The OTHER Oscars: Best Cinematography

The OTHER Oscars Best Cinematography The Grandmaster

While the nominees (and perceived snubs) in acting and directing will get the most digital ink in Academy Awards coverage, we at CraveOnline would like your attention for some of the “smaller” categories. Funny enough, our selected categories to comb through have had the most rule changes, the most committees, and nowadays, the most tweets of “who was that dude with the hair?” and “who was that homeless girl?”

NOTE: While Gmail shutting down for one hour didn’t end the world on Friday January 24, 2014, it did complicate the delivery of this weekly series. Come back for another entry, as scheduled, this Friday.

The Other Oscars – Second Category: Best Cinematography

The producers of the Oscars telecast already know each year there’s going to be jokes about how long the telecast is.

They’ve already moved the lifetime achievement awards from the telecast to just an insider’s dinner and reception (sorry, Steve Martin and Angela Lansbury, this year you might get to wave to the audience during the show like you’re a part of the Rose Parade). They always get a pretty ingenue to host a separate super-technical awards luncheon that they can show clips of to the televised audience, again presented by said-ingénue who gets to wear a second fancy dress. Y’know they have to make those cuts to make room for that 10-minute dance segment that reminds us that Chicago won a few Oscars ten years ago, or that you people at home sure do like superheroes, so surely you can stand for another clipshow …

But there is a category that has some whispering about splitting up a category into two divisions – and it even has history on its side.

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The Oscar for Best Achievement in Cinematography (or, the first “dude with the hair” winner from last year, Claudio Miranda) was split for 28 years between categories rewarding a film that was shot in color and a film that was shot in black-and-white. Now, even though an occasional black-and-white film will get nominated in the category, the argument for proposed change is something a little different: natural film vs. digital film.

For many years this award was the “pretty picture” award. However, as film has become increasingly digitized into three dimensions, the Academy seems to be a little lost in determining what is a pretty picture and what is a pretty pixel.

The Lord of the Rings The Return of the King Miranda Otto

Andrew Lesnie was swept up in the give-The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King-every-award-possible in 2003, even though most of those films leaned on effects that were added later.

But Lesnie’s win didn’t set a trend. It wasn’t until the prestige Best Picture caliber films regularly used the blockbuster filmmaking approach that things got a little mega-pretty-picture.

All four of the past winners of this category (Avatar, Inception, Hugo and Life of Pi) have been large, eventful films that feature a lot of additional effects that are added after filming. Indeed three of those films (Avatar, Hugo and Life of Pi) were shot in 3D, which of course, has the added pretty-picture-jumps-out-at-you effect.

Gravity

Gravity has been the front-runner to win this year’s award, probably ever since it was announced as a film. Part of that is on the reputation of the Alfonso Cuaron (director) and Emmanuel Lubezki (cinematographer) pairing. Their last film together, Children of Men, resulted in an Academy Award nomination for Lubezki and a win from his peers of the American Society of Cinematographers in 2006 (he lost the Oscar to Guillermo Navarro, Pan’s Labyrinth; more about Lubezki below). If Lubezki does win, four of the last five films to win a category will have been enhanced by 3D.

This recent trend uptick is because award-winning directors like Cuaron, Martin Scorsese and Ang Lee are exploring new, grand storytelling via 3D; so its not just reserved for blockbusters.

A desire for a split in category has not been brought up to imply that there isn’t artistry and difficulty in shooting a film in 3D, or shooting a film with a massive visual effects overhaul. Simply that the approach is very different and a trend is occurring that is now awarding only a specific type of film. Because it still is considered the “pretty picture” category and now the picture can include so much more that is done outside of the camera.

The reason why the categories were split between color and black-and-white cinematography in 1939, was largely a checks and balances approach to unknown new technology. Processing color prints cost a lot more than processing black-and-white film. Studios would often hedge their bets on certain films, keeping it shot in black and white instead of color. The epics went color, now the epics go 3D.

Most everything in film is going digital anyhow. In fact, Paramount recently announced that it won’t even be sending film reels out anymore, just digital discs. Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, told NPR that he thinks soon studios won’t even be sending anything other than satellite feeds to theaters.

Inside Llewyn Davis

Three of the films nominated for Best Cinematography this year used a mix of film stock and digital. The exceptions were Inside Llewyn Davis, which was entirely film, and Prisoners, which was all shot digitally. (Nebraska was essentially all digital, but they added a layer of 35mm film to give it a natural, processed graininess.)

However, this category discussion isn’t really a film vs. digital question. If distribution costs are reduced to the point of a digital download, this whole category will likely be close to uniform in style of shooting (digitally) – because studios will likely push filmmakers to shoot digitally even moreso, to spare the cost of conversion.

