By Henry Turner
In an art in which individuality rules the day there’s bound to be some head-butting when Academy Awards season rolls around. But one thing that three of today’s finest DPs agree on is that a cinematographer’s craft must be used to support the story, and not to put a showy feather in a DP’s or director’s cap.
“I’m looking for the visual style that best expresses the story,” says veteran DP Stephen Goldblatt, ASC, in discussing his voting criteria. “It’s so easy for cinematography to be inappropriate, to have a lot of flash, a lot of style, and not to tell the story very well. Pretty pictures can be the death of a film.”
Goldblatt, a two-time Oscar nominee whose work includes the intimate style of Closer, the visually lush Cotton Club, and two films of both the Batman and Lethal Weapon series, gained his critical acumen from years of working with directors such as Mike Nichols and Francis Ford Coppola. “What you are looking for is the successful amalgamation of all styles, so that the photography amplifies the story and makes it resonate. And that’s a very difficult thing to do. It’s not often that any of us really succeed; we just try like crazy.”
Several factors add to the challenge of recognizing excellence in a DP’s work. Goldblatt points out that once a film is in the can it is taken from a DP’s hands and can be destroyed in post, and hence his work must be treated with equally artistry in post by the editor and director. “Then again, you can work with other directors who are far more sympathetic. But whether they do or not, it is out of your control, so you can be joyous or you can be heartbroken when you see the cut.”
With a career history dating back to the late 1960s, Goldblatt feels it to be a benefit to have shot features prior to the advent of digital imagery and DI. “There are a lot of people who are bringing to the DI suite a negative that isn’t as good as it ought to be and they spend time doing what would have been better done on the floor when they were shooting in the first place.” Currently working on the DI for Charlie Wilson’s War, Goldblatt stresses that the work, whether using DI or not, should be transparent, calling attention to the story and not to itself.
Goldblatt considers the selection of the winner by the full Academy membership to be usually influenced by factors other than the quality of the cinematography itself, and creates the risk of turning the awards into a popularity contest. “I think the nomination process [by the cinematography peer group] is a much fairer way for the really good work to be recognized, and I wish that went all the way through the award process.”
Roger Deakins, ASC, a five-time Oscar nominee famed for his work with directors such as Martin Scorsese, Joel and Ethan Coen, and Sam Mendes, agrees that cinematography should enhance the story first and foremost. “Sometimes it can be seemingly unassuming and not quite draw attention to itself, but it may be work that really suits the storyline.”
Deakins, who pioneered the use of DI on O Brother, Where Art Thou?, shares Goldblatt’s opinion that it should be used to refine but not utterly transform the image. “Some people use it, as is often done in commercials, to really push the image in different directions. I think that becomes very obvious, and in most cases is not beneficial to the storytelling.” He sees DI as a tool best used to modify contrast and saturation.
While he does not mind that the general membership selects the winner from the nominees chosen by the peer group, he does feel that judging films from wildly different budget ranges is not optimal. “One of the major problems with voting on a film is you’re voting on the photography on a $100 million picture against the photography on a $10 million picture. And I don’t think most people take that into account, and how can they? You’d have to have a number of categories for different sized budgets,” Deakins says,
Some films are overlooked, Deakins continues: “There are little gems out there that only a few people ever saw! If you really studied the cinematography, it would just blow your mind. But they are not pictures that the majority of members watched, and whether it’s the ASC or the Academy, there are a lot of members who don’t see the more obscure or independent or European movies. I’m not griping about it, but the fact is that there is no such thing as a fair way of judging it.”
Overall, Deakins is satisfied with the process of the Awards. “I always look at this way — it’s a celebration of cinematography, and the Oscars are a celebration of filmmaking, and that’s what to concentrate on, not the individual winners.”
Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, Oscar nominated for his work on Brokeback Mountain, agrees that story comes first. “What I try to do is look at each film on its own merits, and see how appropriate the cinematography is to that film and how it works in support of that story. I really try not to compare, and think this was better than the other one, more bold or truthful.”
Despite constantly changing technologies, he doesn’t think that separate categories are needed to evaluate films originated on widely different mediums. “An effects-heavy movie or a movie that relies a lot on green screen is still very challenging for a director of photography. Even if he’s only lighting the foreground elements he has to take into consideration everything else that will be in the final result.” He considers it to be a DP’s responsibility to be up to date on all the technologies. “The basics are the same. You are telling a story with light, with cameras, that’s the essence. Everything else is icing on the cake.”
Like Deakins, he does not have an issue with the winner being chosen by the full Academy membership. “In the end you are making a movie for an audience, a regular audience that doesn’t care if you used whatever lighting technique or camera technique. They respond to the film itself, and I think it’s appropriate that it’s more of a general group of people who give the award for the final winner.”
Written by Henry Turner