Considering that Variety named Jonathan Sela a “billion-dollar cinematographer,” saying that the filmmaker has been successful feels like an understatement. But Sela has earned a reputation beyond just the financial success of his movies. He’s developed a knack for coming on board a firmly established franchise (Die Hard, Transformers, Deadpool, and an upcoming Fast and Furious spinoff) and finding a way to leave his distinct visual mark on it. We spoke with the cinematographer about how he finds room for his voice in the epitome of the Hollywood machine.
Selecting a Different Kind of Sequel
Sela has had a pinch of luck when it comes to making distinct franchise films. Whenever he’s come on board a series, it was already aiming to do something different: A Good Day to Die Hard was the first John McClane movie set outside of the United States; Transformers: The Last Knight took place in Europe and the Middle Ages; Deadpool 2 turned its solo hero into a team member; and the upcoming Hobbs and Shaw is the first Fast and Furious spinoff.
But it’s not entirely luck; it’s also a preference and choice. “I don’t know if I would be as interested in someone saying, ‘We’re doing the sequel — can we just create the same thing, have all the same sets and the same look?’” says Sela. In other words, the first step to leaving a mark on a franchise is finding a project that allows for the opportunity to do so.
The cinematographer likes to feel that out early on. “I always try to figure out from the filmmaker how much they want to stay true to what has been established,” he says. When on board, he’ll also ask key questions to spy out how this film will be unique. For example, regarding Hobbs and Shaw, he says, “When we met and talked about it, I asked, ‘Why are we doing this movie? What are we doing different?'” That advance eye toward room for distinction is a key part to making it happen.
Story Influences Look
When Sela starts a project, visuals aren’t the first thing he thinks about. That would be story. For Sela, narrative inspires aesthetic. However, even though franchise films are part of a larger ongoing story, that wider narrative isn’t his focus. “I don’t really take the previous storytelling much into consideration,” he says. What matters to him most is the story he’ll be telling now.
To determine look, he discusses character, plot, tone, and dialogue thoroughly with his collaborators, to hone in on their version of the franchise. You can see that work in Deadpool 2 in a somewhat subtle way. The film has a softer thematic focus – it refers to itself at one point, not entirely tongue-in-cheek, as a “family film.” As such, you see it in the softer and warmer aesthetic in the film, in particular moments that hit that thematic point.
Cinematographer Jonathan Sela, Credit: Joe Lederer
Distinguish with color
Color is one of the best tools a cinematographer has, and it’s a primary way Sela likes to distinguish his films. That can especially make his franchise films stand out from their predecessors. Sela, in particular, gravitates toward associating color with character. “It’s a very subtle way to bring my own statement of visual storytelling to a film,” he explains.
Note, for example, how the DOP worked Deadpool’s dominant red into the background of moments like the film’s skydiving sequence. Sela also makes his mark with color during what he calls “break-offs” — sequences that are inherently different from the rest of the story. Most notably, you see that in sequences set in the future where the character Cable comes from. Those sequences are given a very different visual look – including camera angles and color schemes – than the rest of the movie. “They allowed for another specific moment or tone that needs to be very distinguished. That’s where you can take things to a whole different place,” says Sela. An entrepreneurial DOP can find opportunities like that in any film.
Work Your Speciality into the Project
Anyone who has seen Sela’s work — especially his collaborations with David Leitch (John Wick, Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2) — knows that shooting great action sequences is one of his hallmarks. It’s become common for modern action sequences to be so hectic – in both editing and shooting style – that they can be disorienting. Sela believes it’s vital for viewers to always know what’s happening. “I’m really big on making sure the geography’s clear,” he says. “You don’t want the audience to be confused about who is where and who is talking to who. If you get lost, you lose the meaning of the scene. You don’t want to lose that.”
To preserve a cohesive geography, he’ll even participate during choreography coordination and training, shooting it on camera and giving notes. “That’s extremely helpful, because then you walk in and you know the geography; you know where the camera needs to be,” he says. Not every cinematographer can, or will, bring a speciality in action to a franchise film to leave their stamp on it. But the broader point is that every DOP has something they’re innately good at. Knowing what that is, and bringing it to whatever project you take on, is a surefire way of impressing your voice on the project.
Think Small to Go Big
Even though Sela has worked on franchise films with up to $200-million budgets, one key way he approaches them is to think small, no matter how big the films are — in budget or concept. “I still remind myself that sometimes the simple way is the best way. I don’t want to ever get caught up in the idea that you need all this money to make something,” he says. That creative restriction simultaneously creates freedom to make decisions that lead to more distinctive work.
“I feel like, as an artist, you need to be in a box to be able to make the right choices,” he says. “You can do everything with very little.” Being boxed-in, in that way, allows him to discover his entry point into a film – franchise or otherwise. “I’ve got to put my voice on it, and make it clear what we need, and how we’re going to do it, and try to create a path,” he says. But Sela also makes very clear that lots of people work together to create any distinctive film. As much as he looks to make his mark, he explains, “It’s really about bringing everybody together.”
Top Image: Deadpool 2, Courtesy of 20th Century Fox, © 2018. All Rights Reserved