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Insights Into The Lensing of "Room," "The Danish Girl"
Jacob Tremblay (l) and Brie Larson in a scene from "Room" (photo courtesy of A24 Films).
Danny Cohen, BSC, made integral contributions to a pair of Academy Award-nominated films
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Oscar prognostications largely saw Room (A24 Films) reserved for no more than a leading actress nomination based on the strength of the performance delivered by Brie Larson. However one of the pleasant surprises to emerge was the brilliant, emotionally moving film ultimately scoring four noms--the others for Best Picture, Director (Lenny Abrahamson’s first career Oscar nod) and Adapted Screenplay (Emma Donoghue).

Room tells the story of a woman (portrayed by Larson) who’s been in one-room captivity for seven years, since she was 17, and her five-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) who was fathered by their captor.

Among director Abrahamson’s collaborators on Room was a cinematographer he worked with for the first time. While the DP didn’t earn an Oscar nom for Room, he was key to the film’s success, affirmed Abrahamson.

That DP was Danny Cohen, BSC. Abrahamson said of his decision to work with Cohen for the first time, “We had a conversation and I warmed to him. I saw the great range of his work from This is England, which was loose and real, to The King’s Speech, a very formal and classically shot drama. We talked and developed a natural rapport.”

The creative challenges posed by Room were alluring to Cohen. “The approach was to make the film within the space and not go outside the perimeter of the room,” shared Cohen. “How do you light it? How do you keep it interesting? Essentially you have a bedside light, a skylight and a fluorescent light sitting next to the sink and a radiator. The door key system has a little green glow. The space and lighting restrictions appealed to my sense of masochism. You also want to give the actors as much freedom as they can possibly have within that limited space. You can’t clutter up that precious little space you have to work with--they have to be able to go wherever they fancy within that environment. You have to convey the magic of that room through the eyes of a child. At the same time, you can’t tell the story solely from the boy’s point of view. Just to focus on the kid would have done the situation an injustice--and to just focus on the mother’s point of view would also have been wrong. You’re obligated to look at their space from both perspectives. We had shifting points of views throughout. Modern-day audiences are accustomed to cameras flying all over the place. The restrictions of the cameras in the room, those kind of handcuffs made things interesting. And we had to tap into that interesting feel for the audience.”

In terms of lighting the room, Cohen related, “We had quite a bit of lights outside the skylight. What needed to change was the light to reflect the time of day--as the daylight changes, as the sun moves around the building [the tool shed] across the sky. We could control the big lights outside the skylight to help achieve that. Inside the room, we had smaller kind of Kino Flos, went from soft light to hard light, changing from night to day. The light can enhance the magic--there’s a scene where the mom is asleep after a hard night. The boy is awake. There’s a nice bit of sun splashing on caulk tiles. He was enjoying the moment, his world. He knows no other world. To him he’s in an amazing world.”


For Room, Cohen deployed the Red Epic Dragon, which at the time had just been out a few months. “Lenny wanted to shoot with two cameras all the time in that confined space which meant two operators. With such a young actor, we didn’t want to miss anything. The Red Dragon is slightly smaller than the Alexa. We had to make every centimeter of extra space work for us. We at times had the camera pushed up against the wall. The Dragon is a little bit shorter. There was a little more space for the actors to be in without being compromised by two cameras.”

Then there’s what Cohen described as “a massive gearshift when they get out of the room. There’s an exciting escape, then the story completely changes. We are then focused on how the boy integrates into the world, how Brie’s character reintegrates after being away for seven years. We get out of the room and parachute them into the modern world. It’s like two movies but in one story. Again, a wonderful challenge for a cinematographer.”

The Danish Girl
Cohen also contributed to another major film this awards season, the Tom Hooper-directed The Danish Girl (Focus Features), which came away with four Oscar nominations--Best Leading Actor (Eddie Redmayne), Supporting Actress (Alicia Vikander), Production Design (Eve Stewart, production designer; Michael Standish, set decorator) and Costume Design (Paco Delgado). (Hooper, Stewart and Delgado were all featured in previous installments of The Road To Oscar.)

With a screenplay by Lucinda Coxon based on the book by David Ebershoff, The Danish Girl tells the remarkable, real-life love story of Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, portrayed in the film respectively by Redmayne (a Best Actor Oscar winner for The Theory of Everything) and Vikander (Ex Machina).

The story takes us to Copenhagen in 1926. Einar Wegener is married to Gerda Wegener. Both are painters—Einar the more revered while Gerda specializes in portraits of prominent citizens. They have a strong marriage, which is about to be tested in a profound way, ultimately deepening their love. Asked by Gerda to fill in for a model by putting on a dress, Einar has a transformative experience, soon realizing that his inner Lili is his true self. Gerda unexpectedly finds that she has a new muse.  But the couple feel society’s disapproval and moves to Paris. While their marriage is strained at times, their love remains steadfast. Gerda is supportive and selfless in the quest for Lili to find her true self as a transgender woman.

Hooper said of Cohen, “This [The Danish Girl] is completely unlike anything he’s done before. Danny captured the extraordinary soft Scandinavian, northern European light, the light of long days and long dusks to bring the gentleness of Lily to life. He was instrumental in bringing her to life in this film. He in many ways went on a visual quest similar to Gerda’s quest to see Lily. Gerda was fascinated as she uncovered the femininity of Einar and painted portraits that revealed the true Lily. Danny too explored Eddie Redmayne through the camera and lighting to reveal Eddie’s femininity on screen to the audience. Danny helped Lily to emerge—and the audience to realize Lily’s emergence. Gerda was an artist. Her love and sensibilities as an artist gave her the ability to see things that were buried deep down in her husband. Danny’s work as an artist reflected Gerda’s journey as she fully saw Lily.”

“The imagery in The Danish Girl is very lush,” observed Cohen. “It’s a story about artists, self-discovery and realization.” The Red Dragon was also the choice for The Danish Girl. But unlike Room which used Panavision Primos, Cohen and Hooper went with Arri Master Prime Lenses for The Danish Girl. “Tom wanted much of the film to be shot as wide open as possible in order to have a shallow depth of field to bring the actors up from the background so that they popped in relation to the environment."


The Danish Girl is the fifth project Cohen has shot for Hooper, starting with HBO’s Longford, then the HBO miniseries John Adams, followed by The King’s Speech and Les Misérables. Cohen was an Oscar and BAFTA Award nominee for The King’s Speech, and earned BAFTA, ASC and BSC Award nominations for Les Misérables. He shared an Emmy Award nomination as one of the DPs on John Adams, and received his first BAFTA nod for the telefilm Longford.

This is the 11th in a multi-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies, SHOOT’s February print issue (and PDF versions) and on The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards. The Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 28, 2016, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, and will be televised live by the ABC Television Network at 7 pm ET/4 pm PT. The Oscar presentation also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.

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