How Emma Stone Helped ‘Poor Things’ Cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s Timing

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Photo Source: Robbie Ryan and Emma Stone on the set of “Poor Things” Credit: Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures

Between “The Favourite” and “Poor Things”—a pair of lavish, operatic comedy-dramas—director Yorgos Lanthimos has crafted a distinct cinematic calling card that stands apart from his more measured and sardonic previous work. This is owed to two recognizable elements: actor-producer and lead Emma Stone, and the off-kilter camera work with which Lanthimos presents his warped realities. The filmmaker and Stone make a remarkable pairing, but a third person is just as important to their work: Robbie Ryan, the cinematographer on all three Lanthimos-Stone feature films, including the upcoming “Kinds of Kindness.” Ryan’s insight sheds light on why the trio’s collaborations feel so strange, yet so precisely timed.

“Poor Things” follows Bella Baxter (Stone), a Frankensteinian experiment who, despite being a grown woman, takes in the enormity of the world through a child’s eyes after her creator used a baby’s brain to reanimate her. This concept and character perspective innately lend themselves to Lanthimos’ now-signature look, which he further transforms to suit the story. He employs not only Victorian-inspired costume designs—a logical extension of the regency setting of “The Favourite”—but Petzval lenses, which would have been used to take photographs in the Victorian era. Of these, the most frequently recurring tool in Lanthimos and Ryan’s arsenal is the short lens, which bends and stretches the dimensions of a room until nearly every corner is visible. The shorter the focal length, the more extreme the contortion—and in Lanthimos’ movies, the lenses border on fisheye. (Think of a GoPro or a Hype Williams rap video.)

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“Yorgos really enjoys an immersive experience,” Ryan says. “His cinema is very much about space and the way we see things.” Not only do short lenses warp physical space, but they exaggerate movements too, making timing all the more vital as Lanthimos’ equally elaborate characters traipse across the screen. After all, both “The Favourite” and “Poor Things” involve memorable dance sequences—performed in ways both ridiculous and liberating—and Ryan fittingly compares the act of coordinating these scenes to a dance itself. “It helps if there’s a bit of rehearsal,” he says, chuckling. “I like to think that I’ve got a good sense of rhythm, so the dance becomes all about [instinctive] timing.

“Obviously, that’s gotta be the same for the dolly grip as well,” Ryan adds, lauding Attila Szûcs, the “Poor Things” crew member in charge of pushing and stopping the camera dolly on its tracks—usually the job of the dolly grip, but in this case, key grip Szûcs did the majority of the dollying. The cinematographer credits Szûcs, along with Lanthimos and Stone, for developing a linguistic shorthand, and thus, an instinctive control of the camera and all its related tools to maintain technical synchronicity and create fluid motion in the process.

Kathryn Hunter, Emma Stone, and the cast of “Poor Things”

When it comes to executing shots with complex movements, Ryan heaps praise not only on his fellow crew members, but on Stone herself. “Poor Things” makes deft use of zoom lenses to craft what Ryan refers to as the director’s “visual slapstick.” Sometimes, Lanthimos’ punchlines are purely visual, rather than oral. Ryan even recalls struggling to perfect the timing of one bizarre shot, where he had to stop pushing in on Willem Dafoe’s mad scientist character, Dr. Godwin Baxter, just as he lets out a burp in the form of a cartoonish bubble; stop too soon or too late and the disgusting hilarity doesn’t land. However, Stone’s part in these moving shots was more complicated, given her character’s energetic, animated nature. The anecdotes Ryan shares about Stone reveal just how precise the entire team’s coordination had to be, including the actor’s. “We start on a closeup of her eye, and we come out to her asleep in bed. Her lack of movement there is integral, because [the frame] is so close on her eyeball that any movement of the head would’ve messed the shot up,” Ryan recalls.

The perception of film actors at the peak of their craft often involves total immersion into the character. However, an awareness of the camera becomes necessary when balancing as many moving parts as “Poor Things” has—from the magical realism of its sets and costumes, to the performances of its sprawling cast, to the camera that zooms and spins around to capture the scenes in all their dimension and detail. Ryan explains, “[Stone] can probably hear the zoom going out, and she knows she can move a bit more, but that’s because she’s the professional that she is.” 

For another example of this heightened awareness, Ryan returns, once more, to dance. This time he describes Stone waltzing not only with one of her costars, but with Ryan’s camera rig as well. “She and Mark Ruffalo are dancing in Lisbon, and she’s obviously leading the dance for us, and we react to that. But she can see that there’s a big dolly with a camera on it, and that if it’s coming to a stop, she can come to a stop.

“Her sensibilities and her sense of timing [are] phenomenal,” he adds. “She knows how to do a lot of stuff to help us.”

This story originally appeared in the Feb. 2 issue of Backstage Magazine.