Robert Elswit is one of the most accomplished contemporary cinematographers. I go through some of his cinematography lighting and camera techniques to help you understand his unique style.

Just to be clear: Robert Elswit changes his style to suit the movies he shoots. The goal of this video and article is to drum up enthusiasm and a yearning to learn more.

Warning: I do not claim this knowledge is 100% accurate. Just think of it as an endorsement of his work. If you want accuracy, look someplace else.

Here’s the video illuminating the cinematography style of Robert Elswit:

How Robert Elswit lights faces

Robert has three lighting styles that he repeats often, with the first being the most predominant:

  • The 3/4 lighting style with a top hair light on the opposite side sometimes
  • The top front or Hollywood light, and finally
  • The rim light sandwich

Robert Elswit prefers to give his actors room to move and improvise if they so desire. This doesn’t allow for very intricate lighting patterns.

Cameras, formats and lenses

He mostly prefers the 2.39:1 aspect ratio that comes with Anamorphic, though he has shot on both 1.85:1 and 4:3 (the latter for TV).

He loves shooting anamorphic, and has religiously stuck to Panavision cameras like the Millenium, and Primo lenses – especially the anamorphics from 40 to 180mm.

He has also used other cameras from time to time, but prefers to shoot on film. He made an exception recently on the Nightcrawler though, where he shot the night scenes on an Arri Alexa.

Terms and equipment mentioned in the video

85 filter: 85 is the Wratten number for a filter that changes color temperature from 5,500 to 3,400K. This means they use a tungsten stock in daylight and use this filter on the lens so everything can match. Earlier, Anderson had rejected adding this filter, even though they shot on tungsten stock. The resulting image had to be color timed and corrected in post production.

Lower Rifa: A tungsten-halogen softbox kit that is easy to breakdown and handy on location.

Diffusion filter: Filters like ProMist and Classic Diffusion that soften the image to even out skin tones.

He bounces HMI sources ranging from 6K to 18K.

I hope you’ve found this article useful. If I’ve stoked your interest in Robert Elswit’s work, please watch the movies he shot, and read his interviews in American Cinematographer. He has also given a few interviews online, and they are definitely great motivation.

EXCLUSIVE NOTES and REWARDS:

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2 replies on “Understanding the Cinematography of Robert Elswit”

  1. Hey Sareesh,

    I was hoping to get some clarification about Elswitt’s contrast ratio. You mention at 2:37 that Elswitt lights to a contrast ratio of 2 to 1 stop or 3 to 1 stop, but the ratios look much deeper than that to me. The scene from There Will Be Blood has a huge contrast ratio – it looks like 8:1 or 16:1 for a 3 to 4 stop difference between key and shadow. Are you noting the difference in stops, or saying Elswitt typically lights to a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio?

    Great videos! Just looking for a little clarification on that part.

    Thank you!

    Marc

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