Nykvist’s natural and minimalistic approach to cinematography should be studied by every filmmaker, period.
…because the award-winning cinematographer adapts his style to the creative vision of great directors. It’s not just that Robert Richardson is the go to collaborator for someone like Martin Scorsese, but that he can shoot films as visually diverse as "Casino" and "Hugo." A pragmatist and artist, Richardson has captured amazing images in color, black-and-white, digital, 3D and – either the white whale or holy grail of formats – Ultra Panavision 70. Despite his ability to work in so many different visual modes, Richardson’s expressive use of lighting has become his trademark as a cinematographer.
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Being asked to work on multiple films by the same director is perhaps the highest compliment any cinematographer can receive (yeah, okay, there are the Oscars, but Richardson has three of those little gold suckers too). Filmmakers like Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino have repeatedly collaborated with Richardson to bring their artistic visions to the screen. He shot Stone’s first eleven features – or, as some people call them, the interesting ones – including the groundbreaking visuals of "JFK" and "Natural Born Killers." His work with Scorsese has ranged from the gritty urban look of (one of the very few underrated Scorsese films) "Bringing Out the Dead" to the sumptuous color and Méliès-inspired 3D photography of "Hugo." Richardson’s work with Tarantino not only began after the auteur had firmly established himself as cinema’s greatest wild man, but also when Tarantino’s unique style achieved visual maturity. Despite all the accolades and awesome films Richardson has shot, the true sign of his professionalism and dedication to his craft is that, even at his status, he still prefers to operate the camera himself.
Unlike his teacher Sven Nykvist, Richardson is not a pure advocate of natural and motivated light sources. For Richardson, the story and expressive mood of the scene dictates how the lighting functions, as opposed to, you know, physics, realism or a brooding Scandinavian mindset. So long as the director feels it fits the creative vision, Richardson takes no issue with amplifying the lighting for dramatic purposes. In fact, his signature lighting style is the use of strong overhead lighting, sometimes referred to as a hot rim light. This technique, which is probably not recommended for amateurs, produces a jarring, intense effect on actors in the foreground of the shot. Richardson is skilled enough that he can even overexpose the actors to lighting in this way, which also speaks to his skill in symmetric shot composition.
Although he has his visual trademarks, Richardson’s diverse visual styles and differing formats set him apart from even his most impressive peers. Sure, this partly results from working with directors who like to experiment, but again, there’s a reason they call Richardson when they do. Richardson carefully selects his equipment to achieve a unique look on every project. Particularly on period pieces, he will use older film stock and lenses to capture the correct visual vocabulary of the time. This is perhaps most evident in his work for Tarantino’s "The Hateful Eight," which became just the eleventh film shot on the Ultra Panavision 70. Richardson filmed on 65mm film with 50-year old lenses to present a widescreen format that’s extreme even for most 70mm projectors. For a project like "Hugo," which Richardson filmed in 3D, he implemented an autochrome palette to draw on the visual style of Georges Méliès, a character in the movie. He also studied the history of 3D movies, from some early experiments by the Lumière brothers to "Avatar." This blend of practicality and artistry make Richardson one of the more intriguing cinematographers to study.
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