For West Side Story’s Camera, Imagination Was the Only Boundary

In The Portfolio, Awards Insider speaks with some of this year’s most notable Oscar nominees about their entire body of nominated work. Here, West Side Story cinematographer Janusz Kamiński revisits his remarkable 30-year journey to his seventh nomination. 

In what remains one of the greatest working relationships between a director and a cinematographer, Steven Spielberg and Janusz Kamiński are still going strong, 30 years since they first started together. They began with the tragic, brutal Schindler’s List before landing everywhere from the battlefield of World War II to The Lost World of Jurassic Park to 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. It’s the Polish D.P.’s seventh nomination overall, having previously won for his first Spielberg film, Schindler’s List, as well as Saving Private Ryan. His kinetic, glamorous, painterly work on their new film certainly puts him in contention for a hat trick, if only as an affirmation of just how much range he’s proven behind the camera. Watching West Side Story, you’d think he’s been lensing musicals all his life; clips on Twitter have spread far and wide indicating as much. In reality, Kamiński never cared much for the genre, let alone working within it. (“I grew up in Eastern Europe,” he tells me. “The superheroes were Stalin and Lenin.”)

“We both encourage each other to do good work and are not too intimidated by each other’s ability to perform the work,” Kamiński says of his collaborations with Spielberg. Here, he goes through each of his Oscar-nominated films, on the technique and evolution behind each of them—one of which, it bears mentioning, was not directed by his right-hand man. 

Schindler’s List (1993)

I was just too ignorant to realize the pressure and the significance of what this would mean to my career. I was 32, when you tend to be slightly more ignorant, I would say. I was in the process of becoming a cinematographer who had a certain panache, but was not well-established yet. I was on my way to break through. As Steven was doing Jurassic Park, I was doing Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for Disney with Stephen Sommers. So I’d already had my first big studio movie. I was not really nervous because I knew that Steven liked my work—due to the experience I had photographing a pilot for his television series called Class of ’61. As we were making that, I was getting little messages that he really liked the dailies. If you asked me to do that meeting [about Schnidler’s List] right now, after being in the business for 25 years and being a successful cinematographer, I’d be very nervous. But not then. 

I just watched Schindler’s List again several 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 period as a reference point, as an authentic image of that particular time. Being black and white, being in Poland during the winter, photographing the movie in the locations that the story took place and making people feel like they’re witnessing reality in front of them as if they’re watching a Hollywood movie. It is a Hollywood production, so within that concept, we created something where the audience has a sense of what it must have been like during the war, if they witnessed such an event.

Amistad (1997) & Lincoln (2012)

This is a wonderful profession because I have a chance to learn about each individual period. Any movie I make, I do extensive research where I want to learn about it. You’re learning about lighting fixtures, the colors, the texture, how people refer to each other. We’ve done a lot of period movies, Steven and I. We’ve got a couple of futuristic films, but we’ve never done a contemporary movie yet. We always go historical or live in the future. [Laughs]

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