The accomplishments of motion picture cinematographers over the past year have been dazzling – adventurous and refined, daring and sophisticated. It seems to get more amazing every year. Directors of photography keep expanding the boundaries of their craft, creating unforgettable images, while painting with light, as they always have throughout the history of the movies.
Though scores deserve to be honored, a tiny handful – only five – are in the running for the most coveted accolade, the Oscar that will be handed out at the Academy Awards on Feb. 28.
This year’s nominees — Roger Deakins for Sicario, Ed Lachman for Carol, Emmanuel Lubezki for The Revenant, Robert Richardson for The Hateful Eight and John Seale for Mad Max: Fury Road — span the gamut of image-making magic. Some shot on film, which remains alive and kicking, others with the latest digital cameras. Some picked unusual formats, like Super 16 or grandiloquent 70 mm — others went with tried and true 35 mm. But the objective was always the same, to use whatever was in their tool kit in the service of superb story-telling.
Here is a look at what made the cinematography of each nominee special enough to be in contention for the 2016 Oscar, including some individual Below the Line profiles.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins is known for his consummate camerawork, his sophisticated use of lighting and his ability to innovate, always with the goal of capturing just the right image to enhance a film’s narrative thrust. All these qualities were on display in Sicario, about America’s ever more violent and morally-compromised “war on drugs.” It is set on both sides of the lawless U.S.-Mexico border where this country’s law enforcement agents play a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with ruthless drug lords.
Deakins resumed his artistic collaboration with Canadian director Denis Villeneuve which began in 2013 with the dark abduction drama, Prisoners. The two story-boarded Sicario during an extensive prep, stressing the precise composition of the DP’s shots. Deakins and the director wanted the photography to capture the action in maximum detail, but without stamping a judgment on it. “We played with wide shots that allow the action to unfold without multiple cuts, and we used vibrant, clean colors,” observed the DP. Villeneuve also wanted to make the landscape feel like a character, reflecting the glare of the bleached out desert on both sides of the border. “The overall look is one of naturalism,” said the DP.
Deakins faced a first-time challenge – figuring out how to capture the harrowing action in a scene set in one of the dark tunnels that are used for smuggling drugs between Mexico and the U.S. “When I read the script, I wondered how in the hell were we going to shoot that,” he said. The solution he came up with was to use a thermal imaging device made for industrial applications combined with the kind of night-vision systems that were utilized in Zero Dark Thirty.
For the DP, the Oscar nomination for Sicario is his thirteenth, though he has yet to win one. Could the unlucky number prove to be the winning ticket for him this year? Previous nods have come for films including The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo, Kundun, No Country for Old Men, Skyfall, Prisoners and last year for Unforgiven. However, Deakins has three times won the award for best feature cinematography from the American Society of Cinematographers and in 2011 the organization’s lifetime achievement award.
The goal of cinematographer Ed Lachman, in shooting Carol, about the evolving romantic relationship between two women in the early 1950s when it was considered taboo, was to mirror not just the visual look, but also the anxious feel of the times. He shot on film in Super 16mm and used old-style lenses to obtain a grainier period feel. “Film has the anthropomorphic feeling of life, like breathing. It’s not pixel-fixated and on one plane like the digital medium,” said the director of photography.
For inspiration, he surveyed mid-century New York-based photojournalists who had started experimenting with color like Esther Bubley, Ruth Orkin and Vivian Maier. “I looked at Ektachrome photos of those years which had a muted feeling of coolness mixed with warmth, and thought it would be a good way to visualize the time between the end of World War II and the first years of the Eisenhower administration,” noted the director of photography. “I wanted to create that feeling of uncertainty as a visual metaphor for the storytelling,”
To symbolically convey the emotional and psychological states of the characters, played by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, Lachman shot through windows, sometimes obscured by rain, and caught the actors’ reflections in mirrors. “By seeing these characters partially obscured we’re attempting to express their mental states and their romantic imaginations,” said Lachman.
The film is the fourth collaboration between Lachman and director Todd Haynes. “Todd and I have a wonderful kind of yin-yang relationship that so many great ideas and perspectives come from,” said the DP. “We discovered the language in this film which I like to call a ‘poetic realism.’” The two worked together for the first time on Far From Heaven in 2002. Lachman got his first Oscar nomination for his work on the film. The one for Carol is his second.
Lachman also teamed with Haynes on I’m Not There, about musician Bob Dylan, with eight actors playing various facets of the singer-songwriter’s identity. And in 2011 they worked together on Mildred Pierce, a 10-hour HBO mini-series starring Kate Winslet.
The DP has been nominated for an Independent Spirit award for best cinematography for his work on Carol. For his work on Carol, Lachman recently received the Golden Frog, the top honor at Camerimage, an annual festival held in Poland. Among directors of photography the award is considered one of the highest honors for the craft.
On The Revenant, a tale of one man’s struggle to survive in the brutal, untamed frontier of 1820s America, director of photography Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki and director Alejandro G. Iñárritu reteamed after last year’s collaboration on Birdman. The Academy Award winner for best picture, Birdman also garnered three Oscars for Iñárritu — as producer, director and screenwriter — and the second Oscar in a row for the cinematographer after his 2014 win for Gravity. Nominated again for The Revenant, this sets the DP up for a possible three-peat.
“Doing The Revenant pushed me to the very limit. Absolutely every day the situation was among the most difficult I have ever been in,” said Lubezki. On top of the immense physical rigors involved in the snow-bound, two-continent shoot of The Revenant, Iñárritu and the DP made some key decisions at the outset on how the movie would be lensed that considerably upped the ante in terms of self-imposed challenges.
