La La Land: balancing modernism and classicism

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From the moment I heard La La Land talked up as a “modern” musical, I got worried. Updating older genres and tropes is en vogue these days, but it’s easy to mess up. Balance is key. Some films follow the rules of the past slavishly, making it hard for audiences to connect. Others cheat, creating an entirely modern film with a few half-hearted old school references.

Thankfully La La Land is an exception to this rule. Much of that credit goes to the film’s impeccable costuming, choreography, music, and direction. But I can’t imagine the movie fully gelling together without the skill of DP Linus Sandgren.

Sandgren mixes classic Hollywood and modern filmic techniques, often within the same scene. In one standout example, Emma Stone has a night on the town with her roommates in the number “Someone in the Crowd”.

The visual framing is largely indebted to 50s and 60s American musicals. These street shots here are wide and often high angle. There’s a pleasant symmetry to the blocking of Stone and the other dancers at the center of the frame. But Sandgren isn’t just riffing on nostalgia. As the realistic lighting illustrates, this is a scene shot on location instead of a studio backlot.

Moments earlier the roommates are dancing in their apartment. The choreography and music are from an earlier era, but the camera movement is very much of today. Shots are up close to the dancers via Steadicam. The camera operator deploys whip pans and darts around the apartment to track the dancers’ movement.

La La Land‘s cinematography also uses natural light brilliantly to capture rich, saturated color. It’s emulating classic Technicolor film processing with precise, realistic filmmaking. Sandgren added little digital processing in post production to bump up saturation. What you see is mostly captured as-is directly from the camera.

As emphasized in the above shots, La La Land’s strongest reoccurring color motif is the deep purples and blues of the L.A. sky. Interviews with Sandgren reveal these were not easy shots to capture. First there’s the problem of timing. For each of the above shots there was a window of an hour or less after sunset to capture the sky at maximum saturation. Compounding the problem, several of these sequences are long Steadcam takes. The hilltop dance between Ryan Gosling and Stone goes for a full six minutes. That requires significant coordination and practice with the actors, camera operator, and Sandgren.

Sandgren also deserves praise for his lens and camera usage. Appropriate for genre and tone, he shot La La Land with modern anamorphic Panavision lenses on 35mm Kodak film. However, he took the extra step of shooting in CinemaScope’s extra wide aspect ratio at 2:55:1. Modern scope films use a slightly less wide 2:40:1, and consequently many of the film’s lenses had to be customized for the format. Further complicating matters, La La Land’s camera is often highly dynamic. A single camera has to be versatile enough to jump between closeup, medium, and wide shots in a single take.

The byproduct of this unorthodox approach gives certain shots visible imperfections. Notice the strong vignetting (loss of light in the corners of the frame) and barrel distortion on these shots. Many other DPs would remove these elements in post production to avoid drawing attention to the camera. But Sandgren leaves it all in. It’s a subtle touch that harkens back to an simpler, “lo-fi” look.

The bold colors combined with vintage lensing adds a fantastical, dream-like character throughout the film. Yet La La Land does deviate into more modern techniques when the experience calls for it.

In this scene, a friendly dinner with Stone and Gosling (top left) devolves into a heated argument. As the tone shifts, the camera begins to move with a rough, bouncy gait. And color saturation no longer conveys warmth and nostalgia. The neon green light (itself a clever nod to Hitchcock’s Vertigo) gives each character a cold, almost sickly look.

Even with my love of the film’s camerawork, La La Land connected slightly less with me on an emotional level. But it’s hard to shake the power of La La Land’s visuals, especially the dance numbers and masterful final dream sequence. Sandgren is a frontrunner for cinematography at this years Oscars, and a win will be much deserved.