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Blending Hollywood Magic with Realism for La La Land

Linus Sandgren, FSF, whose credits include American Hustle and Promised Land, earned his first Academy Award® nomination on La La Land – one of 14 Oscar® nominations for the acclaimed film. Visuals for the project are rooted in the golden-era Hollywood song-and-dance classics like An American in Paris and A Star is Born, but transformed by modern sensibilities and equipment. This blend of old and new is one key to the film’s success with audiences.

Director Damien Chazelle asked for a film that was “very anamorphic,” says Sandgren, who turned to Panavision to help execute his vision.

“Scope films are usually 2.40:1 today,” he says. “We thought it would be interesting to shoot in 2.55:1 aspect ratio. Panavision modified lenses and built new ground glasses for us, and I think it really adds to the spirit of the film.”

Panavision works the way you want a camera house to work. Lenses are more important than ever in terms of creating a look, and I feel very fortunate to work with Dan Sasaki to adapt and adjust the tools to accommodate our vision.

Sandgren chose 35 and 16mm film cameras. “We wanted to make a contemporary drama set in a big, sometimes gritty city,” explains the DP. “But since the characters are dreamers, it was important to bring them to a magical moment, to travel between reality and dream. We aimed to heighten the scenes with a timelessness inspired by the great Hollywood films from the 1950s, to a great extent in the set design and costume design, but also in the lighting and with unbroken takes. We felt that these longer takes would help to seduce the viewer into emotional involvement. We used modern techniques like cranes and Steadicam to be more three-dimensional within the given space.”

That long, single-take approach necessitated lensing that would allow for head-to-toe wide shots and close-ups in the same shot. Normal anamorphic lenses can’t manage the requisite close-focus, so Sandgren turned to Panavision’s lens maestro Dan Sasaki. 

“Dan made us a 40mm lens that could hold focus to 19 inches, instead of the normal three feet,” says Sandgren. “And for some ‘home movie’ scenes where we wanted to maintain an anamorphic feel, Dan made a 16mm anamorphic lens with a grittier, degraded look.”

Shot mostly on locations around Los Angeles, La La Land features carefully controlled production design that meshes perfectly with Sandgren’s photography. 

“We didn’t want the lighting to feel precious, but rather raw and simple,” he recalls. “We wanted to create a colorful world inspired by Technicolor films, but we also aimed to use the realistic colors of today to do so.”

For example, street lights were sometimes allowed to throw a modern blue-green mercury vapor cast, but the light was shaped and directed with a more theatrical style. In other cases, modern street settings were dressed with old school gas lamps. 

“By combining those colors with shades like pink and blue, found in magic hour evening skies or twilight night skies, we felt we could give the scenes a more romantic tone,” says Sandgren. “The C Series lenses maintained a classic Hollywood feeling. The goal was to give the viewer the sense of experiencing the magic for real, and that’s why we always captured it in a very precise few minutes of the evening, in camera. We didn’t give much thought to conventional ways of lighting. Instead, we tried to think freely about how to create these magic moments.”

Sandgren recently wrapped his last project, where he shot a cinematic version of The Nutcracker story in London. The script translates the iconic ballet into a narrative complete with dialog. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms reunites Sandgren with director Lasse Hallström, with whom he made The Hundred-Foot Journey.

This time, the format will be 65mm and 35mm film combined with Panavision’s Primo spherical lenses. The larger negative will be used on the wider, more detailed shots. The 65mm format is hot right now, with Christopher Nolan and Hoyte van Hoytema ASC, FSF, NSC framing the forthcoming Dunkirk on the bigger gauge, as well as Kenneth Branagh and Haris Zambarloukos, BSC using it on Murder on the Orient Express. Both of those films made extensive use of Panavision’s equipment and services.

“I couldn’t ask for better service,” says Sandgren. “Panavision works the way you want a camera house to work. Lenses are more important than ever in terms of creating a look, and I feel very fortunate to work with Dan Sasaki to adapt and adjust the tools to accommodate our vision.”