The Cinematography of 'The Favourite'

Oscar-nominated DP Robbie Ryan walks us through some of the film's perfect shots and tells us about the cinematic image that inspires him the most.

Cinematography Favourite

Shot mostly on 35mm (with the occasional 6mm fisheye lens), utilizing almost entirely natural light, and punctuated with whip pans, long shots, and intermittent slow motion, The Favourite is one of the most gorgeous and visually sharp films in recent history. Like the precise verbal parries among its central trio of royal court-bound women (Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone), the film’s cinematography repeatedly knocks viewers off balance through surprising choices and impressive craftsmanship.

Irish Cinematographer Robbie Ryan was perhaps previously best-known for the poetic verisimilitude he’s helped bring to the films of Andrea Arnold, including Fish Tank and American Honey. The Favourite marks his first team-up with Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, who has helmed some of the 21st century’s most provocative dark comedies, including The Lobster and Dogtooth.

The Favourite is nominated for ten Academy Awards, among them Ryan’s first nomination, but in a season of change and controversy, the Academy has (as of publication time) decided not to air the category during its February 24th Oscars telecast. We hope the powers that be change their minds, but in the meantime, we spoke with Robbie Ryan about the many perfect shots of The Favourite, film moments that have inspired him, and another vital factor of filmmaking that the Academy isn’t honoring on-air this year–editing.

Favourite Colman

I polled some people I know about their favorite shot, and quite a few said it was the dance sequence. I do like that, but my favorite shot in the movie is the end of that scene, the close-up on Queen Anne’s face. For me, that’s Olivia Colman’s most memorable scene.

She’s so amazing, and every emotion goes through her face without you knowing how she does it. You get exactly what’s going on in her head. It’s a really beautiful shot, I agree. It’s all down to her in that one, to be honest. I think the dance scene is quite good because it’s quite an unusual dance and becomes a bit like a music video of sorts. Not really a music video but a performance toward camera happens, and I can see why people enjoy that, but the shot on her is really equally brilliant.

When you say good shots, I think it has a lot to do with good edits as well, and a film like The Favourite has very, very well done editing, and that sequence is good because you’re uncomfortably long on the queen watching this. You don’t realize you’ve not gone back to the dance for a while because you can get drawn into her mind and what she’s thinking and just the sadness that she has, and the jealousy that her friend is having a better time. All of the emotions. The fact that she’s happy for her friend, then the great thing is the longer it stays, the more you read into what she’s thinking.

I think the editing of that shot is really important because the sound begins to change and you slowly focus on how something’s going to happen, and she’s going to do something. She’s got such a fantastic voice that when she finally does speak out, it’s quite a jump moment, in a way. The thing I like about it is the way you can tell so much through her expression, and her eyes are so expressive themselves. There are so many candlelight reflections in her eyes that it becomes a beautiful but sad image. I like that juxtaposition of very gorgeous, soft candlelight and a really kind of harsh sadness.

Were you the person who decided to use mostly natural light?

No, Yorgos and myself both. I would call myself someone who really enjoys filming with natural light if possible and using the kind of lighting that revolves around natural light. It was fantastic that Yorgos really wanted to do that as well, so he really pushed the whole [thing]. I regard myself as enjoying that way, but I would probably go, “Okay, I need to have something else to help it along.” He really was adamant to try and make it work with just candles. Sometimes I was like, “Well, maybe you can’t get the full exposure and we could help it a bit here,” and he’d give me a bit of a cold stare. I only did that on very, very rare occasions where I felt it had to be done and even then, these days he says they were the trickiest scenes to grade because there was a bit of embellished light that was helping the candlelight along.

I learned along the way how Yorgos worked. He really was very keen to never use lights if he could, and I think I learned a heck of a lot from that and I would probably follow that road now if possible myself without using lights. To use lights is kind of like, “Aw, shit, we didn’t win!” At the same time, we had a lot of candles though. [There were] a heck of a lot of candles lighting the queen in that scene. If you imagine the camera filming her, all around the camera were the candles, and the actors had to try to get around the candles to get to the queen, you know?

The Favourite Queen

I have a couple shots I’m thinking about, but if you have any in mind, that’s alright too.

