Since the duo shared Oscar glory in 1994 with Schindler’s List, legendary director Steven Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński have been inseparable behind the camera. Polish-born Kamiński has photographed all of Spielberg’s live-action films since their monumental first outing, and the relationship shows no signs of weakening. Now, with their latest collaboration War Horse maintaining a strong hold over the UK box office, and earning both Spielberg and Kamiński further Oscar nominations, we’ve decided to look back at some of the films that have defined their illustrious partnership over the last two decades.
Spielberg and Kamiński’s first film together earned seven Academy Awards, including Best Cinematography. Schindler’s List, based on the heroism and selflessness of real-life Austrian factory owner Oskar Schindler, is a 195 minute black and white masterpiece that tells the tragic story of Jews forced into the Krakow Ghetto and transferred to harrowing concentration camp, and the gradual change in Schindler from war-profiteer to the man who saved 1,200 fellow humans from certain death at the hands of the Nazis.
The film is visually notable for two significant departures from Spielberg’s oeuvre: the use of handheld cameras and being shot in black and white. Foregoing steady cams and cranes, the pair achieved a documentary style that references the most acclaimed holocaust documentaries. To add to this effect, the shots were not storyboarded – instead the camera work was improvised on set to further enhance the sense of realism.
The decision to shoot in black and white was not popular with studio executives, one of whom wanted Spielberg to shoot on colour stock so that a colour video tape could be released. Spielberg and Kamiński were adamant that the film should be timeless, and the lack of colour helps achieve this. It also sets up what is probably the most memorable and devastating use of colour in cinema history: A young girl’s red coat is some of the only colour before the epilogue, and later in the film appears, again red, as the girl lies dead among other corpses.
After more standard fare with The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Amistad (including Oscar nomination) in 1997, the team again found Oscar glory with 1998’s Saving Private Ryan. After the cemetery prologue, the film begins with the D-Day landing on Omaha beach – to this day one of the most intense, visually arresting, and breath-taking war scenes recreated on film. Kamiński’s camera follows the advancing soldiers into the water, even under the water, darting back and forth, and losing focus and clarity to mimic the sensory chaos endured. World War II comes to life in the skilled hands of this director and his photographer – through the gritty handheld realism of the battles and the fear, anger, and fatigue reflected in the close-ups the duo proved that they could shoot war, and the Academy rewarded them for their efforts.
Kamiński, already a two-time Oscar winner, had very big shoes to step into when he accompanied Spielberg in his conclusion of Stanley Kubrick’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Kubrick started the project in the 1970s, when he had frequently acted as cinematographer on his own directorial efforts before utilising the significant talents of John Alcott for some of his most renowned work. Spielberg took over in 1995, and he and Kamiński generated a film that merged Kubrick’s bleak future with Spielberg’s heart-warming sensibilities. The general consensus is that Kubrick (who passed away in 1999) would have approved – and the cinematography can’t be faulted. Kamiński captures the safety of the family in warm sunlit rooms, the tragedy of the hospital in muted blues, the terrifying countryside and impersonal city in shadows and neon reflections with ease.
In the years following A.I., Kamiński has brought the 1960s to life in Catch Me If You Can, captured invading aliens in War Of The Worlds, and took Indiana Jones on another adventure to The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull for Spielberg, and was nominated for a fourth Oscar for The Diving Bell and The Butterfly. Now Spielberg’s cinematographer of choice has been nominated again for his work photographing War Horse.
The team called on their experience from Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan to bring the much-loved children’s book and wildly successful stage show to life. Spielberg, Kamiński, composer John Willams and the film’s producers and crew will be hoping to win big at the Oscars on February 26th when it goes up for six Academy Awards. And with Kamiński currently shooting Spielberg’s Lincoln, it looks as though the partnership will be fruitful for years to come
War Horse is in cinemas now.