Much celebrated cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, who actor Russell Crowe described as the “master of the light”, sadly passed away this week at the age of 59. Top 10 Films takes a look at his finest work…
Andrew Lesnie wasn’t a man many people would have been familiar with, prior to December 2001. An Australian cinematographer, the most popular films he’d worked on until that point was the franchise about a talking pig, and perhaps a little known (or seen) film starring pop songbird Kylie Minogue.
Andrew Lesnie catapulted himself into world cinematographic attention with the release of the first film in Peter Jackson’s epic Lord Of The Rings saga, The Fellowship Of The Ring – so much so, he was awarded an Oscar (among others) for his work on that film. Fellowship opened the door to Middle Earth in a way nobody even dared dream possible. From the subtle color grading of Hobbiton to the shadowy, desaturated world of Mordor, the Lord Of The Rings trilogy not only made Lesnie a household name among cinephiles (largely due to his personable nature on the BTS material on the DVD releases!) but to many aspiring filmmakers, a genius.
Mr Lesnie passed away this week, and so I figured what better way to salute him here at Tom 10 Films than to give you the best movies he lensed throughout his career. Naturally, we’re looking at the LOOK of the film rather than the overall quality of the story, because the “image” was Lesnie’s strength as an artist.
10. The Delinquents (1989)
A very young, pre-UK-fame Kylie Minogue co-starred in this dramatic misfire with Charlie Schlatter (you’ll know him if you’re a fan of Diagnosis Murder!) about a forbidden love in 1950’s Australia. Even though the film lumbers through Minogue’s cumbersome performance, and her chemistry with Schlatter is something to behold in the same manner as an abortion, The Delinquents has a resolutely soft-hued look that works to set the film’s period detail and tone to perfection.
9. Doing Time For Patsy Cline (1997)
Sure, you’ve never heard of this film, and that’s okay, because it’s not very good. It’s a story told in flash-forward and flashback about an Aussie country music singer who dreams of making it big in Tennesee. Starring future Lord Of The Rings alum Miranda Otto, and Mission Impossible II’s Richard Roxburgh, Doing Time For Patsy Cline snagged Lesnie an Australian Film Industry Award for his cinematography (his first). It’s an average film, but Lesnie’s DP work is first rate.
8. I Am Legend (2007)
With its much maligned ending, I Am Legend became one of those cautionary tales about overusing CG when practical effects would have worked better. I Am Legend is a post-apocalyptic story about mankind’s end times, and Lesnie’s shattering lighting on this movie reminded me a lot of Peter Hyam’s work in The Relic. That sequence where Will Smith goes into the darkened building after a deer, where it’s almost entirely lit by torchlight: just thinking about that gives me shivers.
7. Bran Nue Dae (2009)
A film that didn’t get much traction outside of Australia, Bran Nue Dae’s musical background gave Lesnie a chance to show off his Babe-skills once more, giving this movie a verve and pop not seen since the mice warbled “If I Had Words” at the back end of Babe’s victory at the sheep trials. Starring Geoffrey Rush, popstar Jessica Mauboy and Babe alum Magda Szubanski, Bran Nue Dae’s Outback Australia setting gave us one of the most epic, most beautiful backdrops for a song-n-dance film in years.
6. Lord of the Rings: The Return of The King (2003)
The concluding chapter in Peter Jackson’s epic masterpiece remains a gorgeous work of fiction, both from a story perspective but an overall creative one. Lesnie’s use of color in this film is on-par with his work in Fellowship and The Two Towers, although here I think he works best when depicting the grey, evil stench of Mordor and her orc hordes. The warm brown tones of the Elves clashing with the grass green and gold motif of Edoras, as well as the storming of the Pellennor Fields by the Oliphants as Howard Shore’s sweeping battle score swells in the surrounds; goddamit, I don’t think Rings would have worked as well as it did without Lesnie making it look as crisp, as beautiful, as postcard-ish as it does.
5. Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011)
When you’re dealing with a film involving incredibly detailed CG apes, it’s perhaps tempting to not pay as much attention to the rest of the film, particularly the look of the movie. Andrew Lesnie’s work with Rupert Wyatt on making this film feel “futuristic” yet still within the present is exquisite, as is the use of light and shadow to capture the mood, the essence, of the titular apes as they transition from harmless to… well, harmful. A great film, and a great looking film.
4. The Lovely Bones (2009)
Although audiences (including myself) didn’t fall for The Lovely Bones as heavily as we had Lord Of The Rings (and even less than we enjoyed King Kong a few years earlier), Andrew Lesnie’s work in lighting this heavily flawed film is just astonishing. The “heaven” sequences (at least, I think they’re heavenly) where a young Susie Salmon resides following her murder at the hands of a psychopathic Stanley Tucci, are filled with an aching beauty that literally transcends the screen.
3. King Kong (2005)
Of all the problems Peter Jackson’s bloated adventure film remake of King Kong endured, its cinematography wasn’t on the list. Wildly uneven in narrative tone, at least audiences were treated to a non-stop orgy of Lesnie’s beautiful colors and lighting. From the ochre streets of 30’s New York City, the dank bilge tank of the SS Venture, and the shadowy underbelly of Skull Island’s tropical jungle, there wasn’t a moment of King Kong that didn’t look absolutely magnificent. I admit, not even the Blu-ray version does this justice – Kong remains a treasure for the big screen, not the small – as big as possible, to capture all of Lesnie’s joy in this monstrous adventure.
2. Babe (1995)
I doubt there’s a human alive who didn’t watch the end of this movie with a tear in their eye or a lump in their throat. Babe’s fantastical world of talking animals and a grunting James Cromwell wouldn’t be half the film it was without Lesnie’s fairy-tale lensing. The colors on this movie just pop (if you’ve never seen it on Blu, you’re missing out), and with both exquisite framing, (still) solid CG effects and magnificent location photography, Babe remains an enduring classic in almost every sense.
1. Lord of the Rings: Fellowship Of The Ring (2002)
It’s hard to watch this movie even now and not see the utter beauty of Lesnie’s work. The soft-focus magnificence of Middle-Earth, as well as its harsher settings and those with ethereal beauty, makes this film the high-point of his career. Although the Blu-ray releases have been plagued by erroneous color tinkering, the original DVD/Blu release of the Theatrical Edition of Fellowship remains perhaps the most gorgeous thing ever committed to a digital format.