The Way She Haunts My Dreams

Hoyte van Hoytema, NSC, FSF, finds much more than ghosts inside the machine for the genre-busting love Story, Her

Once upon a time the gold standard for cinematic love was a gauzy close-up of Fred Astaire cooing Cole Porter’s ineffable lyrics in Ginger Rogers’ ears: “The way your smile just beams. The way you sing off-key. The way you haunt my dreams. No, no, they can’t take that away from me.” Nearly a century later, as envisioned in Spike Jonze’s daring new romance, Her, shot by Hoyte van Hoytema, NSC, FSF, a pair of sweethearts still whisper longingly about the eternal nature of love, even if only one of them actually has ears with which to hear.

Joaquin Phoenix, in a brilliant piece of casting-against-type, plays Theodore, a lonely writer whose post-break-up days are spent composing intimate letters for others on the Internet. Drifting dreamily through a futuristic Los Angeles that feels close at hand, Theodore’s world is as warm and fuzzy as a puppy in from the rain. Voice commands, spoken into his ever-present ear-mic, yield emails, holographic video games, phone sex, freshly brewed coffee – everything save for that one soul mate to mend his broken heart.

That is until he meets Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), an “intuitive” operating system whose feelings and emotions grow in tandem with Theodore’s. Spunky and whip-smart (she does have a computational advantage), Samantha exalts in every glorious new moment with Theodore – her first sunset, her first picnic, her first… (oh, yes they do) orgasm.

“When I was writing the story,” Jonze shares, “the big concepts about technology, isolation, and how we’re changing as a society took a back seat to the relationship. Like a lot of people, [Theodore] is yearning for a connection and love, but is maybe afraid of it at the same time. Samantha was created to evolve, so once she’s set in motion, there’s no limit to where those feelings might go. And when you fall in love, that’s the risk you take.”

Hiring van Hoytema was a risk of sorts for Jonze, who has only worked with one DP – Lance Acord, ASC – over the course of his feature career, and had been marinating in the story for some five years. Van Hoytema says their initial interview was supposed to just be a quick Skype conversation, “which seems perfect for this movie,” the DP smiles. “But we ended up talking for hours, and the next day he offered me the film.”

The Swedish-born shooter says Jonze had strong ideas about how he wanted the movie to feel, but not necessarily about a particular color palette or visual architecture, although the film did end up having consistent heaps of both.

“Spike’s main [visual] concern was a world that was tactile and pleasant: the very opposite of a dystopian future,” van Hoytema explains. “[Production designer]

K.K. Barrett brought in a book by the Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi, whose work is mainly large [6×6] format. The images are pristine moments from everyday life – serene, feminine, and quite soulful. As the movie progressed, we did add more color and more clearly designed elements. But the overall theme was a future that was soft and intimate.”

Up-close and personal is how the audience relates to Theodore for much of the story. We often see him in his high-rise apartment talking with Samantha in front of floor-to-ceiling windows that gaze out onto a sea of brightly lit office towers. Although van Hoytema says he struggled throughout the shoot “to infuse soul” into his first digital feature, he was able to exploit the low light sensitivity of the ARRI ALEXA.

“I love everything about film, and I know exactly what I can achieve, texture- and feeling-wise,” the cinematographer reveals. “But we chose digital specifically for those night sequences in his apartment, where the city outside the windows is so vibrant and bright. We didn’t want to do a lot of augmenting in post, and with the Alexa we could use extremely low-level light sources [for the interior] that were still controllable.”

Control, yes, but not without challenge. Van Hoytema says a 1K tungsten lamp, which is amongst the lower level sources, created so much spill it wasn’t worth the effort. “I mostly used small LEDs, like the shot near the end where he’s standing in front of the windows,” he adds. “I hung an LED light box for an overall ambience, that we could also color exactly as the city appears outside. The [light] registers we worked at were so incredibly low and subtle, which were enabled by the camera and high-speed lenses.”

