Lawrence Sher was born and raised in Teaneck, New Jersey, and grew up with a passion for photography. He chose instead to study economics, graduating with a degree from Wesleyan University in 1992. But, his desire to work with images was stronger, so he packed up and moved to Los Angeles, taking on any projects he could find. He partnered with a friend, Scott Wiper, for a short film, “The Return or Wes Lauren” before they both spent 18 months writing, producing and editing a feature length film, “Captain Jack.”
Lawrence then segued into television, shooting B movies such as “On the Border” and “Shark Attack.” His first indie film, “Kissing Jessica Stein,” was directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, who he would also work with on the TV movie “The Facts of Life Reunion” and the TV pilot “Legally Blonde.” Soon after, he shot “Garden State” directed by Zack Braff, and “The Chumscrubber,” directed by Arie Posin, which launched his career at the Sundance Film Festival. During the course of the next few years, he shot “Dan in Real Life,” “The Promotion,” “Trucker,” and “I Love You, Man.” In 2009, he teamed with director Todd Phillips on the wildly successful “The Hangover.” He and Todd went on to shoot “Due Date” and the “The Hangover Part II,” which was recently released. His most recent work includes “The Big Year,” directed by David Frankel, which will debut this fall, and he is currently in New York shooting “Dictator,” with director Larry Charles. Lawrence took some time to discuss his relationship with Panavision and his work on “The Hangover II.”
Q: What was your route to becoming a cinematographer?
LS: My dad was a doctor and had a passion for nature photography. He had given me a camera when I was a kid and we took a school trip Paris where I shot some photos. My dad looked at the photos and told me they were really good, which boosted my enthusiasm for photography. It gave me confidence that I had a good eye. But I put it away, and went to college, studying economics at Wesleyan University. While I was in college, I took a film class and it woke up a sleeping giant. I realized I was still interested in photography, so after I graduated with a degree in economics, I moved to LA to pursue cinematography. I literally spent every waking hour trying to get jobs as an AC or shoot with whatever cameras I could get my hands on. I was always in setup mode to try to shoot. I worked mostly on commercials for Marco Mazzai and Jeff Cutter, and worked briefly for Sal Tatino, ASC, but I was mainly trying to get myself behind a camera. As soon as I could, I started shooting short films. I made a feature with a friend of mine: we wrote it together, produced it, raised the money, he starred and directed in it, and we took it all the way through editing and distribution. It was called “Captain Jack,” and we spent 18 months, from beginning to end, on it. To me, it was the equivalent of going to film school.
Q: When and where were you when you were first introduced to Panavision?
LS: It was when I shot “Garden State.” I was hired on Friday and on Monday I was in New Jersey sleeping on my aunt’s couch and prepping “Garden State.” I can’t recall why we decided to go with Panavision, maybe it was the producers, but whatever it was, I was excited because Panavision represented what shooting a movie was all about. When I dreamt of shooting a movie I would think “Panavision cameras, Panavision lenses.” So we prepped out of Panavision New York and that really started it all for me. Since then, we’ve shot every movie but one with Panavision, it was just a small movie that fell in a gap.
Q: What was it that influenced your decision to become a cinematographer?
LS: I think it was first and foremost an absolute love of movies. As a DP, I really just love movies and I love being a part of the process of telling stories. Because I already had experience with still photography, it was that natural progression that I wanted to be a part of movies. Two of my friends were filmmakers and I shot their thesis films. I found an absolute desire to become a cinematographer. Reading articles about Connie Hall, ASC gave me the impetus to want to do it. For me, after reading Conrad Hall’s story, it gave me the feeling that “oh, yeah, I can learn this.” You read the stories about how he lit things, and how he failed, and it made me feel he was human. His winning an Oscar 30 years apart…that’s a long time in-between. What an amazing career.
Q: How long have you been using the same crew in terms of gaffer, AC, key grip and operator?
LS: I’ve used the same AC for over 10 years, Julie Donovan, who’s been with me forever. She’s been the most stable part of my crew. Some of early films I would work with others, but she’s always been part of my crew. These days, it’s getting harder and harder to maintain the same crew for every movie. My gaffer, Jarred Waldren has shot 6-7 of my last movies, my key grip, Sean Crowell the same. But, for instance, I can’t have them on this movie, because of the New York crew regulations, and the same with Vancouver. It’s not just me; it’s a fairly common thing. When you go to cities and other countries, the crew base is so strong and there are so many big movies shooting, that it’s harder to bring your crew.
Q: Is it difficult to start a movie with a new crew?
