December 15, 2021

Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Elswit, ASC on King Richard, Nightcrawler, Boogie Nights and Magnolia

Legendary cinematographer Robert Elswit has shot a wide range of movies, including Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood- which won him the Academy Award for Best Cinematography- Magnolia, Good Night and Good Luck, Tomorrow Never Dies, The Bourne Legacy, two Mission Impossible movies, and of course Return of the Living Dead Part 2.

Robert’s latest film is King Richard, a biopic that tells the story of how Richard Williams, the father of tennis players Venus and Serena Williams, was determined to shape his daughters into champions. From the beginning, Robert and director Reinaldo Marcus Green wanted the tennis to be realistic. They watched many other tennis movies and didn’t find the speed and athleticism of the actors to be believable. They knew it was going to be tricky dealing with actors pretending to be tennis players. Fortunately, the story was about Venus and Serena developing and honing their tennis skills, so the playing didn’t have to look perfect. The matches were carefully designed around scripted beats that moved the story forward. Robert and Green decided to show only specific moments of the matches, including how Venus and Serena interacted with other players, how the parents interacted with their kids, and how Richard interacted with the coaches and his kids. They were careful in thinking about how to shoot the match, keeping it as interesting and as believable as it could be in terms of speed and athleticism but also making sure that the audience understands what is happening emotionally with the characters. For the look of King Richard, Robert chose several different types of filters and diffusion to represent the light in Compton, but didn’t use as many for Florida, so that the sun could feel more bright and harsh.

Robert’s throughline for Los Angeles for the film Nightcrawler was shooting the ribbons of freeways that run through the Valley, as the main character Louis Bloom drives around LA looking for crime as a news stringer. It was impossible to fake it with a green screen. Robert, the cast and crew had to literally drive around and shoot Los Angeles at night. They had no time or budget to light things, so they scouted locations that were already lit. He took advantage of the street lights and the ambient light from billboards and stores. This approach gave the movie its distinctly seedy look, and Robert felt it was clearly the only approach that fit the script.

You can see King Richard on HBO Max.

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