For the West Side Story camera, imagination was the only boundary

In Wallet, Awards Insider interviews some of this year’s most notable Oscar nominees about all of their nominated work. Right here, West Side Story cinematographer Janusz Kamiński looks back on his remarkable 30-year journey to his seventh nomination.

In what remains one of the best working relationships between a director and a cinematographer, Steven Spielberg and Janusz Kaminsky are still going strong, 30 years since they started together. They started with the tragic, brutal Schindler’s list before landing everywhere from the WWII battlefield to The lost World of jurassic park on the stop-motion adventure of Tin-Tin to, now, the spectacle of a Hollywood musical in West Side Story.

The galvanizing remake (now streaming on Disney+) is up for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Director for Spielberg and Cinematography for Kamiński. This is the Polish DP’s seventh nomination, having won his first Spielberg film, Schindler’s listas well as Saving Private Ryan. His kinetic, glamorous, and painterly work on their new film certainly puts him in contention for a hat trick, if only to affirm how proven he’s been behind the camera. Watching West Side Storyyou’d think he’s been filming musicals all his life; excerpts on Twitter have spread far and wide indicating as much. In reality, Kamiński never cared much about gender, let alone his work. (“I grew up in Eastern Europe,” he tells me. “The superheroes were Stalin and Lenin.”)

“We both encourage each other to do a good job and we’re not too intimidated by the other’s ability to get the job done,” Kamiński says of his collaborations with Spielberg. Here, he reviews each of his Oscar-nominated films, on the technique and evolution behind each – one of which, it’s worth mentioning, was do not led by his right arm.

Schindler’s list (1993)

I was just too ignorant to realize the pressure and the importance of what this would mean for my career. I was 32, when you tend to be a little more ignorant, I would say. I was becoming a cinematographer who had a certain panache, but which was not yet well established. I was about to break through. Like Steven used to jurassic parkI did The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for Disney with Stephane Sommers. So I had already had my first big film in the studio. I wasn’t really nervous because I knew Steven liked my work – due to the experience I had shooting a pilot for his TV series called Class of ’61. While we were doing this, I received little messages saying that he really liked the dailies. If you asked me to do this meeting [about Schnidler’s List] right now, after being in the business for 25 years and being a successful cinematographer, I would be very nervous. But not then.

i just watched Schindler’s list again a few days ago. I’m proud that I was able to create a sense of reality within the frame that could be used and has been used in some of the documentaries about that particular time period as a point of reference, as an authentic image of that particular time. To be in black and white, to be in Poland during the winter, to shoot the film in the places where the story took place and to give people the impression of seeing the reality in front of them as if they were watching a Hollywood film. It’s a Hollywood production, so in this concept we created something where the audience gets a sense of what it must have been like during the war, if they witnessed such an event.

Amistad (1997) & lincoln (2012)

It’s a wonderful job because I get to learn about each individual period. Any film I make, I do extensive research where I want to find out more. You learn about light fixtures, colors, texture, how people refer to each other. We did a lot of period films, Steven and I. We have some futuristic movies, but we haven’t made a contemporary movie yet. We are always going historical or living in the future. [Laughs]

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