Growing up, Dan Laustsen developed an interest in photography early on and dreamt of growing up and working for National Geographic. "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 advertisement for the 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," Laustsen says. Nevertheless, he was 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!'"
Lautsen had never looked inside a film camera before, but he learned quickly and upon graduating, shot his first feature, 1979's Skal vi danse først? He never looked back. "You have to follow your heart. That's the most important thing," he says now. "You really have to follow your heart and your dreams because, without that, it's a very long run. But I love it every day, and I've done it for like 42 years!"
Laustsen is known for his collaborations with Danish filmmaker Ole Bornedal (beginning with 1994's Nightwatch, they have made eight features together) and Guillermo del Toro, for whom he has shot four films. He was Oscar-nominated for Best Cinematographer for his work on 2017's The Shape of Water and 2021's Nightmare Alley. Mostly recently, Laustsen was the DP on director Blitz Bazawule's musical adaptation of The Color Purple.
Below, the cinematographer shares with A.frame five films that have influenced him through their use of lighting, framing and camerawork.
This article was originally published on Dec. 14, 2021.
Directed by: Orson Welles | Cinematography by: Gregg Toland
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. They 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.
Directed by: Mikhail Kalatozov | Cinematography by: Sergey Urusevsky
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 what I like. I like when everything is super precise and organized; it is very precisely handheld with a super wide angle. I think it's a masterpiece.
Directed by: Ingmar Bergman | Cinematography by: Gunnar Fischer
His 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 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.
Directed by: David Fincher | Cinematography by: Darius Khondji
It's a scary movie, but it's shot so aesthetically correctly. The colors are great. Everything 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 they're 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.
Directed by: Robert Eggers | Cinematography by: Jarin Blaschke
I really love The Lighthouse. 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.