A long time director of photography who had his start filming optical effects, Robert Elswit made his name being the personal cinematographer for director Paul Thomas Anderson. Having shot all of the young director's films thus far, Elswit created his most challenging work and earned his highest praise shooting "Boogie Nights" (1997), "Magnolia" (1999) and "Punch Drunk Love" (2002). Outside of working with Anderson, he was no less successful, creating unforgettable camera work on "Syriana" (2005) and the black-and-white "Good Night, and Good Luck" (2005). Though not as well known as Roger Deakins or Janusz Kaminski, Elswit nonetheless was considered to be in the upper tier of cinematographers, thanks in large part to his Academy Award-winning work on Anderson's sprawling western, "There Will Be Blood" (2007).
At first, Elswit wanted to attend the University of California, Los Angeles with aspirations of working on the technical side of theater. But when he realized the market for stage production jobs was poor, Elswit transferred to the University of Southern California, where he joined the film program instead. After graduating USC in 1975, Elswit attended the American Film Institute, then left two years later in 1977 to work for Apogee, followed by Industrial Light and Magic, working in special effects photography at both. He contributed to the optical and special effects photography on sci-fi classics like "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (1979), "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" (1982) and "Return of the Jedi" (1983). Elswit honed his chops on low-budget fare early in his career, shooting the well-regarded character drama "Summerspell" (1983) and the rather predictable romantic comedy "Waltz Across Texas" (1983). For someone who never intended on becoming a filmmaker, Elswit certainly hit his stride early in his career.
Over the next couple of years, Elswit moved away from special effects camerawork and concentrated instead on being a director of photography for features and television. After shooting mediocre projects like "Moving Violation" (1985) and "The Sure Thing" (1985), Elswit won a Daytime Emmy Award for his work on "The War Between the Classes" (CBS, 1985), a compelling daytime drama about a group of students learning the painful results of prejudice on an academic, social and personal level. Elswit spent the rest of the 1980s churning out respectable work on television - namely on "Tiger Town" (1986), "Into the Homeland" (1987) and the period biopic on the celebrated photographer "Margaret Bourke-White" (1989) - while paying his dues in the feature world on less-than-desirable horror flicks like "Trick or Treat" (1986) and "Return of the Living Dead II" (1988). He continued working in television into the 1990s, shooting movies-of-the-week like "A Killing in a Small Town" (1990) and "The Summer My Father Grew Up" (1991), but it was apparent the medium was limiting his creativity.
After leaving the confines of the small screen in the early 1990s, Elswit began to establish himself as a top feature cinematographer, starting with his work on "Waterland" (1992), a compelling drama about a school teacher (Jeremy Irons) who tries dealing with his problems by examining the events of his life with his students. He landed higher-profile features like "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" (1992) and "The River Wild" (1994), a fast-paced adventure that gave Elswit opportunity to beautifully photograph the rapids at Grants Pass along the Rogue River in Oregon. After shooting the inconsequential romantic comedy "The Pallbearer" (1996), starring David Schwimmer, Elswit made his first collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson on the director's debut film, "Hard Eight" (shot a couple years before its 1997 release), a stylish crime thriller that earned him a nomination at the 1998 Independent Spirit Awards for Best Cinematography.
With his career in full stride, Elswit had his first taste of a blockbuster film with the eighteenth James Bond installment, "Tomorrow Never Dies" (1997). Though he considered the script "silly," Elswit nonetheless enjoyed being part of the "giant British thing" that included large sets, and wasting time and money shooting background plates that were never used. Reuniting with Anderson, he shot the director's breakthrough film, "Boogie Nights" (1997), a colorful, high-gloss look at the porn industry in the San Fernando Valley during the late-1970s and early-1980s. Because of numerous interior scenes, Elswit decided to shoot with an anamorphic lens to widen the scope after testing with Super 35, which he hated. The result was a freeing of interior shots from claustrophobic close-ups to widescreen panorama, which enhanced throughout the film, the growing isolation of a porn star (Mark Wahlberg) falling from grace after a meteoric rise to the top. Elswit helped Anderson create indelible images for "Magnolia" (1999), including a torrent of frogs descending from the heavens to litter the streets of the San Fernando Valley, uniting a random group of people in a most unexpected way.
Elswit went back to Hollywood fare with the gritty "8MM" (1999) and the forgettable "Bounce" (2000), then shot Anderson's fourth film, "Punch Drunk Love" (2002), starring Adam Sandler and Emily Watson. He brought the characters to the forefront, mostly using the colors of the character's costumes - namely Sandler's electric blue suit - against mainly white-walled sets. After shooting "Runaway Jury" (2003) and the cinematic travesty that was "Gigli" (2003), Elswit adopted a quasi-documentary style for Stephen Gaghan's serpentine political thriller "Syriana" (2005), using hand-held cameras and natural lighting in order to convey a sense of objectivity to the multiple storylines dealing with the global oil industry. Completely avoiding the use of stylistic flourishes or overwhelming visuals, Elswit was able to project each scene from a particular character's point-of-view, which was crucial to dramatizing such a sprawling, convoluted and seemingly unreal world. Though "Syriana" was hailed by critics and earned several award nominations, Elswit's outstanding contribution was sadly overlooked.
Just a month removed from "Syriana," Elswit jumped onto his next project, "Good Night, and Good Luck" (2005), George Clooney's sophomore directing effort about CBS news anchor Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) and his on-camera battle with Senator Joseph McCarthy (depicted with file footage) during the red scare of the early 1950s. Though the finished product was seen in glorious black-and-white, Elswit actually shot the film in color and turned down the saturation knob to zero during the digital intermediate process. The choice came about after he and Clooney decided that the exposure on existing black-and-white cameras was too slow for their shooting schedule. To aid the change in post-production, Elswit had the production designer paint the set in monochrome, presenting an interesting, but ultimately rewarding lighting challenge that paid dividends. Elswit was widely recognized for his outstanding work, earning several award nominations, including his first Best Cinematography nod at the Academy Awards.
After filming the bright and gauzy spoof "America Dreamz" (2006), Elswit returned to Oscar form with two stunning achievements: "Michael Clayton" (2007) and "There Will Be Blood" (2007). On the former, he joined writer-director Tony Gilroy for the tale of a world-weary corporate fixer (George Clooney) tasked with straightening out a mess caused by his firm's top lawyer (Tom Wilkinson), a manic depressive who jeopardizes a case after stripping naked during a deposition in order to sabotage a case he no longer believes in. Then for P.T. Anderson's fifth film, "There Will Be Blood," Elswit returned again to anamorphic photography, grandly capturing the stark landscape of West Texas (substituting for Bakersfield, CA) for this sprawling tale about a rising oil tycoon (Daniel Day-Lewis) doing battle with a young preacher (Paul Dano) over land containing a large ocean of black gold underneath. Elswit was hailed for his extraordinary work and won his first Academy Award for Best Cinematography.