"TR," written and directed by Todd Field, is a unique film on many levels, paying homage to the often conflicting and open-ended narratives from the 1970s, including "Five Easy Pieces," "The Conversation," and "The Last Detail." But what makes the film unique is its richly textured cinematography, for which Florian Hoffmeister has been nominated for an Academy Award.
Hoffmeister's visual imagery is highly expressive, with lighting that subtly delineates the scenes in which well-known conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) is performing (whether it be on a stage or at a one-on-one lunch with a colleague) and the moments where she is "authentic," whatever that may mean in the context of this often ambiguous film. Yet there's also a stripped-down detachment to the camera placement, as Hoffmeister
Hoffmeister uses a strong key light to convey her power and reinforce the sense that she's always on stage in private moments like those where Lydia is alone in her studio. The light on Lydia's face is gone — she's under fluorescent lights that make it appear like she's about to undergo surgery.
Hoffmeister's often dazzling lighting is a tricky to define conflict, and this is one of the reasons why the film encourages repeat viewings and close analysis. The degree to which Lydia's supremacy is attractive or off-putting seems to shift as a viewer becomes familiar with both the visual nuances and the subtleties of Blanchett's performance.
Field and Hoffmeister spent weeks on camera testing before coming to the realization that their intentions required a handmade approach that involved both custom-built lenses and a new digital film emulsion,” said Hoffmeister. Hoffmeister immediately understood the degree of authenticity to which Field aspired, and began testing a wide array of lenses that he did not want to depict Lydia or her surroundings.
Field and Hoffmeister fell in love with an old glass, which was idiosyncratic to say the least, but which we later refined so he could change the optics. He didn't want the cinematography to be too clean and clinical, but he also didn't want any flares or other visual interference that would erode the visual objectivity that he and Field desired.
"TR" is a loose term.
Courttesy Everett Collection/Focus Features
When it came to achieving the film's unusual visual characteristics, Hoffmeister considered the use of custom lenses as a substitute for post-production grading. “He was extremely interested in it, because it demonstrated how you could combine digital and film to create a perfect celluloid-like appearance.”
Both Hoffmeister and Field loved the idea of the celluloid appearance being baked into the digital "negative," rather than something that was entirely manipulated in the DI. "You would still have the ability to grade as if you shot on film, but with a mode of capture that was understandable from the start," Hoffmeister said. For Field, there's a significant practical benefit that he believes will give cinematographers back the creative rights they've previously lost.
Making "TR" a precise modulated character study in the New Hollywood classics, even as it departs from them in exciting new ways (most significantly in following the turbulent life of a female protagonist) is crucial. Like Lydia Tár's art, "TR" achieves a timeless quality drawn from the past while pushing fearlessly into the future.