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Cinematographer Dan Laustsen on creating Nightmare Alley’s noir look

If you’ve seen a visually stunning horror movie in the last 20 years, Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen probably had something to do with it. The cinematographer has been one of the unsung leading creative forces in the horror genre, among many others, for the past 25 years. From Mimic to Brotherhood of the Wolf to Silent Hill, Laustsen has brought to life nightmarish visions of otherworldly creatures and ghostly landscapes.

It’s fitting that Guillermo del Toro, a frequent collaborator of Laustsen’s, brought him on board to bring to life the noir world of Nightmare Alley. From seedy carnivals to surreal funhouses to the imposing Art Deco cityscape of 1940s Buffalo, Laustsen imbues each scene with color and shadow to convey Stan, the film’s lead character, slow descent into murder and madness. Nominated for an Academy Award this year for Best Cinematography, Laustsen talked to Digital Trends about his collaborative process with del Toro, how he sought to create Nightmare Alley‘s distinct looks in the first and second parts of the film, and how he composed every scene to be seen in both color and black and white.

An "Oscars Week" badge on a still of Bradley Cooper in 'Nightmare Alley.'

Digital Trends: How did you become involved with Nightmare Alley?

Dan Laustsen: I’ve done three movies with Guillermo del Toro: Mimic, Crimson Peak, and The Shape of Water. He was thinking about [filming] this movie called Nightmare Alley, which was based on a book, and somebody else had made a version in 1947. The first time I heard about it was when we shot The Shape of Water in 2016. He always has a lot of movies in the pipeline, and he’s not sure which one is he is going to do and which one he isn’t. But he asked me to [film Nightmare Alley].

How long did it take to shoot Nightmare Alley?

Lilith lights a match for Stan in Nightmare Alley.

I think we shot for 90 days. We shot for maybe close to two months before getting shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We shut down for six months [before resuming].

How did you approach that challenge of pausing production for six months? Did you have to change filming locations too?

No, we shot everything in Toronto. We shot the second part of the movie first [before the break]. By accident, we shot all the big scenes later on during the COVID pandemic, all the big crowds in the carnival. It was a big deal for the production to [make sure those people were safe.]

It was kind of a nightmare in the beginning because you have all those masks, face shields, and social distancing when normally, when I’m filming a movie, I’m sitting very closely to Guillermo to talk about what we’re going to do. When we returned to film, everything was Walkie-Talkies and face shields, so it was really difficult for me because I like to personally interact [with the director]. And you couldn’t do that [after COVID]. It was difficult.

The film’s visuals seem to pay homage to not only classic film noirs, but also to some famous art, photography, and architecture of the period. You mentioned you didn’t watch the 1947 version of Nightmare Alley, but did you use any specific references to achieve the look of the 2021 version of Nightmare Alley?

Split image of Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai & Cate Blanchett in Nightmare Alley.

Guillermo always makes concept drawings and color palettes for his movies, and he does that before anyone else [comes on board]. So, he has this color palette for how everything in the film should look like, and I think that’s a really great way to do it because then everybody is starting from the same point. [del Toro] had some ideas about classical and horror painters [and some] Art Nouveau [influences]. We didn’t sit down and watch specific films, but [we knew about] classic film noirs directed by Orson Welles. We didn’t use that as a reference, but we just talked about [them].

When we started to prep the movie, we wanted to light the color movie like it was a black and white movie. We want to [use] single-source lighting and very direct light. The lighting in the carnival should be more like single-source lighting, but much more soft light. And when we are coming into the Buffalo sequence [and] the Copacabana club, we wanted to use very precise lighting [with] deep shadows. We light it [like it was] was black and white, but of course, [the film] is in color.

That’s an interesting point because the film has been released in both color and black and white versions, and both work on their own. It’s the same film, but it’s a different feeling you get from both versions.

Stan performs his act on stage at a club in Nightmare Alley.

I think the way the reason it works so well in black and white is that we were thinking about that [from the start]. I didn’t know we were going to release [the film] in black and white. We just had this clear idea about shooting a color noir movie like it was shot in black and white. The lighting should [have] the same deep shadows and bright highlights. And one of the things that helped us a lot, I think, was when you’re shooting [with a] Alexa 65 and very high-quality lenses like the Signature Prime, the image is getting very, very sharp. It was too sharp for this movie, so we shot with a diffusion filter. Normally, you put that in front of the lens, but we put it behind the lens. That filter [helps to bring out] the excess skin tones and [makes the image] a little less sharp. It’s just diffusing that image a little bit, but you still keep the black [colors] really black. That was another way to help us [preserve] the black and white look and feel of the movie.

The film has two distinct parts: Stan’s time in the carnival, and his later career as a nightclub performer in Buffalo. How did you decide to create the visuals for each of these parts? Did you conceptualize them as distinct parts or did you create each look scene by scene?

Stan arrives at a carnival at night in Nightmare Alley.

[Guillermo and I] talked about the movie as two distinct sections. The carnival section should be a little bit more realistic but still very atmospheric with very strong sidelights [that are] softer and in deep shadow. We wanted to carry over the steel blue in the carnival to the [second section] in the Copacabana club [in Buffalo]. The key light was warmer in the carnival section and the shadows were less black and the contrast was a little bit softer, but [we] still [used] single-source lighting.

Can you talk about your approach to lighting certain characters in Nightmare Alley? Lilith, Cate Blanchett’s character, was lit in a way that emphasizes her power.

Stan greets Lilith at the club as Molly watches in Nightmare Alley.

The first time you see [Lilith], we used a crane shot to focus on her, so you know right away that this woman is special; she’s like a diva, a very powerful diva. Guillermo and I talked about how we should light her. We used very precise lighting on Cate so you have this super strong and Art Nouveau look on her.

She’s a fantastic actor. Both [Cate] and Bradley [Cooper] are amazing professionals because they hit their marks and lights all the time. You can’t do that with all actors. If they’re not hitting the marks, it doesn’t work. It’s a kind of a ballet between the cast, the camera, and the lighting. And the only way that works is if the director and the cast are up for it as well.

You talked about the first part and how it employed a particular color palette and sort of softer look than the second part. The second part’s visuals had a lot of blues and greens, particularly in the climactic scene in Ezra’s maze-like garden. Can you talk about how you achieve that effect?

The steel blue that we used in the background of the carnival section is the same steel blue you see in Ezra’s mansion. I like the color balance between warm and steel blue. We didn’t want to do two completely different looks in the movie, so we kept the same kind of background color [in the second section].

You maintained a continuity of color, but you just emphasize particular color over another in each section. In the carnival, blue is in the background because Stan is with other people. He’s not alone. He’s with his ersatz family. But in the second part, he’s all alone, especially at the very end. Molly has left him, Lilith has played him like a fool, and that’s why we get the steel blue [in the foreground].

Yeah. It’s a very powerful lighting setup; you have a very contrasting black light, which brings out the steel blue [color]. But I didn’t want to make it too monochromatic. That’s the reason we have [some] warm tones and [contrasting] colors. It was important for us for the movie not to have an A-side and a B-side. It has to have the same [overall] look. But on the other hand, it had to be different [as well].

Nightmare Alley (2021)
Nightmare Alley
70 %
r 150m
Genre Crime, Drama, Thriller
Stars Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Willem Defoe
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Nightmare Alley is available to stream on HBO Max and Hulu.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY | Official Trailer | Searchlight Pictures

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Jason Struss
Section Editor, Entertainment
Jason is a writer, editor, and pop culture enthusiast whose love for cinema, television, and cheap comic books has led him to…
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