LS: It always is. That’s why it’s better for everyone if you can keep the same crew. We had a great run with Julie, Jared and Sean all together. There is an amazing shorthand and comfort that comes with that, and they become part of your family.
Q: You have started shooting digital. What is your decision-making process between shooting film vs. HD? And do you have a different approach with the different formats?
LS: In the case of the first movie we shot digitally, “Trucker,” we used the Genesis and economics was a primary consideration. We thought about shooting Super 16, but then we did a test, and I wanted to test the boundary of whether could I shoot with almost no lights. I found that with Super 16, even the fastest stock that Kodak had, the grain became part of a distraction in such low lights. So the Genesis became a no-brainer. For the scenes we shot digitally in “The Hangover II,” even though we had the money to light every street in Bangkok, we chose to shoot digital in order to utilize that look. I have always loved the work of Owen Roizman, ASC; he shot five of the best films I’ve ever seen. He also shot what to me is the best looking comedy of all time, “Tootsie;” he shot it incredibly real but very cinematic. He was one of those guys who went out and shot in what seemed real conditions and real light; it was real cinema verite and a reality that I always applied to my aesthetics. I love that concept. Because of that, I am always looking for situations that look good my eye: I am a reactionary filmmaker rather than an additive filmmaker. Film is still amazing, but when we shot with the Alexa, it provided an opportunity to shoot under conditions that look more real to my eye. So on this movie we are shooting digitally now, “The Dictator,” it’s a combination of really believing in the camera (I tested both the Alexa and the Red X Mysterium), we chose the Alexa. One reason we wanted a digital format is because Sasha Baron Cohen is the star and wants to shoot long takes. I wanted a camera that could shoot 20-25 minute takes, so it was a no-brainer. He suggested it and I jumped right on it. This was the second time we shot digitally and the second full feature. I shot two pilots with the Genesis. I’m still truly a film guy. But the nature of the business is that you have to consider digital for your tools. You would be short-sighted to dig your heels in on only wanting to shoot film. I’m excited about working with this medium and making it work for me and work for the project.
Q: “The Hangover II” was shot spherical. When choosing a format for a film, how much of that decision is related to your artistic take on the script vs. that of the director?
LS: Often it’s mine. In the case of this concept of shooting comedies, which I shoot a lot in a 2:35 aspect ratio, I used to get a lot more resistance from studios and filmmakers. Of the last ten films I’ve shot, only two have been 1:85, the rest have been 2:35 – either spherical or anamorphic. Similar to that philosophy, we are making a movie and that aspect ratio is what movies are, regardless of whether it’s a comedy, or a drama. I don’t think they should be shot any differently; they should be shot in the way the scene dictates. I would love to think that there are filmmakers who look at my comedies and show how you can use that format. I think comedies are just as cinematic as dramas. I am often championing that aspect ratio, such as in the case of “The Big Year,” which I felt very strongly that if there was ever a movie that should be shot anamorphic, that was the one, because of the image quality and the frame. A lot of time it comes down to the budget, but I am really happy and the director is also thrilled that we shot in that aspect ratio.
Q: When shooting “The Hangover II,” what can you tell me about how you designed your lighting to photograph key actors?
LS: My general philosophy going into lighting -- which I have held for a long time – is that I really believe in lighting sets, that the actors belong in the set, versus just lighting the actors. That type of environment exits when actors are living in a set, and they hit their mark. That’s not to say I don’t like clean-up actors, but I start with how can I light a set from the master to close-up to coverage, to minimize set up? How much time can I take to get there, so the energy of the set is maintained every single moment of the day? With “The Hangover II,” we were trying to maintain the same style, obviously realistic but a little more hyper-realistic. We wanted to shoot it as if it was a very authentic, realistic movie and the comedy will fall into place, and come through. We used a very strong color palette in Bangkok, but smoothed out the color in Los Angeles. Then, when they wake up in a hotel room, we used a little more contrast, a little more bite. We set up the lighting outside the set so the actors could feel comfortable, as if it’s very realistic. We run through every scene so that we are comfortable with it and the actors have the freedom to go wherever they need to in the set, and we can accommodate them.
Q: Are there any particular scenes in “The Hangover II” you can talk about where you really pushed the envelope on lighting?
