As a kid interested in still cameras, Dan Laustsen wanted to grow up to be a National Geographic photographer. “But when you’re living in Denmark, that’s pretty difficult,” he says. “It didn’t work out at all.” His older sister saw a newspaper ad advertising a cinematography path at the National Film School of Denmark and encouraged him to apply. Reluctantly, he submitted his photos and was invited for an interview. “I didn’t know anything about cinematography. I knew absolutely nothing,” Dan says. “For me, it was like an empty book.” He was a casual film fan at the time, but his application was enough to get him accepted.
“I was 21, and the other students were some of those guys that wake up when they’re 2 and [say], ‘I want to be a cinematographer.’” Having never looked inside a film camera, Dan considered himself the black sheep of the group. But he learned quickly from working with the other students, and as soon as he had completed his course, he shot his first feature and never looked back.
His biggest lesson for aspiring cinematographers? “You have to follow your heart. That’s the most important thing. You really have to follow your heart and your dreams because, without that, it’s a very long run. But it’s fun. It’s fantastic. I love it every day and I’ve done it for like 42 years.”
Dan Laustsen is an Oscar-nominated cinematographer who has collaborated with Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro on four films: Mimic, Crimson Peak, The Shape of Water and, most recently, Nightmare Alley. Read about their collaboration here. Below, Dan shares six films that have influenced him through their use of lighting, framing and camerawork.
It’s telling the story with the camera and with light, and a lot of the time, you don’t see things because they’re in shadows or in silhouettes. [Director Orson Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland] really use the power of painting with light and writing with the camera. It’s so amazing, the way they’re doing this … I’ve seen it a hundred times.
This is a Russian movie shot in Cuba in 1964. It’s black-and-white, it’s handheld, and it’s so strong in its storytelling. The camera is exactly where it should be, and that’s especially what I like. I like when everything is super precise and organized; it is very precisely handheld with a super wide angle [by cinematographer Sergey Urusevskiy]. I think it’s a masterpiece.
Again, camera-wise, lighting, the story … it’s so gorgeous. It’s one of those movies that really blew me away because the way [director Francis Ford Coppola and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro] tell the story is like you’re in there. It’s telling is so perfect. It’s beautiful.
[Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer’s] camerawork is simple, but very powerful. The Seventh Seal is so minimalistic. But still, the light is perfect and the frame is perfect. There are a million places to put the camera, but when you see it, you think, “Oh, this is a fantastic frame.” You see these [kinds of] movies now and then, and they just blow you away as a cinematographer. I like this counterpoint between really big movies, where everything is outstanding, and then some crazy small stories. Everything is exactly as it should be, even in very low-key and very low-budget movies.
I really love The Lighthouse [shot by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke]. It’s a movie that’s made pretty small, and you don’t know where it’s going in the beginning, but then it takes you by storm. Because the performance, the story, the way it’s told … everything is coming together. The Lighthouse is just one of those movies where I didn’t know what I was getting into. It’s a pretty small movie, and it’s so intense because it’s in black-and-white.
It’s a scary movie, but it’s shot so aesthetically correctly. The colors are great. Everything, again, is made so perfect. It’s a super strong movie. The lighting is pretty dark and the camera is in the right place all the time. The way [cinematographer Darius Khondji is] moving the camera, the way they’re moving the lights. And, again, it’s a super scary movie, but it’s shot so beautifully. Telling the story with the lighting, you see exactly what they want you to see, and nothing else. I think that is fantastic.