I guess my favorite shot since I’m thinking about it now is not really a shot, but it’s a sequence. It’s the last scene in the film because I just find that scene makes my hair on my neck go up every time I watch it because, again, amazingly long edits where you don’t know what’s going on. It lets you kind of breathe a thought into what it’s like to be these characters at this moment, and what have they both done to get where they’re at? The whole film is about power and within that bit with the two of them at the end it’s about “I still have the power.” I think there’s an echoing scene early on in the film, after the bit where [Queen Anne]’s watched Sarah dancing. She kind of gets in a grump and Sarah’s walking along. She apologizes, and she slaps her in the face, and you know that who has the power is the queen at the end of the day. That echoes again in the last scene where the new favorite has to know her limits because the queen is still the queen. I thought that was brilliant and that makes me sort of tingle every time I watch it.

You don’t know which way it’s going to end, really. It’s a sad thing that she sort of won, Abigail’s character. She got what she wanted to get, but what is it she got? It’s really nicely anti-ending in a way. Nobody ends, and everybody is sort of lost in a way and life goes on. The film before that is all about who’s trying to get what they want, and everybody’s driving to get to what they want, but when you do get to what you want, what’s the point? You’ve lost friendships, you’ve lost a lot of things on the way. That scene tends to really somehow sum all that up. I love that it does that and I don’t know how it does that.

I remember it was like excruciatingly long and when we filmed it I remember filming Olivia. I think actually they’ve almost used the length of the take we used because I remember her going “I don’t know what to do now. What else am I meant to do?” But because it was filming for an uncomfortably long amount of time she didn’t know where to end [it] herself. I think she just sort of naturally stopped and that’s when maybe they edited it out. I don’t know, maybe it was longer than that because I remember it being an awful long take and maybe it’s not that long in the film, but it feels long.

Fisheye

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fisheye lens that everyone’s talking about. I’m most interested in when you chose to use it.

That’s a good way of observing that because essentially I was as much in the dark about how this film was going to look as any of us were, and Yorgos is definitely the vision in all this. He really has a distinct kind of idea about what he’s doing visually, and he’s very much a visual sort of maestro. He’s kind of like a cinematographer in his own way, and he loves taking photographs, and a lot of the photography of the film you see for promotions is taken from his [photos]. Not that the other guy was not good, he was amazing as well, but because Yorgos was designing it in his head how he wanted it to look, that’s the way we ended up filming it.

With the fisheye lenses idea, with any film, you do you have a few things you like to visually do and you just sort of have them in the package ready to go, “Oh, let me try that then” or “We’ll do this for this bit.” The fisheye was obviously something he was wanting to do because he used a wide lens on [The Killing Of A] Sacred Deer and he really loved that cinematography, so he wanted to push it further. Post-film we’ve all kind of rationalized that the absurd wideness of the thing helped the absurdity of the environment and to a point that’s true. Then the painters of the time like [Jan] Van Eyck painted, and you have these mirrors in the background which were of that almost 260-degree angle sort of mirror. That’s what the fisheye lens gave us. He just loved it. The way it made the image look was something he fell in love with. It was a case of whenever he felt it was going to work or not. I think as the filming process went on we used it more and more, so because the filming schedule isn’t necessarily consecutive it means you might–we started doing it lots more toward the end of the film[ing] but those scenes might have been earlier on, so in the final edit it’s all over the place. The main thing is we just began to really like using it a lot, so it got put into more scenes as we went on. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, to be honest.

So there’s no throughline where every scene it’s in also has some other element in common?

Not really. It’s like slow motion. Yorgos would say “Let’s do slow motion!” We never knew when the slow-motion scenes were coming up. He’d go, “Yep, this one’s slow motion.” I’d go, “Oh, really?” and he’d go, “ ‘Course it is.” Why wouldn’t you know that? Oh, because I’m expected to read your mind, you know? His mind is complicated, so it’s hard to figure out what he’s going to do next.

Favourite Tracking

Some of my favorite shots were in motion. There’s one from behind Sarah as she’s going across the room.

Oh, I know that shot! That’s one I really like. She kisses her husband goodbye to go to war. Yeah, I love that shot. I don’t know how that one just feels like the camera’s flying. The timing of the choreography of the shots is very like a musical composition. The music used in the film really enhances that so much. I was watching that for the first time and sort of went, “Wow, the camera feels like it’s flying!” I don’t really know how it’s doing that. We did do a lot of different kind of dolly moves and different kinds of camera rigs, but that one was just a camera on a dolly with the grip pushing it like crazy and stopping in time. That’s a heavy piece of machinery, and I think it [works] because she’s so free, the camera is almost just attached to her.