LS: A scene I am particularly proud of is the opening scene in Bangkok, a 10-minute section where they wake up in the morning in a strange hotel. We built the stage at Warner Bros, it was a 2-1/2 story run-down hotel set with a courtyard area, a set of stairs, etc. Within that set, the power goes out two minutes into the scene, so it was obviously a challenge. There is no motivated source of light, except what comes through the window. So for ten minutes of the movie, with the strain of no electricity in the building, we have to build and project a source of light. I am very proud of this section of the movie and how it turned out. We tried to mimic that sense of sitting in a darkened room on a sunny morning, that sense of light trying to fight its way in. We had a translight outside and we had these old broken wooden blinds ripped apart, trying to create that sense of broken light seeping into the room. The challenge is when you are seeing both the windows and the actors, how do you light them without seeing the lights outside the window? We broke the set above so we could put lights on top that would motivate a light source outside down below. The light could splash into the room and give it vibrancy and expose the actors the way we wanted to see them. It was chaos outside the set if you saw the lighting setup! But I was super happy with the way it worked out. I had a real vision in my mind of how it should look and how I wanted it to look, and we achieved that. It’s a really fun section of the movie.
Q: Did you do a Digital Intermediate (DI) on this film?
LS: Yes. I have been a strong supporter of DI since I first saw it. The moment DI came onto the set, I saw the potential in it. I don’t believe DI should completely create the look of your movie by any means, but I have always believed it’s an amazing piece of technology and I love the concept of polishing your movie with DI. I have worked with Jill Bogdanowicz at Technicolor and have done a DI on the last eight of the last eleven movies I shot. It’s a standard now. Because of the different formats you have to produce, it just makes sense. There is no question that a straight chemically-printed movie is absolutely beautiful. “Road to Perdition,” is just about the most beautiful movie I have ever seen. But I shoot spherically, I shoot 3-perf, and with a movie like “The Hangover II,” we were finishing DI before they finished editing the movie. In that case, we had such a short post-production to get it ready for the following next week that there was no way around it, we had to do it.
Q: Do you have any favorite Panavision lenses?
LS: I’m pretty old school; I shoot with single Primo primes and Primo zooms. I’ve been shooting with the same lenses. The 11:1 is one of the best lenses every created, so versatile. It’s the most amazing high quality lens ever created. I’m pretty straightforward with my choice of lenses.
Q: Out of all the projects that you have shot, what was your favorite?
LS: It’s a really hard question to answer because making movies are all really fun to me. “Garden State” will always be up there because it was so important to my career; it helped propel my career like no other movie. Then came the first “Hangover,” which was amazing because working with Todd was so amazing and the results were so satisfying. “The Promotion,” which I shot anamorphically, was a movie I am very proud of even though it didn’t do very well, but it was the best experience. And working with David Frankel on “The Big Year” was an amazing experience. I have a love affair with every movie and every director I have worked. I genuinely love doing what I do so for me, the challenges and the struggles of making every movie makes each movie really special. They represent a period of my life.
Q: You have worked more than once with some directors. Do you prefer that?
LS: Working with the same director definitely makes it easier the 2nd time around. We had very little prep on “Due Date,” because I was finishing up “Paul,” but because Todd Phillips and I had done “Hangover” together it made “Due Date” a heck of a lot easier. I worked with director Jason Ensler on two pilots and a movie called “Grilled.” I love working with people who I have worked with previously simply because of that shorthand. The film business is about creating relationships and uniting people’s interests. With every movie I have more opportunity to work with people I admire, for instance, Greg Mottola, I loved working with him because I loved the films “Superbad” and “Adventureland.” So with all these opportunities I am fans of their films and then I have an opportunity to collaborate with them.
Q: If you had a chance to sit down with any cinematographer, past or present, which would that be?
LS: I wish I could have had a chance to sit down with Connie Hall, ASC before he passed away. I have had a chance to sit with Owen Roizman, ASC and every chance I get to pick his brain is always great. I am such a huge fan of Harris Savides, ASC. That’s one of the things about being a cameraman, I am working so much that I don’t have time to meet them. John Toll, ASC, I am a great fan of his, and Roger Deakins, ASC work as well. I am an admirer of more than a dozen working cameramen. To me, they are all a source of inspiration and influence: I watch their movies; I watch the aesthetics and try to incorporate their work into my work.
Q: Can you share with us what you consider one of the greatest photographed films?
LS: “Being There” is one of my favorite movies of all time. Caleb Deschanel, ASC’s work is so elegant and beautiful, and so simple in its photography. It captures a type of comedy that I always aspire to; I find myself watching it at least once every six months. Caleb did five or six movies during the seventies that I truly admire. I also think “Road to Perdition” is a near-perfect movie. I also just had the pleasure of seeing “The Tree of Life,” which may be the most emotionally beautiful photography I’ve ever seen on screen.