Varying the glass in front of the digital sensor was how van Hoytema “texturally shaped” the movie. “I used coating-less Cooke lenses, high-speed Zeiss lenses, and old Canon zoom lenses from the 1970s. For every situation, I had a piece of glass that would give an interesting look,” he recalls.

The marriage of ultra-fast lenses and an ultra-sensitive digital chip also allowed for a liberating production environment inside the confined apartment. “We worked very much like a small film crew,” Jonze explains. “Just one small monitor, which didn’t have a color-corrected image or anything, for me to check framing.”

Van Hoytema says he loves “a set where you can judge exposure with your eye, and practical (and ambient) light can determine exposure. The trade-off [with high-speed lenses] is a short depth of field, which creates a certain look, for sure. But we embraced that, with the [soft] city lights throwing off so much color and light behind him.”

Color and light were also prime elements in Her’s art direction. Barrett, who has worked on all of Jonze’s films, says the future he designed was just around the corner. “We didn’t want to prognosticate about how different things would be, but rather how familiar they’d appear,” Barrett observes. “My reference point was Fahrenheit 451, where the furniture, the homes, the landscapes were all recognizable. They shot in suburban France and chose not to include elements that would make a definite assumption about where the future was headed.”

Barrett says he was enamored with red and wanted to include just a hint [due to its power] in every frame. “We referenced a photograph of a burning cigarette that was mainly out of focus with this one red dot [from the flame] to complete the composition,” he adds. “When we threw a red jacket on Amy Adams, the camera tests looked so great that the default color became different shades of red throughout. Hoyte wanted to avoid blue, so we skewed our spectrum accordingly.”

Her’s playful use of color is evident throughout. Two walls of soft LED light panels in Theodore’s apartment dim and rise as he enters and leaves. “Sometimes those wall lights were pink, sometimes they might have been a warm color reflected in the window at night,” Barrett recalls. “It was a futuristic touch people will recognize right now.”

A similar freedom of color and shape permeates Theodore’s office, at The opening scene depicts the writer gazing intently into his computer screen as a slow pullout reveals geometric cubicles awash with natural light, streaming in through large colored windows. Employees of Google or Yahoo! or any modern ad agency would feel right at home.

“Spike wanted a fun working environment where you float from space to space, and anywhere you drop your laptop is home,” Barrett reveals. “He wanted joyous, which I translated into being a riot of colored Plexiglas, instead of paint, which really helped us out budget- and schedule-wise, not having to alter an existing location.” The downtown L.A. space featured skylights that allowed indirect light to enter, “which we would interrupt with the colored panels,” Barrett says. “This is the second film I’ve designed for the Alexa, and its latitude continues to impress.”

Van Hoytema embraced the colored Plexiglass. “My previous film [The Fighter] was quite monochromatic, so I actually loved the chance to insert color wherever we could,” he offers excitedly. “I would often use [LED-based] light for a shop window behind a character, and make it a strong color. Or, for the shots of Joaquin walking through the city at the beginning, we would insert a splash of bright color around him.”

Scarlett Johansson is the voice that ultimately captures Theodore’s heart. But the actress who began the part, Samantha Morton, was on set in a sound booth, interacting directly with Phoenix – no doubt a big part of how natural were the many long handheld close-ups of Phoenix in intimate conservation, as well as scenes of their consummation.

“That was the only way to do this,” Jonze insists. “[Using the sound booth with Morton] was something everyone looks at as a luxury when you’re trying to cut down the budget. But I knew it was [a workflow] we had to keep.”

“I had headphones on the whole time we were shooting, so Samantha’s presence was always there,” van Hoytema recounts. “The dialogue felt real because Joaquin was reacting to a real conversation.

“And it was so intimate at times, shooting handheld as he was lying in bed with a 35- or 50-mm lens right on his nose,” he continues. “This film is so much about character nuances – subtle facial expressions, emotions in the eyes – and I didn’t want to call attention to the camerawork. Going handheld is already a stylistic choice, so, in this example, restraint was a true virtue.”

