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In case you are wondering how to shoot a love story where one person never shows up on-screen the movie called Her might help you figure it out. In this post, I will try to analyze what cinematography choices were made to overcome the movie’s challenges and make this movie a big success.

Picture

The film was DPed by Hoyte Van Hoytema who might be known from films such as The Fighter and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as well as Interstellar that was released one year after Her.

The intention for Her was to create a futuristic and dreamy look of Los Angeles. Looking at the picture right off the bat we can notice quite a heavy warm color cast and low contrasty look. What I like to do is to open the frame grabs in resolve and have a look at the scopes.

Below are a few frames I copy pasted into resolve with corresponding waveform graph. The second image is my balanced version. This is another thing that I like to do. I try to “revert” the look to something more balanced and natural to really see how the look was achieved.

Comparing the two it’s quite clear that the original picture has quite a low contrast, saturation is toned down and the color temperature is boosted towards yellows.

Many of the scenes, especially the night interiors, were shot quite low. In the picture below we can see that the image is fairly dark. Looking at the second balanced picture we can see how big the difference really is.

Hoyte Van Hoytema worked with his regular Swedish colorist, Mats Holmgren. “We did a very careful and slow color grading on it,” said the DP.

Framing

Looking at the framing in Her is interesting because most of the scenes consist of just one actor. We have a lot of dialogs and there’s nobody to cut to — only one face to work off.

Here’s a sample dialog scene where we see consecutive shots:

We start from the wider shot, then we go to the medium shot and switch back and forth between different angles. Then, when the situation gets a bit more dense we have a dolly into the face to get the close-up. We cutaway twice to the kettle. The second cut away is used when the main character hears the essential part of the dialog and the kettle represents the temperature, the boiling inside his head.

As a filmmaker you can usually resort to a cutaway or a reaction from another actor, but we didn’t have that possibility.  At the same time as a cinematographer it is a pleasure to point a camera at a fantastic actor like Joaquin. He’s very giving.

In one of the interviews, the DP said that keeping the frame interesting and knowing when to cut was one of the most challenging parts of the process.

Location

The action of the movie takes place in Los Angeles but in reality some of the scenes we see in the film, especially the ones featuring skyscrapers were shot in Shanghai. We can even notice some Chinese signs throughout the film.

In Shanghai in Pudong they have these elevated walkways so you can go from building to building without ever having to cross an intersection.

Colors

Most of the scenes in the movie contain either the colors red or yellow or the combination of both. Van Hoytema said that he decided to eliminate the color blue in most of the locations. That was supposed to create a specific feel.

It's very easy to say we want everything to be warm, but what is warm? It was not only that we wanted to colors to be warm but we wanted colors to have a specific identity.

Production Design

K.K. Barrett was in charge of the production design in the film and I cannot stress enough how production design can elevate the quality of the movie. The locations, wardrobe and even subtle elements that we see in the background, they all create a consistent and very compelling image. The overall theme was inspired by Rinko Kawauchi – the Japanese photographer whose work depicts pristine moments from everyday life.

Modern is often very sleek and very stark, but we didn't really want that. Part of that vision of the future was that modern should be very soulful and warm and tactile. And I guess that's part of the reason we eliminated blue, but I don't want to make it sound like it was an intellectual reason. There was very much an intuitive drive behind it.

Gear

Van Hoytema used an ARRI Alexa to shoot this movie and it was the first feature film he shot on digital camera. This movie is another proof that we don’t need to shoot on a film to achieve a soft and dreamy look. It also proves that we don’t need 4K to capture beautiful images.

The DP used an array of glass including coating-less Cooke lenses, high-speed Zeiss lenses, and Canon zoom lenses from the 1970s, one of which was a Swedish f2.8 20mm–110mm Canon zoom.

The 35mm and 50mm Zeiss lenses allowed Van Hoytema to work in a really low light situations. The DP also mentioned that the 35mm lens is his favorite lens for close-ups. Using fairly wide angle lens for a close-up gives a very intimate feeling and enhances the overall movie theme.

Throughout the whole movie we can see shots that were made using various techniques. Most of the walks are done with steadycam, more dramatic moments were shot handheld. We can also see quite a lot of dollies, mainly to add some diversity to the single actor scenes.

Lighting

The lighting in the film is very soft and pleasing. In many scenes, it looks like it was shot with only natural light. The DP mentioned in one of the interviews:

I mostly used small LEDs, like the shot near the end where he’s standing in front of the windows — I hung an LED light box for an overall ambience, that we could also color exactly as the city appears outside. The light registers we worked at were so incredibly low and subtle, which were enabled by the camera and high-speed lenses.

The below shot is probably one my favorite ones and we can clearly see what the DP was able to achieve with the fast lenses.

CGI

Even though the movie is not loaded with special effects there are some. The airplane sculpture shown in a square outside Pacific Design Center was entirely made in CGI.

Summary

From the cinematography standpoint, I think this movie brings a few innovative ideas and the overall execution enhances the plot very well. Throughout most of the movie, we see just one and the same person on screen. Most of the dialogs are shot with just one actor. The plot is fairly simple and the picture really intensifies the emotions that the characters go through.

Watch or buy Her at iTunes or Amazon

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  • Superjab

    Great article, keep them coming

    • Thanks man, glad to hear that!

      • Superjab

        I read all your posts that talk about cinematography. I really enjoyed them.

        I am looking for a resource (like the articles you wrote) that has a more film analysis, cinematography and so on.

        Can you recommend me websites/blogs/books or something like that?

        Thank you.

        PS: For example I found this artcile and I thought you might like it too:
        http://mattscottvisuals.com/blog/2014/1/10/-what-are-you-looking-at-disecting-the-work-of-a-master

        • Matt’s blog is awesome! I’m not sure there’s anything out there as good as his breakdowns. You can check out WanderingDP podcast and website. Recently there was a series of episodes with in-depth commercial cinematography breakdown: http://wanderingdp.com/
          Thanks again for your comments!

          • Superjab

            Thank you.
            I’lll swing by again to your blog to see check out more stuff.
            Keep it coming 😉

          • Thanks. You can also subscribe to the newsletter – whenever there’s something new on the blog I will let you know!

  • Hootbilly

    Good to see someone actually demonstrating the use of scopes in analyzing the art of film.

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