Lincoln: Spielberg Film’s Visual World

“Lincoln” would take Steven Spielberg not only into one of the most riveting moments in American history, but into fresh visual territory—working in a style at once vivid and raw, strong but minimalist. He took this leap with the same family of acclaimed film artists with whom he has collaborated for decades, including director of photography Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn, production designer Rick Carter, costume designer Joanna Johnston and composer John Williams. Though each of these men and women have their own creative shorthand with Spielberg, they also knew this was going to be a distinctly different experience.

“This was a very intimate and quiet production, because Steven made it all about words and performance,” observes Kathleen Kennedy. “This was a more personal experience.”

Janusz Kaminski, who garnered Oscars for “Saving Private Ryan” and “Schindler’s List,” was intrigued by finding potent but honest imagery for a story that is often about the sheer power of what a man says. “It’s a story that really demands the audience listen,” he notes. “So when I read the script I immediately started coming up with ideas about how to capture all these words in visuals. It was clear to both Steven and to me that there should be a feeling of restraint in the photography—that we should just photograph these unfolding events in the most beautiful, elegant of ways and let the language and performances be at the center of everything.”

He goes on: “We were interested in letting audiences discover the Lincoln they don’t know. The film shows a Lincoln who is uncertain, who is vulnerable. And I think Steven’s staging along with the camerawork, in its spareness, reflect that human side of the president.”

Kaminski wanted a stripped-back sensibility, but also a texture and a palette that would transport audiences—not into something that feels historical but into scenes that could be happening right now. Observes Kathleen Kennedy: “Steven and Janusz discussed at length the use of color and light in ‘Lincoln.’ Steven didn’t want to make a black-and- white or sepia-toned film; rather, they used a rich saturation of color that has some qualities of black and white. We also have over 145 speaking roles in this film, so it was important to frame each scene so the characters are taking you to the next beat in the story and not necessarily the camera. That was a bit different for Steven.”

Though he and Spielberg pored through a plethora of historical paintings and photographs for reference, once on set, they keyed into a more instinctual approach. It became about finding the stark power in quieter moments—Lincoln and Grant talking on the porch while ghostly soldiers ride towards unknown fates; Lincoln standing in the hazy light of the window as he realizes the 13th Amendment has just ended slavery in America. “Steven is never afraid of strong imagery,” Kaminski comments. “He is very willing to use transcendent moments like these in his storytelling.”

Some of Kaminski’s favorite scenes came inside the chaotic House of Representatives. “Those scenes are all about the performances and the debate of ideas. There are some interesting dolly moves characteristic of Steven’s visual sensibility, but it is all very understated,” he explains.

These scenes also electrified Kathleen Kennedy. “The camera never moves in these scenes unless it’s in the service of the narrative. Steven wanted to show the human intricacies of how a democratic government works, so it was never about cutting from one talking head to the next but about really giving the audience a sense of how the arguments were progressing,” she says. “More than anything, Steven wanted to capture the volatility of what was going on in this political battle.”

Throughout the film, Kaminski aimed for period naturalism in the lighting. “It’s 1860, so Lincoln’s world would be lit with gas and oil lamps,” he notes. “We used a lot of existing light sources, light coming through windows, light from lamps, but we also created light sources to better serve the storytelling. Smoke was also utilized to give the film a moody patina and because Lincoln’s environs would have been filled with it. There were constantly people smoking pipes, smoking cigars and there was no ventilation, so rooms all had that smoky atmosphere.”

For Kaminski, “Lincoln” not only revealed another side of the U.S. president but another side of the director with whom he’s collaborated for so long. “This was not just another movie,” he says. “None of the movies I’ve made with Steven are just another movie, but there is something so significant about ‘Lincoln.’ It is a piece of entertainment but it is also a story of great importance.”