It’s difficult to find a picture of Andrew Lesnie online where he’s not smiling. It’s not exactly a shocker that he’s beaming in photos where he’s holding his Oscar, but on set, next to cameras, lining up shots, staring down Orcs, in candid conversations with directors, he’s always, always smiling.
Lesnie might not be a household name, but he’s one of the filmmakers responsible for allowing us to visit Middle-Earth. That alone is incredible. An effort of astounding talent and dedication. It’s common to think that our imaginations will always be able to outdo what movies can show us, but Lesnie’s shots almost always made you rethink that truism.
The 59-year-old DP died yesterday of a heart attack. He leaves behind a huge body of phenomenal work – images that snatched us from dusty theater seats and dropped us right into the middle of wondrous places. Lands where dinosaurs battled with King Kong, lands where a brave Hobbit carried a weighty burden across the world to stop evil, lands where pigs could talk.
In his honor, let’s take a look at some of the outstanding sequences that he captured.
There are at least three common themes running throughout many of these shots. The first might be the most obvious: how many times Lesnie was challenged to account for non-human elements. The fact that Babe — a movie featuring dozens of talking animals – never felt cartoonish is due in large part to his vision. The sun is shining, it feels natural, but there’s still a hint of the miraculous in the air.
It’s also notable to check out how he singles out certain characters here. First, Babe is singled out in his own close-up. Then Arthur, then the ridiculing judge, then Esme. All of these shots are given greater importance because they’re framed by large crowds. That run up the judges’ table is especially nice.
The second theme that emerges in a lot of these scenes is a balance between universal responses and intimate moments. A huge crowd leaping to its feet, and a sweet woman’s face as she breaks into happy tears. The broad made intimate.
Here’s another example of that. Lesnie adds to the characters by how he positions them: following Boromir as he paces, placing Frodo off-center even in close-up, zooming in on Elrond to get our attention before zooming back out to put emphasis the group nature of the solution needed to destroy the ring.
Oh, and that shot of the ring where we creep up the side of the pillar to find it staring back at us? Has jewelry ever been that dramatic? It’s like we’re small children standing on tip toes to see what the adults are all puzzling over around the kitchen table.
The third theme: how often action elements are allowed to play out in frame without any real need for quick edits or shaky camera work to manufacture chaos. It’s wonderfully impressive.
There are dozens of creatures filling the screen to create parallax, and by holding the shot steady we get to, how novel, actually see what the hell is going on. Add a hero shot mic drop at the end, and you’re in business.
(And watch how much action is still taking place a hundred yards behind Gimli when he barks that button line.)
Stanley Tucci is double plus creepy as George Harvey in this scene, but notice how small and vulnerable the camera makes Susie Salmon. Lesnie spun the camera as Harvey’s hand went for the Coke, and left it static while the dirty toy dog’s head bobbled. Then we get onto Susie’s level, and she looks absolutely dwarfed. Harvey looks twice as tall as she does.
We’re also looking through both characters’ levels: looking down on her, looking up at him.
I love everything about this sequence. Neville is isolated in the museum, and the camera pulls out even further. Not drastically, but enough that you feel it.
Then our field of view is restricted in the SUV even when we know something potentially dangerous is about to happen. That’s followed by Dutch angles of Neville as he goes a little crazy, and it builds to Neville being caught in a trap.
The final image is a column comprised of the trap’s metal hook, Neville and his barking dog Samantha (who may or may not have been planning a surprise party).
More gorgeous chaos. Another balancing act of crowds and isolated figures, as well as a vibrant slow motion segment that’s both fearful and absurd. Another case of creating dynamic movement with animals and CGI.
If there’s a fourth theme emerging, it’s how epic Lesnie was able to make everything. It’s arguable that the climax of Babe is as large-feeling as the death of Smaug, and both sequences feature a similar formula of shots. Close-ups that give us the towering importance of The Final Arrow, sweeping environmental shots to widen our sense of scope/stakes, and a thrilling sense of triumph when the foolishly brave hero completes the task.
Epic. See also: Escaping Moria, Battle of Helm’s Deep, the entire runtime of the Lord of the Rings movies. Lesnie made some genuinely massive scenes.
This is profoundly terrifying. It’s also sunny, colorful and makes me never want to go to the zoo again. Lesnie was able to capture the immediacy and power of a growing (yet still small) army that appears to be made of pure aggression. This is the dam breaking on mankind’s history, and it feels as intense and unrelenting as it should despite not featuring all that much direct violence.
Plus, that shot of Caesar on top of the cable car with apes spilling out from everywhere in the background is just damned cool.
To close, a magnificent blend of Golden Era melodrama and modern, tech-driven marvels. That spinning shot as Kong falls is exquisite. It’s also heartbreaking and displays one of Lesnie’s greatest talents: combining God’s eye views and closely-felt emotional impacts.
The cinematic world lost a peerless talent yesterday, and, even on the cusp of blockbuster season, it now feels a lot smaller.
Related Topics: Cinematography