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Robert Elswit: How to make 'Blood'

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  • Robert Elswit won an Oscar for cinematography of "There Will Be Blood"
  • On director P.T. Anderson: "Everybody has to be on the balls of their feet"
  • Among Elswit's early jobs: Assistant on "Empire Strikes Back"
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By Todd Leopold
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(CNN) -- Asked about the difference between a cinematographer and a director of photography -- two terms often used interchangeably -- Robert Elswit cracks a joke.


Robert Elswit, shown filming "There Will Be Blood," has worked on all of Paul Thomas Anderson's films.

"About $5,000 a week," he says in a phone interview from Los Angeles, California.

Then he pauses and thoughtfully runs through the history of the terms and the profession. "Director of photography," he observes, started as a description of the lead cameraman. Now the term, and the more-or-less equivalent "cinematographer," describes the person who oversees the lighting and composition of scenes and the camera people who film them.

He notes there was once a more direct way the role was described.

"There used to be a credit on many films that said, 'Photographed by,' " he muses. "That's a wonderful credit."

It's one Robert Elswit can take pride in, because he is considered one of the top practitioners of the trade. In February, he won the Oscar for cinematography for his work on director Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood," and his credits include all of Anderson's other films -- "Punch-Drunk Love," "Magnolia," "Boogie Nights" and "Hard Eight" -- as well as "Michael Clayton," "Good Night, and Good Luck" (which also earned him an Oscar nomination), David Mamet's "Heist" and the James Bond film "Tomorrow Never Dies."

The dazzling "Blood" was released on DVD Tuesday. Video Watch Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis describe the film »

Elswit says he has an energizing, if occasionally challenging, relationship with Anderson, a director who has been compared to titans such as Stanley Kubrick for his sheer filmmaking audacity.

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"Every time I start a movie with Paul, there's a three- or four-week period where I don't feel like I know what I'm doing," Elswit says. Cinematography, Elswit points out, "is all about control," and Anderson's process, particularly in a film's early stages, is about creativity and improvisation.

"Everybody has to be a filmmaker" on an Anderson film, Elswit says. "Everybody has to be on the balls of their feet all the time."

That kind of inventiveness can be seen all over "Blood." Daniel Day-Lewis' Oscar-winning performance as oilman Daniel Plainview, though at times almost operatic, was carefully calibrated. "He saw from the very beginning that the imposing nature of this guy would overwhelm" the film if allowed to go unchecked, Elswit says.

The film's crew (notably production designer Jack Fisk, who helped bring the early 20th-century world of mines and drilling sites to life) created a convincingly jerry-built industrial terrain on the dusty, open land.

"You believe that world," Elswit says.

The cinematographer has a long history of photographing worlds. He was an effects cameraman and assistant for "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," "The Empire Strikes Back" and "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," and though he downplays his work -- "I can't minimize my contributions enough. ... I had no idea what I was doing" -- he's proud of what the effects teams at Apogee and Industrial Light & Magic achieved.

"I watched ['Star Wars' photographer] Richard Edlund and others at work, doing what they do better than anyone else. They invented the [modern] world of special effects," he says. "They brought it to the peak of perfection, and then threw it away because they were able to do a better job with computer-generated effects, so they reinvented themselves again."

A cinematographer might work on two or three films a year, sometimes establishing relationships with certain directors, other times working as a hired gun. Elswit says the group shares "a kind of empathy, a closeness unique among the crafts, because in general we all have the same problems," despite the distances created by today's far-flung filmmaking operations. "It's still kind of blue-collar ... it's a precarious way to make a living," he adds.

Indeed, that bond is why he had such a good time working as a camera operator on the recently released Rolling Stones concert film "Shine a Light," he says.

"There were 14 DPs, and after we were done shooting [for the day] we all went out for 10 straight nights. We hung out and talked in a way it must have been like in the old [studio system] days," says Elswit, who turns 58 this month. (Among "Shine a Light's" other camera operators: "Children of Men" cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind's" Ellen Kuras and "Lone Star's" Stuart Dryburgh.)

Elswit is pleased with his Oscar win, though he's quick to point out the idea of comparing work between films is "apples and oranges" and some of the greatest cinematographers never won the honor. "The thing is getting nominated," he says. "Winning is just luck."


But, he adds, he can't deny that walking on stage to pick up the golden man was a thrill.

"You grow up watching that stupid show. It's one of my earliest memories," he says. "And then, there you are." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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