Cinematographer Linus Sandgren and director Damien Chazelle make no secret of the fact that they wanted the camera movement in La La Land to feel like another character in this love song to Los Angeles. In our latest Through the Lens installment, Sandgren talks us through two very different scenes in the film. Sandgren waltzes us though the opening sequence that required Chazelle and the production team to shut down an LA freeway to set the tone for the film, and takes us behind the scenes of Another Day of Sun.
Following that, Sandgren dissects the planetarium scene that sees Mia and Sebastian sneaking into the Griffith Park Observatory in an homage to Rebel Without A Cause.
Read how the scenes came together below.
The Opening Dance Number:
For this scene, Damien had already figured out the choreography for the dancers before we even had the location. We had already started working with Mandy Moore, our choreographer. We worked with cars parked on the lot where our production office was.
We started rehearsals with the dancers using our iPhones figuring out the camera moves and figuring out how we were going to shoot it with the Steadicam. We thought about having it on the camera when we wanted to boom up with the crane.
When we found the location, it was always meant to be the Freeway, but in this case, we found the freeway ramp which made things more complicated as it wasn’t on ground level. For starters, it wasn’t easy to go on and off the ramp. So, we had to change the thinking about the choreography of the camera because all of a sudden there’s this divider so we’re no longer able to walk at street level with the Steadicam, and we couldn’t pass among the lanes properly. So, we abandoned the idea of the Steadicam and went for a crane so we could move more freely between the lanes and the cars.
We went back to the parking lot and rehearsed with two cameras. One that was the camera and one that was the crane. Damien did the move with the camera, and I did the move with the crane so that I could calculate where the crane needed to be to get those shots done.
Then we realized no matter what we did we were going to get camera shadows so we had to think about how to move the camera without getting shadows. The only way to get around that was to divide it in three. We had to shoot two scenes in the afternoon, and one in the morning.
We needed a crane, we would need either a 45-foot MovieBird crane which we used. We put it on a platform which was a drivable process trailer. It’s actually made for car scenes with stunt drivers, but you could also use it as a camera platform, so we used it for that.
45 feet wasn’t enough. So, in one lane we parked the platform and have the crane work from there, but the crane had to move back and forth with the traffic. We worked that all out by doing the blocking on the parking lot and it involved a lot of changing the camera movements and the choreography in order for the sequence to work.
We only had certain hours to shoot, if we waited too long we’d get camera shadows. So, we’d rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, and then shoot from 10am to 11am. After that, we’d have to wait until later. Peter Kohn who was the first assistant director suggested we shoot it in two days and rehearse it in two days up on that ramp. We shot it over a weekend and that part of the freeway was blocked that weekend. They had also blocked it off the week before for rehearsing, and thanks to that rehearsal we figured out we’d need more cars and that we needed to raise the crane up higher. Had we not done that, we would have screwed it up on the day of shooting.
Throughout the movie, we’d work out choreography in that production office and lot. We had a dance studio there, a parking lot, and the art department was there, so we only had to walk from one department to the other. Afterward, we’d go to the locations and rehearse on location.
Damien and I would sit down and draw the entire film on a floor plan just to make sure we were communicating with the camera, grip, and the dancers to show how the camera would move with the shots.
The other obstacle was when we started shooting it was actually cloudy, but when we shot, the weather actually improved.
We had to spread water throughout the area. We also had to have speakers as we covered at least 150ft. We drove that truck back and forth with a crane on and people had to walk back and forth. The bathrooms were so far away.
The end of sequence uses a Steadicam and at the end, the camera turns around, and we had a crane hidden on the truck.
This scene starts with Mia and Sebastian sneaking into the planetarium, which comes from that Rebel Without A Cause reference. They break in, and it’s meant to be charming. So, there’s that cartoon feel to it with the shadows, and they’re running.
The Griffith Park Observatory was very strict with what you could do there. We had to shoot during a specific time. So, with this scene, we covered the windows. We weren’t allowed to actually touch the windows. We also wanted to do a 360-degree shot and would need lights in a certain place, but again, we couldn’t touch the walls.
David Wasco, our production designer built a smaller wall using the same colors and copied the marble so we could attach lights to. For me, it’s important to have lighting that’s complimentary. So, if it’s a beige room, we’d have cooler lights that would make it richer. That sequence was filmed on stage because the real planetarium wasn’t shootable for that, as we needed them to fly up with wires, and we couldn’t have wires there. We built a copy of it.
So, in this scene, they come in and they’re attached to wires. In the ceiling, we had soft lights, almost LED spotlights which were attached to a piece of software that had video images. The stars that were going to be in the sky were fed into this video feed and that feed told the lights what colors they had to project. They could project the same colors to Emma and Ryan in that room, as the image would have projected to make it look similar to that image.
The light was actually very modern. Then we flew them up and shot on a crane and Steadicam.
The exteriors were shot at night and that whole planetarium scene took two days to shoot.