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HomeAwardsAcademy 2007 StandAlone - Cinematography

Academy 2007 StandAlone – Cinematography


Flash and dazzle and mere prettiness can sway Motion Picture Academy voters when they cast their annual ballot for the year’s best cinematography Oscar. But what makes the visual component of a film worthy of an Academy Award, in the view of many leading directors of photography, is—first and foremost—superb cinematography at the service of storytelling.”What a lot of us are looking for is how the director and the cinematographer try to tell the story visually,” says cinematographer Allen Daviau, a five-time Oscar nominee for films including E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Color Purple and Avalon. “That includes how the camera is used; how the visuals are composed; how they are lit; the texture, the mood—every way the film is shot which contributes to telling the story.””The strongest cinematography and the strongest films generally are those that try to tell the story through the images,” adds Daviau, who will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Society of Cinematographers when the group holds its annual prize fest next February. “They have wonderful dialogue, and fantastic storytelling; but it’s the power of the images and how they stay with you—even years after you’ve seen the film.”Some of the best cinematography doesn’t call attention to itself. “It may seem perverse to say so but truly great cinematography may often be the last to be recognized,” says DP Roger Deakins, who sits on the Academy’s Board of Governors and is also a five-time Oscar nominee for The Shawshank Redemption, O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Man Who Wasn’t There, among others.”Like the performance of an actor, the work of a cinematographer should blend with all the other elements of a film to form a seamless whole,” he adds. “When the first remark overheard is ‘What a great performance’ or ‘Didn’t it look wonderful?’, then the viewer has in some way been distracted by a single element of the film and probably not been totally submerged in the story. It may be that the flamboyance of one element of the production has diminished the power the film as a whole.”As new technologies make their way into filmmaking, they add to the tool kit available to cinematographers—such as photography with digital cameras and the use of the digital intermediate process to polish and tweak a film in postproduction. But technology can also introduce visual elements that are not attributable to the cinematographer’s craft.”Viewers and voters can get dazzled by flashy photography and computer-generated effects that the cinematographer might not have even been involved with,” says Deakins. “And how does anyone, cinematographers included, judge between the cinematography of a mega budget effects film shot on a blue screen stage, a sweeping period epic shot exclusively at dusk or dawn, and a small contemporary drama which takes place in one room at night and is shot entirely hand held for less than a million dollars?”At the same time, there are some obvious pitfalls and false seductions that Academy voters should beware of when evaluating a film’s cinematography, asserts Steven Poster, president of the International Cinematographers Guild, and a former head of the ASC.One is what he calls “the floppy hat movie”—period pieces that look good because of the costumes or the production design but don’t necessarily have great cinematography. Another is large-scale movies with beautiful exterior vistas, because “those are often shot by second-unit directors of photography, and not by the main cinematographer,” notes the DP, whose credits include Donnie Darko and Stuart Little 2.Such admonitions don’t mean that a large-scale epic film with sweeping visuals can’t at the same time have superb cinematography. “Period films tend to have a certain cachet to them,” says Daviau. “Making a period film is the closest thing to time travel that we have. When you create a world in another era, everyone is contributing to that, and the cinematographer is usually using something special to emphasize that we’re in a different time. That’s one of the reasons that period films tend to get more attention.”And, indeed DPs on period films have won the lion’s share of Oscars in recent years. Dion Beebe for Memoirs of a Geisha; Robert Richardson for The Aviator; Russell Boyd for Master and Commander; Andrew Lesnie for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; and Russell Carpenter for Titanic. But films smaller in scope also have been honored. The Road to Perdition and American Beauty both won Oscars for best cinematography, with the late Conrad Hall the recipient in both cases.Other extraneous factors can also tilt the playing field when Academy members vote. “There’s no doubt that how well the film does at the box office helps a lot,” says Owen Roizman, a five-time Oscar nominee for best cinematography for films including The French Connection, Tootsie and The Exorcist, who also sits on the Motion Picture Academy board. “A lot of winners in many of the craft categories, not just cinematography, get swept in by the commercial success of a film,” he observes. “Voters figure that individual crafts had a lot to do with that success, so they must be doing good work. That’s not necessarily true or necessarily false.””For every single craft that goes into making a movie, the other crafts know a little about them, but not a lot—so no one’s going to know for sure what’s the best in any category,” adds Roizman. “A lot of members vote on gut instinct—that’s why the nomination process is the most critical step.”To avoid ill-informed results, Academy rules require that the five Oscar nominees in each category get selected by their peers who know most about their craft. The culling process starts when Academy’s cinematographers branch-members vote, in the order of their preference, for no more than five productions. The five that receive the highest number of votes become the nominees for the best cinematography Oscar. It’s from this group that the Academy’s active and lifetime members make their choices.There’s no obligation to cast a ballot. “It’s a misconception on the part of a lot of people that we want every member to vote for every category, all the time,” says Roizman. “We want just the opposite. If you’re not sure about some category, or you don’t think you’re qualified, don’t vote in that category.”Ultimately, deciding whether to vote should be based more on whether a member has actually seen and honestly evaluated the films in competition, then it is a matter of technical insight. “The greatest onus on the voter is to see as many films as possible and keep an open mind,” says Deakins. “‘Best’ is a very nebulous term when it refers to any creative endeavor and it is well to remember that the Academy Awards are a celebration of film and filmmaking, and the event, along with each individual award, should be viewed for what it is.”

Written by Jack Egan

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