriors, and brighter day interiors were color schemes that came from the art department. Sometimes we also lit the background with the same or similar colors that we painted the backgrounds with. Damien really wanted this film to feel like Los Angeles was quite blue, as well. And you have the sodium vapor and mercury vapor streetlights, where the sodium vapor are orange and the mercury vapor are more green/blue or cyan. So we decided instead of doing, like, blue moonlight, which perhaps would have been used in an old Hollywood movie, we felt that we wanted to define Los Angeles as a mercury-vapor night rather than a sodium-vapor environment. We felt like mercury-vapor has a tendency to match better to blue, so pinks, in contrast, create a more romantic feel, too.”

“So we used those mercury-vapor street light colors, but we put them inside things like the gas lights that we used for dressing the exterior sets. Like on the pier, those gas lights don’t exist at Hermosa Beach, but we added them to get a more a timeless feel to the pier, as well as a more romantic color palette against the pink sky. We’d also cool with green/blue lights in general, so the colors would burst over the natural urban colors of the city. The style of the lighting helped to make it all more theatrical, as well.”

Sandgren says he utilized a number of light systems, preferring a lot of single point sources like 6K HMI, to make the city scenes seem a little gritty with a enhanced contrast, as well as large overhead Condors for diffusely lit street scenes. He would then enhance this main source of light through complementary or contrasting colors via lighting. For the aforementioned Mulholland dance scene, for example, he had a huge truck loaded with fifteen 6K HMI units enhanced with green gels to give backlight while Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are walking up the street to the Mulholland dance number. Two Condors with daylight-colored LEDs were used above and channeled through green-gelled softboxes.

“Throughout the film we used essentially green to add to daylight lights,” he says, “to shift for nighttime scenics to make the skies more pink, and to maintain that palette of cyans, and blues, and pinks.” He also thanks the film stock and camera choice for such wonderful color saturation. He laughs that shooting film over digital was no extra challenge for him. “I know I will get something in camera that has captured a richer world.”

“For example,” he says, “cyans are really prominent on a film negative, while on a digital camera, you have to add a lot more color to the lighting to get those colors, if you can even get them. Even in the subtle use of palettes, certain color tones, like shades of green, are just so rich with film, so I felt like it was a better opportunity to shoot with film. It gives me a richer negative with more color and saturation. That way, in the DI (digital intermediate), you don’t have to add more saturation. Otherwise, shooting digitally, you may have to key colors and try to pull more out of them.”

For interiors, lighting differed by scene, but Sandgren tried to stay naturalistic. He says that he always uses a lot of practicals within a scene to give a source for colors and shadowing, even if they’re not adding any useful light to a scene. “Like the Italian restaurant where Ryan Gosling plays piano,” he says, “That was meant to feel like a cozy, Italian restaurant where people don’t really speak loudly. The palette is largely golden colors, so we worked a lot with practicals there, using cool-white behind the bar to give contrast to the golds and reds. The same with the kitchen, we used cool white colors to contrast against the gold. I love to have a contrasting color. If you don’t have a contrasting color, you can get a little too muddy with smaller lights or practicals. Cyan’s kind of nice to counter with some reds, for instance.”

The production also worked with covered wagons, strips of lights that are diffused with silks, most often placed on the floors or hidden from beneath. For overhead lighting in the club, they had an LED blanket light that was daylight but balanced to 4000K, near tungsten, to match the nighttime atmosphere, as well as to act as a dimmable spot light that would launch a piano sequence. Most of these dimming effects were performed manually, as well. The production had four electricians just for the dimmers. Even doing complicated light gags in a later movie theater sequence required grips and electricians physically creating shadows in front of the light sources.

“I like to work simply,” Sandgren says, “as simple as possible! I’m using a lot of practicals, but the practicals are more there to give set decoration and a little more glow to a scene, and then from there you work in a little more lighting, but I don’t like too much light. I always feel like you should start with one light and see what you get. Perhaps that is enough, you never know!”