Most people only think of the Harry Potter movies as a family-friendly, adventure/fantasy saga that serves as a cash-grab for all ages. People usually don’t think of the franchise as an outstanding piece of work in any field, but rather, as a whimsical, nostalgic, blockbuster, distraction from reality. When it comes to 6th film in the Potter installment, the cinematography is wildly overlooked, and perhaps extremely underrated. I’ll go as far as saying Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is one of the most beautifully shot movies I’ve ever seen.
Bruno Delbonnel, the Director of Photography for The Half-Blood Prince, was nominated for an Oscar in 2010. However, his work for this film still flies under the radar. Bruno was able to take a movie in a blockbuster franchise and create an aesthetic that highly corresponds with an arthouse, modern-day, film noir motion picture. The Harry Potter series was slow to find its niche after the first two movies struggled between the lines of PG and PG-13. The 3rd movie did a great job of establishing the direction of the series by advancing at the same pace as the fans’ and actors’ ages. Alfonso Cuaron, the director of The Prisoner of Azkaban, set the tone for the rest of the series by providing a template on how to brilliantly portray the Wizarding World and specifically Hogwarts. Bruno Delbonnel doubled down on Cuaron’s work and created a beautiful, yet bleak, aesthetic of the beloved fantasy world. Let’s take a look at how he did it.
The Half-Blood Prince is both the lightest and the darkest Harry Potter movie. The stakes are extremely high, yet the main characters are still experiencing their final chance at being normal teenagers. The film focuses on character relationships including romance, friendships, and betrayals while the fate of their world crumbles around them. Bruno highlights this perfectly through framing, lighting, and color. The story focuses on the characters finally facing dangerous truths and realities that will change their lives forever while desperately clinging to the young age of 16.
Color and Lighting
The cinematographer admitted that he found this film challenging to shoot because most of the sets had been used in all six movies leading up to that point. Bruno wanted to approach the film differently by taking the bleak and chaotic atmosphere to a whole different level. There are so many shots in this movie that look like it could come straight out of a painting. The contrast between this film and the other films in the series sets up the highly anticipated finale perfectly. The beginning of the movie serves as the calm before the storm. As the movie goes on, the lighting in each scene gradually becomes darker and less saturated. Even the Quidditch pitch, a place that serves as happiness and solitude for Harry, gives off a sense of uneasiness. The color often reflects both the action and emotion of the characters. The bathroom fight scene between Harry and Malfoy becomes one of the best scenes in the series because of its bleak color and lighting. The scene is almost black and white, but it perfectly demonstrates both Malfoy’s increasing despair and Harry’s plummeting desperation.
Bruno Delbonnel uses the framing of each shot to portray the stakes of the film without using dialogue to add any context. Each frame tells the audience something about the story, theme, or character.
This shot below highlights the theme of the film without using any dialogue whatsoever. Harry is waiting for his date to get off work until Dumbledore arrives in classic Dumbledore fashion. Harry immediately ditches his date because he realizes, despite only being a 16 year-old, the fate of the world lies heavily on his shoulders. It’s a story beat that feeds into his desperation more and more as the events go on.
Bruno uses framing to display the contrast between the light moments and the dark moments from beginning to end. Below, the cinematographer uses a quirky and cozy shot to illustrate Harry’s safe space filled with friends and family. This shot directly contrasts the scene later in the film when Harry’s only peaceful environment is engulfed in flames.
As the year goes on, characters become increasingly isolated. Delbonnel used wide shots in the great halls of Hogwarts to silhouette the characters into isolation, especially Draco Malfoy, who throughout the entire film faces a psychological crisis.
Delbonnel also uses creatively framed wide shots to display the vital relationships between two characters such as Dumbledore and Harry. The full frame gives an important sense of intimacy for the two characters who are in their final moments together. Delbonnel does a great job at letting the audience know how high the stakes are for Harry. He does it beautifully with Dumbledore and Harry positioned outside the intimidating cave facing insurmountable odds.
Deserving of More Credit
Bruno Delbonnel’s ability to take a children friendly, blockbuster franchise, and transform one of the movies into a film-noir, arthouse, looking film is outstanding. He completely revolutionizes the way cinematographers can go about making blockbuster movies. This cinematography in this movie isn’t just the best in the series, but rather, in my opinion, it is one of the best shot movies of all time.