Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is one of those films that I have a bi-polar appreciation for. Because of the decisions made by the studio to build momentum up to the last two films of the franchise, the sixth installment ended abruptly and anticlimactically. Along with that is a number of other criticisms I have with it, almost all of them relating to differences between it and its book counterpart, and I’m pretty sure they make the Half-Blood Prince my least favorite film in the Harry Potter series. But where this film polarizes me is in its cinematography, which is arguably the best ever done by the series altogether.
Out of all the films in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the only one that was nominated for an Oscar for Best Cinematography; that fact isn’t a surprise at all, either. The cinematographer behind this film was Bruno Delbonnel, who’s also known for his work on Amelie, as well as the recent Coen Brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis. He may arguably be the most well-recognized cinematographer the Harry Potter series ever had.
The great thing about Bruno Delbonnel was that he always wanted to challenge himself on the set. Every single scene in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince looks like it had effort put into it, whether it was a serious moment in the film, or whether it was Lavender Brown obsessively breath-fogging a heart into a window for Ron as Harry awkwardly sat watching. One of the directions David Yates took in direction of this entry in the series was that it would be more light-hearted than the last installment. Because of the Half-Blood Prince being the penultimate entry in the series, this film was done in a way to let us revisit Hogwarts as a normal teenager one last time; focused more on love triangles, love potions, Quidditch matches, and skipping classes, it served as a calm before the storm that was to come with the final Deathly Hallows films.
Keeping this in mind, Bruno approached the film’s look with an ominous backdrop. Every light-hearted scene was done with bleak colors, a dreamlike glow, and an overall style that subtly set in stone the fact that all of this was only temporary. It was the film’s way of showing that everyone was trying to make the most of what they could with the time that they have.
“Some of the sets are there since the very first Potter. How could I light them in a different way? This question brought another one based on the series itself. It was Potter number six, the story was less about the big fights than the relationships between the characters. Nevertheless the drama is still there and I thought it would be interesting to have those very intimate stories amidst this very dark mood. As if the school was a dark character. That’s when I suggested to go for this (again) dark moody variations of grays.” – Bruno Delbonnel, Oscar.com
Up until Harry Potter and the Prisoner Azkaban was helmed by director Alfonso Cuaron, the Harry Potter films weren’t exactly captured like art films; they were approached as children’s movies, and the focus mattered somewhere else. After Alfonso, the movies began to grow in maturity as Harry grew older, and the look of the films evolved as part of the process. Having done work on films like Amelie, it was expected that Bruno Delbonnel would bring a lot more classical style of cinematography to this film than the other entries in the series have seen. Wide shots, for example, were something heavily implemented in the Half-Blood Prince. Where at some points they were put in as an artistic choice, in other instances they served to show more than one focus point in the scene.
Silhouetting the subjects in the shot was also something Bruno didn’t implement lightly here. Almost every scene was filmed in a manner that wasn’t straight-up pointing the camera at what’s happening in front of it.
The scene where Harry and Dumbledore enter the cave was cited by the cinematographer as a particularly challenging task. In the book, the only light that illuminated the cave was static, remaining in one place at the bowl. What Bruno decided to do was have the light rise up in the air and circle around both characters, adding a more dynamic approach to an unsettling scene.
This film was a goodbye to life at Hogwarts; the final entries were set on the run. The difference that the series took on in its style not only kept its appeal to children, but it also helped retain the integrity of the Harry Potter series as standalone films. Take a look at the stark contrast between the following scenes because of the different approaches they had in cinematography.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince:
Or the scenes Harry had with Dumbledore.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets:
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince:
Every scene you see of Hogwarts in the Half-Blood Prince is a fading memory. Where the first two films were filmed without any depth because there was barely any worry, the last few films are now capturing the beauty of the magic in Harry’s world as it slowly fades away. Bruno shoots Hogwarts like it’s a candle; it’s flame is burning out, and the kids are taking one last moment to look back at it.
The last line of the film was from Harry, as he watched Dumbledore’s phoenix fly away from the school, never to come back: “I never realized how beautiful this place was.”