James Laxton


James Laxton, ASC

Hawk 1.3x and Vantage T1 glass offers distinct flavor for recent projects

Like most top cinematographers, Laxton relies on intuition as much as technical expertise.

“If I can explain a concept in a way that comes from concrete ideas with very clear reasoning behind them, I’m a little suspicious,” he says. “I find that the best choices that I’ve made as a cinematographer are the ones that can’t be explained and are not necessarily understandable. They’re from a much more intuitive place – a choice just makes sense in ways that possibly aren’t meant to be described in words. That’s what I love about the job and about films in general. There’s magic to them. That’s what I fell in love with as a child watching them, and what I try to search out when I’m working.”

Of course, for cinematographers, that mysterious creative spark leads eventually to choices in terms of gear and cinematic grammar. Laxton’s delicate and humane camerawork on Best Picture Oscar winner Moonlight garnered praise from all quarters, including Oscar, BSC and ASC Award nominations for the cinematographer. Often shouldering the camera himself, he crafted a rich, high-contrast look that put audiences into an immersive, first-person perspective. Counter to the trend towards vintage or softer lenses – often chosen to mitigate what is seen as digital’s excessive clarity – Laxton used Hawk V‑Lite Anamorphics.

            “I thought that sharp, high contrast images fit the picture’s overall aesthetic,” says Laxton. “I had a great experience with the lenses wanted to continue to use the glass going forward.”

            Since Moonlight, Laxton has gone on shoot a range of assignments, including the pilot for an Alan Ball-created HBO series titled Here, Now that concerns a multi-racial family, as well as a commercial for Jordan, a line of athletic shoes from Nike. His focus on finding the right look for each job is apparent in both projects.

            Here, Now required a visual design that echoed the collage-like nature of the story and characters. “There was a creative need to be a little nontraditional,” says Laxton. “I wanted something subtle that still gave me a little extra in terms of style. I tested the Hawk 1.3x anamorphics and felt they were a great choice for this show. The 1.3x squeeze worked well with the 4:3 sensor, resulting in a 16:9 aspect ratio. We didn’t want an overly cinematic, stylized effect – it was important to us to be true to the performances, to the script and the concept at large. We thought the 1.3x squeeze would have an effect on the audience without being overt about it.”

            Hawk 1.3x Anamorphics squeeze the image less than standard 2x anamorphic, lending flavor to the image without the drawbacks of full-on ‘Scope cinematography.

“The way these lenses flare and catch the color really speaks to me,” he says. “It sounds contradictory, but there’s a softness to the sharpness that I find really interesting. They are flattering to the actors, and I don’t need to add filtration to make people look good. They help me get the kind of images I’m looking for on screen.”

Laxton went spherical for the Nike Jordan spots, which depict a sun-kissed summertime pickup basketball game in the park. He shot with an array of formats including Digibeta, 16 mm Bolex and ALEXA Mini cameras – the latter with Vantage Film’s T1 lenses, which offer an astonishing combination of flavor and speed.

“For me, the T1s were another way to keep from getting too stylized,” he says. “It’s a different look than a sharper prime lens, and still cinematic. In a way, there are three lenses in each lens, because optically, the lens looks very different at T1 compared to T1.4, and at T2.8 compared to T1.4. On some projects, that might be a problem, but if you’re on a show that needs different looks, I can see it as a great advantage.”

With all the recent developments in filmmaking technology, Laxton feels lucky. “The number of options available to storytellers is exciting,” he says. “We’re all looking for new tools with which to express ourselves. The new push for more lens options is really a wonderful development. Along with advancements in LED lighting, gimbal systems and more – I feel very lucky to be where I am.”

See Laxton’s Nike Jordan spot here: https://vimeo.com/229302136.

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