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‘The Monuments Men’ DP Phedon Papamichael: Mystery and History

This has been a very productive year for cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, ASC. He’s up for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography for his work on Alexander Payne’s black-and-white road picture Nebraska, and he followed that up with George Clooney’s World War II adventure The Monuments Men. The former is inspired by the stark monochrome of The Last Picture Show and the latter by the colorful spirit of The Great Escape. Together, the two offer an excellent illustration of Papamichael’s versatility.

Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban, right) and Richard Campbell (Bill Murray) collect their care packages in Columbia Pictures’

The Momuments Men

. Photo by Claudette Barius.

You did the two films back-to-back, right?

Phedon Papamichael: Yes. I flew from Omaha to Berlin with my same winter gear. We had a long prep, so I had time to wrap my head around a whole new visual storytelling mode. You definitely think differently if you’re lighting Cate Blanchett in Monuments Men versus Bruce Dern in Nebraska, but there were also some similarities on the two films. George works similarly to Alexander. They both like to keep it simple and concentrate on the characters. The Monuments Men is character-driven. There are big battle scenes with tanks—although they cut a lot of that out of the final film—but there are also quite a few intimate scenes in tents and apartments.

You shot parts on film and other parts with ARRI Alexas?

That’s right. I knew we could achieve all the rich tonalities we could want—rich blacks and great skin tones—with the Alexa, but I also like film and George likes film. He insisted on shooting film for The Ides of March. We had a lot of day exteriors with snow and white skies and smoke on Monuments Men and we knew we could still shoot film and process it at the ARRI lab in Germany, so we shot all the daylight portions on Kodak 5219 [500T].

Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas, left) and Stokes (George Clooney) examine works of art in The Monuments Men. Photo by Claudette Barius.

But for dimly lit interiors it was very helpful to have the Alexa. I rated it at [EI] 800 and it handled shadow detail very well, as I knew it would. In post, we matched the texture and grain of the film to the Alexa sequences. That worked very well. We did something similar on Nebraska, which I also shot with the Alexa. We created special LUTs [lookup tables] to give the material the look and grain and response of Kodak’s Double-X film stock.

TheMonuments Men is ultimately about the importance of art to civilization. Did that affect how you approached the cinematography?

It crept into the style. We didn’t go in with that intent. We wanted to create maybe a grittier, more realistic world, but you can’t help but be inspired by the beautiful art and the candlelit cathedrals and museums. It did influence how we composed and lit.

That happens to me a lot. I try to keep an open mind, to not to go into a project with too many preconceived ideas. I prepared, of course, but ultimately I wanted to let my instinct guide what the photography should look like.