We really wanted to try and do this thing–Yorgos had me try and explore this rig that was kind of like a body rig that would circle around the character. Unfortunately, we were shooting with a heavy camera so any of those kinds of rigs would weigh down the actor too much so we tried to get something near that with the way we moved the dolly, and I do feel that that shot, in particular, felt a bit like a body rig.

That one stuck out to me. There’s lots of moving camera stuff but that one, it’s a mixture of her body movements with the speed with the–I don’t know. I’m glad you spotted that one. Some of the pans are great as well, very well-timed. The panning, you don’t see it too often the way he did that and again, that could be seen as a gimmick but for some reason the timing of it works so well, it just is part of the language. I was really happy with the way that worked out.

Is there any shot or sequence you can think of that when you filmed it you definitely knew, “Okay, we’ve got it”? Or maybe one that you didn’t know would come together before you saw the final film?

What’s interesting about the final film is I think there are some scenes that didn’t edit together quite the way they wanted them to so the thing that I don’t ever remember us talking about was sort of intercutting scenes. So there’s a bit where Abigail is brought to [Queen Anne’s] chamber at night time, and she’s putting meat on her gout, and that’s intercut with her going out in the morning to get some herbs. I absolutely adore those sequences because they’re so well-timed and you don’t know what’s going on because the soundtrack is connecting the two sequences. I do think that’s because something wasn’t working in the scene on its own so they decided to kind of bring it to a different place and be brave in the edit. The more I watch that, the more I go, “Well that’s just brilliantly edited.” I can’t say enough about how the editor and Yorgos brought that together. There’s a couple of times where that happens. The other one is when Sarah rides on her horse, and she gets sick, and she falls. That intercuts with the sequence when [Abigail] is poisoning her with that cup of tea and there are three scenes cut together. Those sort of sequences were something I didn’t expect that we were going to do like that or that it would end up like that, but I was very pleasantly surprised.

The scene to say “We got it,” where it’s like, “that’s really amazing” is that one I really like which is the two of them at the end. That felt like some crazy energy in that scene. I knew that scene wasn’t going to be bad, put it that way.

Weisz Blood

I know Yorgos does this in all his movies, but this one is maybe a little gentler as far as sudden acts of violence go. For example, when they go shooting, and blood spatters on Lady Sarah, or when Harley pushes Abigail off the edge, there’s a suddenness to it that serves as punctuation which I love.

You’re right, it’s basically punctuation. What better way to punctuate than to have a slap. I was talking to an elderly lady about it on an interview, and she goes, “What’s going on with those slaps? They’re so sore looking!” A slap is like a full stop, isn’t it? The way a slap is like a whip pan as well, if you imagine that slap makes the camera move the way it does. It helps for a lot of purposes. It’s an expression, it’s a violent move, it’s comedic, and it is snappy. There are lots of things to come out of that violence, whatever it may be, but Yorgos really does like a slap.

Can you think of any shots or sequences that have inspired you?

Oh my God. I can try to figure out what sequence I really like that sticks. There’s plenty of shots I absolutely adore, but I do like the sequence in Goodfellas when Ray Liotta’s cooking dinner with his wife but he’s also sorting out a drug deal, and he’s looking up the helicopter. The music and everything, I just find that scene so perfectly realized and insane. Whenever I watch that sequence I always go, “Wow, that’s amazing.” I’m not really a total Scorsese nut like some people, but I always admire that so well. He really knocks it out of the park.

Eraserhead

Probably a David Lynch one would be in there somewhere for me. His images are so brilliant, and definitely, something from one of his films would be in there. I can’t think at the moment of…oh. Actually, I do! I know which one it is! I absolutely love the shot of the woman who comes to knock on Jack Nance’s door in Eraserhead. He opens the door, and she’s in complete darkness, but you could sort of see her. She’s saying, “It’s cold outside, can I stay the night?” With all these crazy gas sound effects, the industrial noise and all that, and her whispering, and the darkness and you just see her. It just creates an amazing tingling in the back of my neck again. I do regard that as one of my favorite images.

The Favourite Face In Dark

There’s a little bit of that feeling in The Favourite actually when Abigail is listening to them, and her face is almost in complete darkness.

Sure, yeah. There’s a lot of darkness in The Favourite that is kind of played with, and it totally draws you in. The soundtrack is brilliant as well so I guess that’d be nice if they were somehow on a par. I’ll take that. She’s amazing [there], though, her face is amazing, and her eyes are so big. She’s such a great comedic actress, Emma Stone. The three of them are great comedic actresses.


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