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Visually dazzling
February 14, 2013
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Steven Spielberg’s longtime cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, already has won two Academy Awards for their collaborations on Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, which are considered the director’s masterpieces. Kaminski is nominated again this year for his work on Spielberg’s Lincoln, which features a signature look that they’ve captured together: a mystical sort of lighting, often streaking in from the outside and casting dramatic shafts.

Despite the hectic nature of awards season, with Lincoln up for a leading 12 Oscars at the Feb.24 ceremony, the master cinematographer was nice enough to answer our question this week: What are five of the most beautifully photographed films you’ve ever seen? Here are his picks:

The Conformist (1970)

Bernardo Bertolucci’s dramatically stylised commentary on 1930s fascism, starring Jean-Louis Trintignant of this year’s best-picture nominee Amour. Kaminski’s reason for choosing it: Use of colour and light.

In Cold Blood (1967)

Based on Truman Capote’s pioneering true-crime book about a vicious family murder that took place in a small Midwestern town. Kaminski praised its “visual metaphors.”

Citizen Kane (1941)

Well it’s ... it’s Citizen Kane. Kaminski chose it for its “angles and drama within the composition, also within the frame.”

The French Connection (1971)

 The classic crime thriller starring Gene Hackman as a detective on the trail of a major drug smuggling ring, it won five Oscars including best picture. Kaminski appreciated the film “for the action and realistic representation of New York.”

Empire of the Sun (1987)

A Spielberg movie that Kaminski didn’t shoot, actually. Allen Daviau, a previous collaborator of his in the mid-80s, received an Oscar nomination for the visually lavish film, featuring a young Christian Bale. Kaminski enjoyed its “use of colour and light.”

Associated Press
As the director of photography on many of director Steven Spielberg’s films, Janusz Kaminski created some of the most lasting and memorable images in cinema history.

Whether filming Schindler’s List (1993) in stark black-and-white, giving the film a cold documentary feel, or using nausea-inducing hand-held shots while storming the beaches of Normandy in Saving Private Ryan (1998), Kaminski had the unique gift of maintaining an air of realism, while using a wide array of washed-out colour schemes, hyperkinetic movement and other visual trickery to draw the audience into the action. A naturally gifted cinematographer, Kaminski had in inauspicious start in Hollywood, making B-movies for low-budget impresario Roger Corman, whose cookie-cutter production facility has been the proving grounds for many later A-list filmmakers. But with a great deal of resilience — and a bit of luck — Kaminski honed his craft until finally being noticed in 1993 by Spielberg.

Ever since, he developed into a multi-award winner who — in his first break with the famed director in over a decade — earned his fourth Academy Award nomination for his work on The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), adding further proof that Kaminski was the finest cinematographer of his generation.

Kaminski was born on June 27, 1959 and raised in Wroclaw, Poland, a fairly large metropolis neatly tucked behind the Iron Curtain. The only child of a housewife and factory worker, Kaminski grew up with a passion for watching movies — though at the time, he never considered working in film as a possible career.

Thanks to the slightly liberal attitude of Poland’s censors, he was exposed to American films like Vanishing Point (1971) and the music of Pink Floyd, fuelling his desire for a more free society and a place to buy a new pair of jeans. By the time he reached high school age, he knew that the creative life was for him. In 1980, he joined an amateur filmmaking club that travelled to Greece on vacation under the pretence of filming a documentary.

Instead, Kaminski met an expatriate from Poland who offered to help him and his friends emmigrate to the United States. Kaminski agreed and was given the name of a contact in Vienna, Austria, where he spent the next six months waiting for his papers to come through.

With visions of blue jeans dancing in his head, Kaminski flew first to New York, then to Chicago, possessing little money and no English. While he enrolled in school to learn the language, he landed a job as a machine operator at a playing card factory for three months, until he was fired to make way for a fresh set of immigrants. He began working at a Sears & Roebuck warehouse, then was fired once again. Frustrated by the prospect of working at a factory the rest of his life, Kaminski enrolled in the film programme at Columbia College, where he quickly established himself as the go-to guy for photography.

After graduating in 1987, he moved to Los Angeles, CA, where he landed a fellowship in the cinematography programme at the American Film Institute. But instead of delving back into studying his craft, Kaminski instead pounded the pavement in search of work, blind calling production companies for job openings. He eventually landed his first professional gig with B-movie impresario Roger Corman as the second unit director of photography on the forgettable thriller, Streets (1990).

Kaminski continued to help Corman churn out low-budget schlock, graduating to first unit director of photography on The Rain Killer (1990) and The Terror Within II (1991).

Thanks to his quickly growing resume and reputation as a quality cinematographer, director Steven Spielberg took notice and hired him to shoot Class of ‘61 (ABC, 1993). At the time, Kaminski was aware that Spielberg — who served as executive producer on the TV movie — was testing the DP for bigger and better things. Kaminski passed with flying colours, of course, leading Spielberg to hire him for Schindler’s List (1993) and the rest is history.

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