Aiming for a look of poetic realism, the film was shot with only natural light sources. Using the highly light-sensitive digital ARRI Alexa 65 camera, Lubezki had to rely on the vagaries of shifting sunlight and, for the nighttime scenes, on firelight and torches.
“Using natural light doesn’t mean you just arrive and shoot,” he noted. “In order to have continuity, you have to analyze the location well in advance, you have to know perfectly just where you are shooting, you have to know how the sun moves, if it goes behind the mountain you have to assess that, and also what happens when clouds arrive,” he added. “You have to go there and stay there the whole day. But it’s not so much a lot of waiting, but a lot of planning ahead. So when the time is right, and you get the colors you want and the atmosphere and mood is right, you attack.”
Second, the director wanted to have the film shot chronologically, to maintain the natural flow of the journey. That was made more difficult when the snow started to recede in the initial location near Calgary, Canada, and the shoot had to relocate to Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of Chile. Finally, the DP employed the technique of long single-shot takes that he is known for and which were a such a notable feature of his cinematography on Birdman.
Robert Richardson, The Hateful Eight
A three-time Oscar winner, Robert Richardson is known for his multiple collaborations with directors Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese and most frequently in recent years with Quentin Tarantino. He has in fact become the cinematographer of choice for the auteur director.
The Hateful Eight is the fifth movie that they’ve done together, beginning with Kill Bill I and II, and then Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Richardson received an Oscar-nomination for Django, one of what is now a total of nine with this year’s nod. His three Academy Awards wins came for JFK, The Aviator and Hugo.
The Hateful Eight may be the most ambitious of their collaborations. It certainly is in terms of its format – ultra-wide 70mm format, making it only one in 10 movies that have ever been made with a 2.76:1 aspect ratio. The last was Khartoum, nearly 50 years ago.
The DP was at Panavision to see what lenses might be available, and was told there weren’t any that were appropriate. “I started rummaging around and walked through a curtain into a room and on a wall in the back were these very funky looking lenses.” These turned out to be the original ones used on Ben Hur and Marlon Brando’s Mutiny on the Bounty.
Richardson and his assistant cameraman, Gregor Tavenner, took them up into the snow near Telluride, Colorado where the movie was set to be shot on location to try them out because there was some concern they would freeze or lock up, “but they ended up working beautifully,” he noted.
The movie, set just after the Civil War, starts off with eight somewhat disreputable characters who have come together at a lone waystation in the snowy Rocky Mountains, Minnie’s Haberdashery, to seek shelter from a raging blizzard. Skullduggery ensues as the plot turns into a murder mystery.
There are many gorgeous landscape shots, for example a stage coach speeding through the snow, that fully exploit the panoramic screen. But most of the movie plays out within the four walls of Minnie’s. That has led to questions about why 70mm was used in the first place. It was Richardson’s camerawork that turned what could have been stagey and confining into a richly cinematic setting. The DP’s superb use of backlighting on the characters heightened the melodrama.
The wide-format camera also made it possible to encompass numerous actors within the frame of vision at once. “I loved that you could see so many characters in the scene,” said Richardson. The format also offered surprising intimacy, with its bigness bringing viewers deeper into the minds characters in full-face close-ups that added a different kind of impact.
On working with Tarantino? “He makes it the most joyful experience you could ever have on a film,” said Richardson. “He loves the cinema, which we all know, and he always lifts the spirit of everyone on a shoot.”
Mad Max: Fury Road was the first digital feature that Oscar-winning director of photography John Seale had ever shot. That was but the beginning of a steep learning curve he had to climb. “I was walking into a minefield of new technology,” said the DP. “I hadn’t shot digitally before. Suddenly I was in the middle of it, and had to learn an awful lot very quickly.”
By the time the shoot on the gargantuan production of the fourth film in the iconic Mad Max series of post-apocalyptic action movies was at full throttle in the deserts of Namibia in west Africa, Seale was overseeing an army of digital capture devices, operated by a half dozen cameramen, along with some crack second units for stunts.
Seale signed on as DP for Fury Road fairly late in the game. Director George Miller asked the just-retired cinematographer, whom he had worked with on Lorenzo’s Oil (1992), if he would step in and replace Dean Semler, the DP on the previous two films in the franchise, who pulled out for personal reasons just before the shoot was about to start. “I couldn’t resist, after all it would be working with George again,” said Seale. He was also tantalized by the prospect of working on a big action movie with lots of stunts.
By the time principal photography was underway, Seale and his team might have three to four ARRI Alexa Plus cameras and two to four ARRI M Steadicams running simultaneously each day, plus aerials. Meanwhile, Canon-5D’s were used as crash-cams with retrievable digital cards. Seale also volunteered to operate his own camera, capturing the imagery through an 11:1 zoom lens. “I love to get out there and get little close-ups,” Seale said. The DP even ventured atop one of the big truck rigs as it sped along at 60 miles per hour to get shots.
Another innovation was the use of the Edge Arm system, a gyro-stabilized camera mounted at the end of a crane on the roof of supercharged V-8 off-road racing truck. It was able to extend up to 20 feet, rotate 360-degrees and achieve a full range of motion in any direction. “We had one shot that started with a close-up of the driver of the truck, swung back and lifted until you could see the whole armada of vehicles, all done very smoothly,” said Seale.
Seale’s nomination for the best cinematography Oscar for Mad Max: Fury Road is his fifth. In 1997 he won an Academy Award for his work on The English Patient, directed by Anthony Minghella, a frequent collaborator. Other nods were for Rain Man, Witness and Cold Mountain.
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