Many critics have opined that 2012 was an exceptional one for movies, both in overall excellence and in their wide range of subject matter. The art and craft of cinematography also scaled new heights. “We’re in a kind of golden age of cinematography,” said director of photography Steven Poster, president of the International Cinematographers Guild, IATSE local 600. “In terms of technology, the job has grown, but we’re also seeing the level and sophistication of cinematography get even better as the state of the technology improves.”
The film vs. digital divide remains a big topic for cinematographers. Digital camera capture continues to make inroads while film, in use for over 100 years, seems inevitably headed for obsolescence, sooner rather than later. “Sadly, film will soon be gone simply because it no longer makes sense as a business model,” commented Skyfall DP Roger Deakins, one of five nominees for this year’s Oscar for best cinematography. “But, as far as I am concerned, a camera is a camera and just a tool to capture an image. Whether that camera shoots film or digital is not so important as long as the image is one that I like.”
“What’s really important is that, whatever the changes, cinematographers continue to be the guardians of the quality of the image,” said Poster.
And indeed directors of photography continue to do superlative work whether they employ film or digital cameras to capture images. The five nominees for the Academy Award for best cinematography reflect the current state of play. For the Life of Pi, about a young man stranded on a small boat in the middle the ocean with a tiger as his unlikely fellow passenger, DP Claudio Miranda used a digital camera because the movie, directed by Ang Lee, was shot in 3D and laden with CGI. For Skyfall, the latest James Bond film which has grossed over $1 billion globally, DP Deakins made a leap in scale using digital photography to create a dazzling, action-driven visual tapestry.
In retrospect, it may turn out to be a kind of “last hurrah” for film, the three other cinematography nominees produced brilliant results in the traditional medium. The choice in all cases was driven by the passion of directors for good old film. Janusz Kaminiski, the DP on Lincoln, remained in tune with director Steven Spielberg’s overwhelming preference for film. Robert Richardson, who won an Oscar last year for his digital cinematography for Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese, returned to film for Django Unchained because of director Quentin Tarantino’s love for the medium. And Anna Karenina DP Seamus McGarvey created the movie’s voluptuous look for director Joe Wright using a film camera.
So what should less expert Academy voters consider when casting ballots for best cinematography? “Really great cinematography is invisible to an audience,” said Poster. But the qualities the ICG president himself looks for when he votes is “consistency of style, choice of composition to further the story, and the flow of images.”
Here’s a closer look at the five Oscar nominees for best cinematography:
Django Unchained, simultaneously a take-off on Italian spaghetti Westerns and a revenge tale involving the depredations of slavery, was the fourth time Richardson has collaborated with Tarantino. He previously teamed with him on Kill Bill parts I and II and on Inglorious Basterds. Django is in many ways the most ambitious. The shoot stretched over 180 days and sprawled across outdoor locations in California, Wyoming, Texas and Louisiana including a few weeks on sets in a New Orleans studio. Tarantino requested Richardson to photograph on film in 35 mm anamorphic format, creating the impressive wide-screen look long associated with classic Westerns. Richardson has already won three Oscars, for J.F.K., directed by Oliver Stone and for two Scorsese films, The Aviator and last year for Hugo, adapted from a children’s book. It was the first time the DP shot a film with a digital camera, though he had used it often on commercials. “Either format is comfortable for me,” he said. “Over the years I’ve become knowledgeable about the technical aspects of both and find I can easily move between new digital technologies and traditional film”
Shooting Skyfall, the latest James Bond movie that has grossed over $1 billion worldwide, “was a bit like solving a jigsaw puzzle,” said Deakins. “It was quite a complex movie.” Many of the spectacular set pieces were shot over a period of weeks in different settings and assembled during the edit. Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes, was Deakins’ second film employing a digital camera, and he is now a complete convert. “I shot film for 30 years, and I would do it again if a director really insists, but I think digital is a better representation of reality than film,” he observed “I love to work with light so faster digital capture gives me a greater range of possibilities.” Deakin’s Oscar nomination for Skyfall is his tenth, but he has yet to win an Academy Award. He received nods for a number of films he did with the Coen Brothers including Fargo, No Country for Old Men and True Grit. He was the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011 from the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), and has twice won ASC awards for best cinematography on a feature film for The Shawshank Redemption and The Man Who Wasn’t There.
Much of Life of Pi takes place on the open ocean. But those scenes were actually shot on an enormous 1.7 million gallon wave-generating water tank built in Taiwan. “The water scenes were really difficult,” DP Miranda noted. “The challenge was in how to keep them visually interesting and that meant being able to also change the weather.” He devised a system to adjust the lighting for each scene, which was then visually augmented with CGI. Miranda’s Oscar nomination for his eye-catching digital 3D photography on Pi is his second. He was previously nominated as DP on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, directed by David Fincher, the first digitally-captured movie to be up for a best cinematography Academy Award. He also lensed Tron: Legacy in 3D. “I get a lot of movies figuring out hard tasks,” he noted. “Those credits and my experience with 3D I think were what got me the job on Pi.”
Lincoln focuses on the president’s ultimately successful effort in the months before he was assassinated to enact the 14th amendment to the Constitution which ended slavery. “It was clear to me from the start,” said DP Kaminski that the camerawork should be restrained and respectful of the actors’ performances, and that we should photograph it in a most beautiful and elegant way.” The look of the film is subdued, with blacks, browns and blues predominant. Both the DP and the director are keepers of the flame for film. Lincoln was shot in 35mm using Kodak Visions3 500T color negative film 5219, which Kaminski called “the best in the world.” The DP has now lensed 13 consecutive films for Spielberg and won Oscars for his cinematography on Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. His Academy Award nomination for Lincoln is his seventh.
Wright initially considered making Anna Karenina – based on Leo Tolstoy’s tragic novel about adultery in 19th century Russia – on location. Instead he went in an entirely different direction. As reconceptualized, the drama would unfold in a beautiful decaying theatre, a metaphor for a rotting Russian society of that era. The interior of the theatre was built on an enormous stage at England’s Shepperton Studios. Irish director of photography McGarvey was faced with lensing 240 scenes on 100 different sets during the 12-week shoot. By filming almost entirely in a studio environment, “I was able to be bolder in the lighting style and also simpler, which created a unique look to the film,” he observed. The movie’s lush appearance can also be attributed to the use of film instead of opting to go digital. “Film has this unpredictable magic that I love,” said McGarvey. Anna Karenina is the DP’s third film with Wright. The others are Atonement, which got him his first Oscar nomination, and The Soloist, about a Los Angeles street person who has amazing musical gifts. McGarvey however is no stranger to digital cinematography, having utilized it on one of the blockbusters of 2012, The Avengers.
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