With 20 projects to date, look for this DP alongside Spielberg

Janusz Kamiński had just finished filming a 1993 TV movie called Class of ’61, which was produced by Steven Spielberg. The hitmaker, who had yet to win his first Oscar, liked what he saw in the young cinematographer. He approached Kamiński with another job offer.

“He told me he was going to make a black and white film that would be shot in Poland,” Kamiński recalled in a recent video interview. Spielberg knew that Kamiński was from Poland and he assured him that this had nothing to do with the offer. The director had admired Kamiński’s work on Diane Keaton’s Wildflower and thought they could make good films together.

As usual, Spielberg was right. The black-and-white film “Schindler’s List” is widely regarded as the pinnacle of film history. It won Oscars for both Spielberg and Kamiński, whose rich, layered shadows are key to the Holocaust epic’s emotional impact. And it launched one of the greatest director-cinematographer collaborations of all time, which continues to this day with The Fabelmans, which will earn both men Oscar nominations. (Each won twice, for “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan”).

It’s been a long, productive journey that probably won’t end until they retire.

“It just happens that we really love each other and we like working together,” says Kamiński. “But the reason we’re able to maintain this relationship is because he’s a very prolific film director. His work ethic is amazing.”

The Fabelmans is one of their most personal collaborations. Like many of her films, including Amistad, Munich, Lincoln, and Bridge of Spies, it’s a historical piece. But the subject is not an imposing historical event or figure. It’s Spielberg’s life.

Both nostalgic and anti-nostalgic, the film encompasses the passionate, film-obsessed youth of Spielberg’s deputy Sam Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) and the disillusionment that overcomes when he realizes through his own home videos that his mother (Michelle Williams) is in love with his father’s best friend (Seth Rogen). Kamiński’s task was to find the right color palette for both moods: the brightness and hope and then the muted incredulity.

Tom Cruise hangs from a fire escape in a tenement alley in one scene "minority report."

Cinematographer Janusz Kamińsky has worked with director Steven Spielberg on more than 20 films, including Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise. Kamińsky noted that the duo have worked on historical and futuristic films, but never a contemporary story.

(David James / 20th Century Fox Film)

Kamiński sees a key to the film’s aesthetics in its title: “It’s called ‘The Fabelmans’, right? It allowed me to have a certain nostalgic approach to that film and period that Steven and I have worked with on a number of occasions.” He mentions “Catch Me If You Can,” “Munich,” “Bridge of Spies,” and “West Side Story “. “It’s that particular time frame that he likes that represents his youth. But we also like making films, either in the past or in the future. We’ve never made a contemporary film before.”

In fact, they did just as well with science fiction. Consider “Minority Report,” a Spielberg masterpiece that’s all too often assigned to the genre film category. For a film about an advanced crime-fighting system that catches murderers before they kill, Kaminski and Spielberg conjured up a shimmering metallic look that contrasted harsh compositions with a soft halo effect. “I tried to get away from it and look like ‘Blade Runner,'” says Kamiński. (Both films are based on fiction by Philip K. Dick). “We tried to bring some tension into the compositions.”

Kamiński is one of many Eastern European cinematographers who have found favor with American directors, including László Kovács (Easy Rider, Ghostbusters) and Vilmos Zsigmond, who directed Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Kamiński refers to an “Eastern European aesthetic” – drab, gray – that contrasts with the inviting color scheme of so many Hollywood films. The tension between these two approaches leads to fascinating results that are not coincidental in Spielberg’s films of the last 30 years. The director, often simplified as a cheesy optimist, also has a dark side. Though Kamiński is “attracted by the sweet embellishment of pictures,” he helps him bring them to canvas, often through the muted colors that characterized his early years in Poland and emerge in the less cheerful moments of The Fabelmans .

A young man looks at a film strip through a magnifying glass "The Fabelmans."

Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński darkened the tones for more serious scenes in The Fabelmans, starring Gabriel LaBelle.

(Merie Weismiller Wallace / Universal Pictures)

The two have now made 20 films together, a practically unheard of joint work. After all this time, Kamiński has come to appreciate many things about his most frequent collaborator.

There’s his work ethic: “He edits the film at noon, after lunch, on weekends, and four weeks or five weeks after we’ve finished filming, the picture is locked.”

There’s the way he treats people on his sets: “I’m always blown away by how nice he is to the actors. He loves actors, and he would never make an actor feel like he’s doing anything less than.”

Above all, however, Spielberg and Kamiński share: above all, an unadulterated passion for the craft.

“He does it for the love of film,” says Kamiński. “Not the fame and not the houses and not the shoes. He loves, really loves making films and that’s it.”

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/awards/story/2023-01-17/the-fabelmans-cinematographer-janusz-kaminski With 20 projects to date, look for this DP alongside Spielberg

Sarah Ridley

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