Digital filmmaking isn’t a fad. Maybe 3D filmmaking is. However, if the trend of awarding effects-laden films with best cinematography honors continues (and again, we’re not belittling the process as being all visual effects; obviously lighting, framing and camera movement plays a big part in the “wow” factor that’s added to the “pretty picture” analysis), you might expect to hear more about creating two cinematography categories again.

It might add three more minutes to the show, but, numerous film geeks would rather see another cinematographer accept an award than some of the acrobatic theatrics, or song and dance numbers that the showrunners pepper in the Oscar telecast to break up the acceptance speeches with a circus.

Below are the five nominees for Best Cinematography from this year, with a little more information about each person (unknown whose hairstyle might go viral). Beyond the nominee list is a slideshow of some important winners of this award in Oscar history.

PrisonersRoger Deakins, Prisoners

This is Deakins’ 11th nomination. He has been nominated the most without ever winning. Indeed a great cinephile hush occurs now with every envelope that opens during the cinematography announcement.

Deakins is primarily known as the cinematographer for the Coen Brothers, having lensed 11 of the Coen’s projects. But he’s also been nominated for everything from a Bond film (Skyfall), to a poetic western with a long title (The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford). Deakins also has the distinction of being the only cinematographer in the last 35 years to get two nominations in the same year: 2007 for Jesse James and No Country For Old Men. Robert Surtees also pulled the same feat in 1967. Surtees already had won three Oscars by then, though.

Deakins also isn’t a film-stock curmudgeon. He’s embraced shooting with digital cameras, including Prisoners and, also, in consulting on animated films (such as on a Best Feature Length Animation Film nominee this year, The Croods). He also is the reason that actor Paul Dano signed up to play a stunted, potential kidnapping creep in Prisoners.

Inside Llewyn DavisBruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis

Speaking of the Coen Brothers and Skyfall, the reason why Delbonnel had the opportunity to shoot Llewyn Davis was because of the extended shoot that Deakins had on Skyfall. However, Delbonnel certainly isn’t any slouch. This is his fourth Oscar nomination. This is his first collaboration with the Brothers: Coen, but the Frenchman has worked with Jean-Perre Jeunet and Tim Burton twice.

He spoke to Collider about going from Harry Potter and Dark Shadows to one of the most modestly sized Coen Brother productions.

The GrandmasterPhilippe Le Sourd, The Grandmaster

This is Le Sourd’s first nomination. The Grandmaster is also the first film by Wong Kar Wai to receive Academy recognition, despite numerous accolades won by his long time cinematographer, Christopher Doyle. If you look at Le Sourd’s filmography there’s a five-year gap between Seven Pounds and The Grandmaster. Indeed it took almost two years (and an assist from Scorsese) to edit this film and almost three years to film. Le Sourd told Indiewire that all told he filmed for 20 months in China. An Oscar nomination is quite a reward.

Fred Topel also interviewed Wong Kar Wai about the long Grandmaster shoot for CraveOnline.

GravityEmmanuel Lubezki, Gravity

Other than fellow-nominee Deakins, Lubezki has probably been the most talked about cinematographer of the past decade. Lubezki’s six nominations without a win is second only to Deakins for current cinematographers.

This is Lubzeki’s sixth nomination. He’d been nominated for two previous Alfonso Cuaron directed films, A Little Princess and Children of Men. Lubezki’s also worked on every Terrence Malick film since The New World and, like Delbonell, worked for Tim Burton (Sleepy Hollow) and subbed for Deakins for a Coen Brothers film (Burn After Reading).

Gravity highlights one of Lubezki’s biggest strengths: use of camera movement.

For Gravity Lubezki and his team built various lighting box and elaborate camera tracks to spin around star Sandra Bullock, so that she herself wasn’t spinning. To get a clearer idea of his camera prowess, you can view a fantastic assemblage of all the single takes in Children of Men that lasted longer than 45 seconds. Amazingly, that adds up to 31 minutes of the film.

NebraskaPhedon Papamichael, Nebraska

This is Papamichael’s first Oscar nomination and his third collaboration with director Alexander Payne.

Nebraska is the first American-financed film to be shot in black-and-white and earn an Oscar nomination since Good Night, and Good Luck. Papamichael was not, however, able to use black-and-white film due to Paramount’s fears of distribution, so they had to tinker with a consistent digital setting and an added film grain. Papamichael explains a little more of the process to HitFix.

Slideshow: Ten of the Best “Best Cinematography” Winners:


Brian Formo is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel. You can follow him on Twitter at @BrianEmilFormo.