Understanding the Cinematography of Hoyte Van Hoytema

Hoyte Van Hoytema is one of the most popular contemporary cinematographers. I go through some of his cinematography lighting and camera techniques to help you understand his unique style.

Just to be clear: Hoyte Van Hoytema 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 Hoyte Van Hoytema:

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The Hoyte Van Hoytema Style

It is amazing to hear in Hoytema’s own words his transition from an arrogant person whom people couldn’t stand on set to a down-to-earth and brilliant cinematographer.

It is an excellent lesson for the young cinematographer. It is critical to be humble and have a thirst for knowledge. That’s the Hoytema style. He’s always learning and trying to improve.

Generally speaking, Hoytema prefers to have his lights at the periphery of the staging area on set – at the very least. If possible, he’ll even have the lights outside the set shining in. This is because he prefers a naturalistic lighting style that doesn’t call attention to itself.

How he lights faces

Typically due to his lighting style his actors are mostly top, front or side lit. The unique thing about his style is he doesn’t stick to a single contrast ratio.

He prefers soft light, so he needs large bounce or diffusion sources since his lights are far away from the main action. He might use a lot of lights, but that gives the actors and director freedom to move and experiment.

Cameras, formats and lenses

It is amazing how, within the span of only about 15 movies he has used:

  • Almost every camera out there – from the Alexa and Red (digital) to Arri, Panavision and the Aaton Penelope (film) to IMAX (film)
  • All the major brands of lenses – Zeiss, Arri, Cooke, Angenieux, Canon and even Mamiya (this last for IMAX)
  • Both kinds of film stock, Fuji and Kodak, and also two formats – 35mm and 65mm IMAX.
  • Different aspect ratios

Terms and equipment mentioned in the video

For diffusion, he uses Light Grids or Full Grids. For exterior bounce he uses the ever-popular Ultrabounce.

He shoots in studios with Translights and has also used Front Projection in movies like Interstellar.

He typically sticks to an ND filter. He also uses Plus Green, Minus Green, CTO and CTB gels to add splashes of color.

For exterior bounce or push through, he uses one or more 18K Arrimax fixtures to create interest. He has said the 18K Arrimax is his favorite source for this.

His favorite focal length is the 35mm (which equates to 50mm on a full frame DSLR).

Comparisons with others

It is extremely unfair to compare his work to Roger Deakins’ or Wally Pfister’s. As I’ve shown in the video, when you actually cut between shots, you’ll notice his work is definitely at their level, if not better.

And it is stupid to think of cinematography in absolutes, like ‘better’ or ‘worse’. That’s for noobs and ignoramuses. The lesson serious cinematographers must take from Hoytema (a lesson he had to learn himself the hard way) is that you are only there to serve the story.

Hoyte Van Hoytema has only started his career, and I’m sure we’ll see more interesting and beautiful work soon.

I hope you’ve found this article useful. If I’ve stoked your interest in Hoyte Van Hoytema’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.

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