How cinematographer Robert Richardson plays with light

Cinematographer Robert Richardson on working with three of the industry’s biggest filmmakers and the visual language in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

He has been shooting an ad film since daybreak in New Delhi’s blistering heat, but Robert Richardson looks fresh in formals as he steps in for his late evening interview. As he poses for the camera with his dramatic white mane, the three-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer is anything but exhausted.

“It’s been a little hot for me,” he admits with a laugh. “At 114 degrees, with no clouds. Not only that, the sun rises very rapidly this time of the year, which makes it a little more complicated to shoot a good looking face if you are trying to utilise good light,” says Richardson, known for his long collaborations with visionary directors Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone.



In fact, the veteran has been in the news for the Cannes Film Festival’s biggest première this year, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (more on that later). However, what he is referring to when we meet is his role as director of photography for the global ad campaign of vodka brand, Absolut. Titled Colourless and (the climax) shot in the capital, it is set to release later this month, and addresses racism. Richardson says he loved the idea of questioning what colour really means, asserting that we should all “be colourless”.

Light art

His sharp, lush frames with astute backlighting and a widescreen aspect ratio have lent remarkable drama to his films. But ironically for a cinematographer, Richardson’s emphasis over a four-decade career has been on doing ‘good films’ over just ‘good looking films’. To that end, his style can be fluid and unconventional to serve the vision of the director. “I’m a chameleon when I work with different directors because if a certain director doesn’t want to use a certain lighting style, and wants to work with more natural light, I go with it. For example, with Matthew Heineman, for A Private War (2018), there was no lightning at all. Even with Baltasar Kormákur’s Adrift (2018), shot in Fiji, I was walking away from the lighting.”

Colour and Tarantino

Having done six feature films with Tarantino – from Kill Bill (1 and 2) to Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight – he says his approach to filming them would change in the way the director introduced each film to him. “He will say: ‘You’re going to do a western’, or ‘you are going to do a martial arts movie’, or ‘you’re going to do a war film’, or ‘you’re going to do a period film in 1969’. Then we talk about the way Quentin wants to shoot the film. And he talks about the colour.”

KILL BILL, Uma Thurman, 2003, (c) Miramax/courtesy Everett Collection

KILL BILL, Uma Thurman, 2003, (c) Miramax/courtesy Everett Collection

Getting to the American filmmaker’s most recent film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a nostalgia-soaked period piece starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, Richardson explains, “It’s a brilliant film which is very rich in colour, with a little more grain and grittiness to it. I pushed the colour higher, I lit more in some places than I liked, so the look is in the manner of a 60s or 70s television show.” He also recalls the challenges of colour when working with 65mm lenses for Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015). “It was complicated because I had to learn the lenses and their attributes, how to turn a defect into a positive, and take care of the sharpness, the colour.”

Behind Richardson’s most challenging scenes

  • 1. Recreating the assassination of John F Kennedy for Oliver Stone’s political thriller JFK (1991) was very tough as we shot with several cameras in different formats at the same time
  • 2. The final battle sequence in Stone’s Platoon (1986) was challenging. I was very inexperienced. Light was used in bursts, specifically and sparingly for the sequence.
  • 3. Acing the concert sequences in Stone’s biographical drama The Doors (1991) was tough. They were magnificently large and very real.
  • 4. Creating a world of richly magical, golden-lit frames in Scorsese’s historical adventure drama Hugo (2011) wasn’t easy because it took a lot to get to that space.

Known to be outspoken, Richardson has often discussed his relationship with the big trio – Stone, Scorsese and Tarantino. In fact, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter a few years ago, he talked about the time when he took up a Scorsese film because a film by Stone was getting delayed. The latter saw it as a major betrayal. I bring this up. “Working with a director is like having a lover. Each one requires something unique, with a different temperament and mood,” he says. This is the same man who exited the credits of Brad Pitt starrer, World War Z, when the studio decided to release the film in 3D. ‘‘…If the studio has a right to change your things, you hope to have some artistic position to battle them,’’ he had said to IndieWire then.

For the love of Kali

Making the best of his fleeting visit to India, Richardson’s mood seems upbeat. His connection to the country goes back many decades, he says, when he first came here on his honeymoon (his first wife was born in Varanasi). Over the years, the spiritual bug bit, and now he has an altar at home, with idols of Kali and Shiva.

“I have been to India for numerous commercials, and to shoot the film Eat Pray Love. I love India. Each time I come back, India opens up to me,” he concludes.

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