With Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema has firmly propelled himself to the status of cinematographer of the moment.
The journey has not been easy for the Swiss-born technician. The lenser of Her, Tinker, Soldier, Tailor, Spy and Interstellar was rejected twice by the Netherland’s Film Academy before being accepted. by Poland’s National Film School, which has birthed numerous world cinema luminaries, including Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Kieslowski and Roman Polanski.
Even though van Hoytema dropped out of the film school in his third year, he managed to work on numerous productions. The 1995 film Vanitas, which van Hoytema directed, shot and starred in, survives on the internet. The seven-minute curiosity shows little of the epic scope showcased in Interstellar, but makes apparent where van Hoytema’s real interest lie: in creating a visual mood and tones behind the camera. The black-and-white short has no plot and simply explores the absurd happenings at an old house.
Van Hoytema spoke about the early rejection and his gradual shift towards cinematography from direction in a revealing interview, “When I applied from high school, I was just so immature, I just had some sort of idea that I wanted to do that. I think that at some point these ideas start to formulate themselves into drives. It is very hard to define where that comes from, but I really wanted it badly. I didn’t have an 8 mm camera in my father’s closet, I just had some idea about how this was and how it could be and what it meant.”
His work on the Swedish vampire film Let The Right One in (2008) was noticed, and since then, he has worked with some of Hollywood’s biggest directors, including Nolan, Darren Aronofsky and Sam Mendes. Van Hoytema’s collaboration with Nolan began after the director’s frequent collaborator, Wally Pfister, moved into direction. Van Hoytema collaborated with the exacting filmmaker on the science fiction film Interstellar (2014).
Of his collaboration with Nolan, van Hoytema told The Hollywood Reporter, “My first impulse was to tell Chris that I could never be Wally, and I’m a very different cinematographer. … I had the feeling I could use my own personally.” The two also share a common love for shooting on film, although unlike Nolan, van Hoytema has also shot in digital and has experimented with an array of cameras and film formats.
On Spike Jones’s futuristic Her (2013), he used digital photography for the night scenes to create a version of Los Angeles that felt completely artificial. That look was also aided by the fact that Jonze and van Hoytema shot the neon haze of Shanghai. Van Hoytema’s work on the film was also inspired by the work of Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi, which helped him create a version of the future that was “soft and intimate”.
Although van Hoytema has become a much sought after name in Hollywood, he continues to lives in Stockholm with his family and returned to the country for Call Girl (2012). The cinematographer’s next project is Lost City of Z director James Grey’s science fiction film Ad Astra, starring Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones. If van Hoytema’s past films are anything to go by, the film is guaranteed to be an epic visual treat.