Looking Through The Lens To Find "All the Light We Cannot See"
Tobias Schliessler, ASC
ASC Award nominee Tobias Schliessler discusses the inspiration of Netflix’s limited series, and reuniting with director Shawn Levy

It’s already been an eventful awards season for work lensed by Tobias Schliessler, ASC--and perhaps even more recognition is in the offing. On the feature film front, Schliessler shot Rustin (Netflix), which scored Oscar, BAFTA and Critics Choice Award nominations for lead actor Colman Domingo. 

And for the limited series All the Light We Cannot See (Netflix), Schliessler--in tandem with exec producer Shawn Levy, who directed all the episodes--garnered a coveted Golden Frog nomination at Camerimage. Next Schliessler received his first career ASC Award nomination on the strength of the show's second episode. These honors and assorted others--including a DGA Award nod for Levy, Producers Guild and Golden Globe Award noms, as well as a Film Independent Spirit Award nomination (for Aria Mia Loberti, Best Breakthrough Performance in a New Scripted Series) squarely place All the Light We Cannot See in the Emmy Awards season conversation. 

But the common ground between Rustin and All the Light We Cannot See extends beyond the awards show circuit. For one, each project marks the second time Schliessler has shot for the director involved--George C. Wolfe for Rustin, and Levy for All the Light We Cannot See. Schliessler first lensed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom for Wolfe while the DP’s initial go-around with Levy was The Adam Project.

Furthermore, Rustin and All the Light We Cannot See--which both premiered in November 2023--carry historical significance. Rustin is based on the life of civil rights activist and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner Bayard Rustin, an often overlooked figure who organized the 1963 March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his world-changing “I Have A Dream” speech. Rustin was also a gay man who personally battled discrimination and alienation on that front as well.

And while All the Light We Cannot See is based on Anthony Doerr’s fictional novel of the same title, winner of a Pulitzer Prize (adapted for film by writer Steven Knight), the series does impart profound lessons from history, following the story of a blind French girl named Marie-Laure (portrayed by Loberti, a first-time performer with limited eyesight in real life), and her father, Daniel LeBlanc (Mark Ruffalo), who flee German-occupied Paris with a legendary diamond to keep it from falling into the hands of the Nazis during World War II. The series explores the worlds of Marie-Laure and Werner (Louis Hofmann), a German soldier, whose paths cross in France. We find that these two characters on opposite sides of the war have a unifying bond--radio broadcasts they listened to as children featuring a professor who inspired them and provided a sort of sanctuary for their hearts and minds during tumultuous times.

For Schliessler, Rustin and All the Light We Cannot See carried a deep and inspiring sense of purpose for all the artists involved, including himself. Both stories, assessed Schliessler, delivered messages that are relevant and timely. It was a privilege, said Schliessler, to get the opportunity to tell Rustin’s story as a gay Black man making history. Similarly the DP was honored to be involved in an All the Light We Cannot See narrative that shed light and generated empathy during a dark period in history marred by Nazi atrocities and the tragedy of war. He also found first-time actress Loberti to be a true inspiration, making her limited eyesight incidental thanks to other attributes such as undeniable acting talent, fearlessness, considerable poise and an incredibly strong work ethic.

When Doerr’s book first came out, Schliessler’s sister turned him onto it, thinking he would connect with and embrace the story. The DP did just that but didn’t think he’d have a realistic opportunity to shoot any film or TV adaptation. He remembered telling his sister at the time that the chances of him shooting the project, if it came to pass, would be akin to the odds of him winning the lottery. But lo and behold while lensing the Netflix feature The Adam Project, Schliessler heard that Levy was going to direct All the Light We Cannot See. Schliessler expressed his interest in the book to Levy and wound up getting the gig. The cinematographer felt lucky to be chosen by Levy, adding that being involved in All the Light We Cannot was the fulfillment of a dream that began when he first cracked open Doerr’s novel.

From a technical standpoint, Schliessler said that among the prime challenges posed by All the Light We Cannot See was matching the lighting and feel in the scene where Werner runs through Saint-Malo to get to Marie-Laure as a night bombing is taking place. This scene was shot in three different places and two countries- first, in Budapest on an exterior stage set, part on location in Saint-Malo, and lastly in Villefranche-de-rouergue. Making it feel like it’s all happening in one place and in one running sequence was definitely a major challenge, but ultimately it turned out nicely and the audience couldn’t tell.

Schliessler said he deeply valued the collaborative relationships that shaped All the Light We Cannot See. Paradoxically, he contributed visually to a story that was underscored by the power of audio--specifically the transformative impact of radio broadcasts on the protagonists, one of whom was blind which meant the sense of hearing was all the more important to her in terms of connecting with the world at large. Among the many artists who complemented Schliessler's visual sensibilities as a cinematographer in order to help do justice to this aspect of the story were, of course, Levy, and others with expertise spanning production design, visual effects, music and sound, costume design and editorial, as well as Loberti herself who provided the perspective of a sight-challenged person. In an earlier SHOOT interview, Schliessler had observed that Loberti made him “think about lighting in a different way, for example keeping my lights as low as possible as her eyes are extremely sensitive. It was these little things that I never had to think about before which were a good lesson for me in adapting my work to meet the needs of others.”

During a SHOOT Chat Room interview in October 2023, Levy talked about the balance of sound and images in All the Light We Cannot See. “The novelist told me this was a story about radio, the power and impact of this medium when it first arose,” recalled Levy. “It’s a two-sided blade with the power to inspire and inform on one hand, with notable outcomes--and on the other hand, the power to spread hate and propaganda. Joseph Goebbels [Hitler’s propaganda minister] said that the Nazi party would never have risen to power without the radio. This tool of technology conveys both information and disinformation. It’s profoundly powerful. Overall sound was important to our story. We wanted our show to have as rich a sonic soundscape as a visual soundscape.” 

In addition to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Rustin, The Adam Project and All the Light We Cannot See, Schliessler’s body of work includes Ava DuVernay’s feature A Wrinkle in Time, and an extensive filmography with director Bill Condon spanning Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh; Dreamgirls, which earned eight Oscar nominations, including two wins for Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Hudson) and Sound Mixing; The Fifth Estate starring Benedict Cumberbatch; Mr. Holmes featuring Ian McKellen in a tour de force performance; and the live-action version of Beauty and the Beast starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens.

The collaborative bond with Condon continues to build as at press time Schliessler was in Uruguay lensing the feature adaptation of the Broadway musical Kiss of the Spider Woman starring Jennifer Lopez. 

This is the first installment of SHOOT’s weekly 16-part The Road To Emmy Series of feature stories. Nominations will be announced and covered on July 17. Creative Arts Emmy winners will be reported on September 7 and 8, and primetime Emmy ceremony winners will be covered on September 15.)

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