22 June 2019

The Lord of Light: Robert Richardson

A short Q&A with renowned cinematographer Robert Richardson, for India Today

Photo credit: Yasir Iqbal, India Today

Robert Richardson, 63, has won the Academy Award for cinematography three times, for JFK (1991), The Aviator (2004) and Hugo (2011). He received a Lifetime Achievement award from the American Society of Cinematographers in March. We caught up with him on a brief visit to Delhi. 

Q: You’ve been a cinematographer for nearly four decades. The technology has changed a fair bit. Has what makes a good cinematographer changed? 
The techniques have changed. The speed of film altered first. In the studio system, with highlighting, to trying to do no lighting, yet having slow speed so you had to do lighting. And then you moved into digital, which had a higher speed, so lighting started to disappear altogether. It’s more about shading than lighting. Composition altered. You got the handheld shot. All changes created by technology.

Q. Almost all ‘films’ are now shot in the digital format. Do you see this more as a loss or a gain?
I could take both those perspectives. Film has been developed for years as a way to capture human skin tone more naturally. It has a softer resonance. But digital’s moving into a larger space of comfort, a wider range of capture. Also, you have to use less light to achieve the look.

Q. So would one argument for the digital format be about being closer to life, more natural? 
That’s where they’ve gone. But, in a film, you’re telling a story. Even a writer can’t do that in a ‘natural’ manner. Why should a cinematographer?

Q. You’ve had close working partnerships with great directors like Oliver Stone, Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. Have you ever been tempted to direct? 
I’ve been tempted. But it didn’t fall into the well.

Q. Do you have a favourite film among your own? 

I can never do the favourite film thing! There’s films I don’t like. But the ones I do love, all happened for different reasons: Salvador was my first film, Platoon my most emotional, JFK was what I wanted to move forward to. Between The Aviator and A Private War, how can one be judged better?

Q. You’ve often shot on a grand scale, but you became a cinematographer after watching more intimate work: Sven Nyqvist on Ingmar Bergman’s films, and Nestor Almendros on Eric Rohmer’s films. Does scale matter to you, personally?
Scale is a complicated thing. When you do something on a very large scale, say, a tentpole film like World War Z, that has a more commercial aspect: you have to move within studio requirements. But with, say, A Private War, or Wall Street, the studio makes no demands. A powerful director who can keep control, that’s more important than a film’s scale.

Q. What’s it like to shoot in India? 
I have shot here before. Eat, Pray, Love, and commercials: Microsoft, and now Absolut. Today was 114 degrees F! But I love the concern, the movement. It’s chaotic. The chaos is what’s beautiful.

Published in India Today, 24 June 2019 issue.

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