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Edward Lachman, ASC, Develops the Visual Language for ‘Wonderstruck’

Todd Haynes' "Wonderstruck," based on the illustrated novel by Brian Selznick, is structurally complex but designed to be appreciated by children and adults alike.

Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck, based on the illustrated novel by Brian Selznick, is structurally complex but designed to be appreciated by children and adults alike. That isn’t as strange as it might sound. Haynes’ films for adults—acclaimed features such as Carol and Far From Heaven—are built on an enormous amount of thought and stand up to multiple levels of deconstruction, but ultimately they move audiences on an emotional level.

For Wonderstruck, “Todd has honored the imagination and intelligence of children,” says his longtime collaborator, cinematographer Edward Lachman, ASC. “He saw the book as an immensely cinematic idea that offered a chance to do something nuanced and mature for kids.”

Millicent Simmonds as Rose

The narrative is structured with two storylines paralleling each other, causing audiences to wonder how these events, set 50 years apart, are connected. Wonderstruck moves back and forth between the stories of two 12 year olds: Ben (Oakes Fegley), who we meet in the early 1970s, and Rose (Millicent Simmonds), who we find in the late 1920s.

Each of these story threads is presented in a completely different style, and the narrative only comes together in the last act. The film pulls viewers forward emotionally and thematically: Both children have run away to New York City and both are deaf—Rose was born without the ability to hear and Ben loses his hearing at the start of the film through a freak accident.

Oakes Fegley as Ben

The movie cuts between the two, each on a journey to New York City, far away from home. The stories look as if they belong in completely different films: Rose’s world is portrayed in black and white and in the style of the late 1920s silent era, giving us a subjective feeling of her soundless world, whereas Ben, a child who becomes deaf early in the film, primarily inhabits an environment infused with the saturated colors and camera style of urban reality as depicted in the films of the era his story is set in, early 1970s films shot in New York such as The French Connection and Midnight Cowboy.

“Todd always makes a look book that illustrates his ideas, which include the politics, the history, the demographics, the art, the cinema language of the time periods,” says Lachman. “For me, that really creates the emotional structure of a film. The looks he was after were about more than just reflecting the film styles of these two periods; his idea was to use those styles as a way of presenting the two children’s subjective states. Rose has always been deaf ,and the idea was to place her in a world that was designed for purely visual storytelling of silent period cinema—the balanced formalism of the silent screen period.”

From left, Edward Lachman, Todd Haynes and Craig Haagenson

Ben is in a different situation, more isolated because sound was part of his world until the accident, and the filmmakers used some of the techniques of the 1970s urban street dramas to underscore that feeling. Lachman reached out to Owen Roizman, ASC, who shot The French Connection to enquire about some of the ways worked on that film. “A lot of the ’70s portion was shot on long lenses with tracking shots of Ben walking through the streets of New York,” Lachman explains. “Owen said they used a lot of Western dollies instead of laying track. We wanted to create that same feeling of fluidity of movement and we also shot handheld from Western dollies and we built what we called a rickshaw dolly, out of a wheelchair, for shots in streets.”

Lachman also shot these portions on long lenses and overcranked slightly to help remove Ben from the objective experience of the hearing world and provide a sense of isolation and unease. Anyone who saw Midnight Cowboy can probably summon up any number of cinematographer Adam Holender’s shots of Jon Voight as Joe Buck and Dusting Hoffman as Ratso Rizzo traversing the streets of New York among a sea of unfriendly pedestrians.

“We wanted the saturation of colors and the mixed color temperatures you think of in images on real locations of the time. I looked at a lot of still photographers of the time, such as Richard Misrach, Joel Meyerowitz, Joel Sternfeld, and of course William Eggleston, and a photographer we reference in both Mildred Pierce and Carol: Saul Leiter. These people were experimenting with color. They were playing with color temperature and street photography in their art photography.”

As is customary on Lachman and Haynes co-productions, the production embraced old-school techniques, rather than newer digital technology, wherever possible. “We tried to be true to the cinematography tools of the time for the 1920s, so I used my older Cooke Speed Panchro prime lenses and Angenieux zooms, which could have been used back then,” says Lachman, who shot the majority of Wonderstruck on an ARRICAM Studio in 3-perf format. “I spoke to people at Angenieux and they told me that the glass in those older zooms had more lead in them, and that possibly gave a different feeling to the contrast and overall look of the image. I also used my Canon K-35 primes that were also made around that time and had a tendency to flare and affect a color shift.”

Despite practical limitations (there was no longer a working film lab in New York), Lachman and Haynes still chose to shoot on film. The cinematographer used Kodak Vision 3 500T and 250D stocks to capture the ethos of Ben’s era. “I tried to emulate by pushing the modern T-grain stock a stop and a half, and shifting the color temperature of the stocks, sometimes shooting tungsten film outdoors with an 85c filter, or using the 250D indoors under mixed lighting without correction.”

Even more unusual, they shot Rose’s black-and-white portions on true black-and-white film stock. “I know that a lot of cinematographers have shot on color film or used digital cameras and then made the images monochrome in post, but I learned on I’m Not There”—the 2007 exploration of Bob Dylan, also directed by Haynes“that the exposure latitude, contrast and grain structure of real black-and-white negative is totally different and we wanted the texture of what film would have looked like back then. Kodak has taken Plus-X out of its catalog, but Double-X is still in there and I got them to make enough for me to shoot with.” Beyond that, he also emulated the look of late ’20s cinema using a more direct hard lighting.

Haynes staged a scene of a movie-within-the movie—a drama reminiscent of Swedish director Victor Sjöström’s silent classic, The Wind. For these shots, Matt Kolze, technical marketing executive at ARRI Service Center in Secaucus, NJ, built a specialized optic for the production using of a four-decades-old Zeiss 50mm macro, machining an extension in order to retrofit an aspherical element on top of that lens to create what Kolze calls a ‘tintype’ lens for characteristics it shares with the late 19th century photographic process, which reads as clear in the center with contrast and resolution falling away on the sides.

Wonderstruck‘s narrative and thematic elements coalesce towards the end, when Ben and Rose’s stories merge in revelations about his father’s identity and his connection to a particular exhibit in New York’s Museum of Natural History. A number of scenes are set inside that museum. It was here that practical considerations drove Lachman’s choice to shoot digitally.

“In the museum,” he explains, “we had incredible time restraints because we had to go in every night and come out in the morning with all our equipment so we were very limited in what we could bring in. I shot tests on 5219, pushed both a stop and a stop and a half, and I could have shot in there, but we made a decision finally to shoot digitally with the Alexa Mini,” capturing in-camera to ProRes 4:2:2 Log-C at EI 1280 with the same K-35 Canon primes he used for much of the 1970s portions.

The film’s narrative, set in multiple eras and told through different styles, might suggest a work aimed an audience of sophisticated film historians rather than kids, but Haynes, Lachman notes, had faith in the younger audience and he screened it for audiences of children. “He tested with different age groups around 8 to 15,” Lachman recalls, “and they gave back informative notes and constructive feedback.”

“Todd said to me, ‘In our age of comic book franchises, a lot of [adults] utterly discard the plausibility of the world of complete fantasy and science fiction that a movie can have. In any movie, you can see it’s a work of imagination, but our film even begins with a child’s dream, which provides urgency to the narrative. The heart of the film is how children access their imagination, be it through hearing or deafness, and the children who have seen it so far have encouragingly embraced it.”

Wonderstruck will be available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video January 19.