As was van Hoytema’s ability to visualize what in any other movie would be heavily clichéd scenes of first love – sunset at the beach, visiting an amusement park, a picnic in a grassy hilltop setting. “Of course we were aware of the cheese factor, so to speak, of depicting these kinds of scenes,” the cinematographer relays. “But when you see something through the eyes of someone seeing it for the first time, it has depth. Samantha’s visit to the beach is the first time she sees human bodies – in bathing suits – so it’s naïve and almost innocent. The sun is a big source to fight against, so we used bounced light, as well as the older lenses, which helped to express the physicality of the light through flaring. That’s a film trick, but I loved it here because it makes you so aware of the presence of light, which is what Samantha is experiencing.”

Encountering the story, organically and spontaneously, is also how van Hoytema approached Her’s trio of sex scenes, which are all covered from Theodore’s point of view. “We didn’t storyboard a single frame of the movie,” the DP laughs. “We were just living through Joaquin in those scenes, which are always awkward to shoot. [Samantha has a sex surrogate come to Theodore’s apartment so she can experience it physically through a real person via a tiny dot of a camera on the surrogate’s cheek.] They’re more intimate than they need to be for your own space and comfort zone, but they demanded the same unobtrusive and naturalistic framing as the other scenes. If we framed up a shot with a strong, obvious intention, we would reframe to maintain that organic, gentle quality that is respectful to the actors. I loved using the 35-millimeter Zeiss high-speed when we were really close to Joaquin; it’s an intimacy you can’t get with anamorphic.”

For a series of warm, sun-drenched flashbacks, van Hoytema had to visually define the most essential moments of Theodore’s past relationship. “Memories are typically romanticized,” he states, “and in this case, we had to see what was beautiful to Theodore without appearing too nostalgic. I tested Baltars and other old lenses, and in the end I fell for this set of Cooke [primes] that had no coating. It’s just pure glass with light bouncing all around that lent an appropriate patina.”
Not many DPs can boast of using a lens from an Ingmar Bergman film. Van Hoytema says the 2.8 20–110-mm Canon zoom that came from Sweden was made in the 1970s and employed for a series of shots when Theodore walks up a hill (shot in Lake Tahoe), with the sun refracting wildly into the camera. “It’s so heavy with so many weird glass elements,” he recalls. “It had very old-fashioned coating and artifacts, so it’s always a surprise what the outcome will be.”

Surprise and exploration have always defined Jonze’s close-knit filmmaking team – other regulars besides Barrett include producer Vincent Landay, costume designer Casey Storm, editor Eric Zumbrunnen, and set decorator Gene Serdena – so Van Hoytema’s open, collaborative style fit right in.

“It’s ironic that I was working on a commercial with Lance Acord years ago and raving about the camerawork on [the Hoytema-shot] Let The Right One In,” Barrett recounts. “This material was less dialogue-driven than our past films, so Hoyte’s European style of visual storytelling was a good match for the material.”

In fact, van Hoytema was trained in classical cinematography at The National Film School in Lodz, Poland, a background against which he now enthusiastically rebels in so many ways. “I’m a very different cinematographer from how I was taught,” he smiles. “I’m much more apt to mix lenses and light sources, as we did on Her. Working with Spike facilitated that. He’s so creative and open-ended, with few rules or barriers. He triggers your creativity in so many interesting ways, and doesn’t force ideas on you so much as let everyone discover the most organic way to film a scene. He really listens to his collaborators and the feeling on the set is that your ideas have a chance to soar.”

Director of Photography: Hoyt van Hoytema, NSC, FSF
Steadicam Operator: Chris Haarhoff
Additional Operators: Colin Anderson, Joseph Messier, Daniel Turret, Christopher McGire
1st ACs: Zoran Veselic, Keith Davis
Additional ACs: Nico Bally, Craig Bauer, Mateo Bourdieu, Robert W. Campbell, John T. Connor, Simon England, Travis Daking, Tommy Klines, Jay Levy, Steve McDougal, Paul Tilden
Still Photographer: Merrick Morton

By David Geffner / Photos by Sam Zhu