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93rd Annual Oscars Spotlight on the Cinematography Nominees

March 30, 2021 08:00 | By

The five cinematographers nominated for the 93rd Academy Awards include esteemed veterans and relative newcomers. Surprisingly, only one DoP has previously been nominated for an Oscar, Phedon Papamichael, ASC (for Nebraska). 

The five films under consideration all received multiple nominations, Mank topping the list with 10. As with most Academy Award nominations, they can be roughly categorized as mainstream movies. Even Nomadland, a potential ringer in earlier years, seems a safe choice given its performance at previous awards ceremonies. No one’s going out on a limb voting for it.

Due to the pandemic, none of the movies received legitimate theatrical releases. (Some have returned to screens as theaters reopen.) Judging visual quality while streaming on a computer monitor is an issue that hasn’t been addressed seriously by the Academy or any other guild. Would voters have chosen differently based on theatrical screenings? 

Take Cherry (Shot by Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC), a movie that switches cameras, lenses and aspect ratios during its different chapters. It was nominated for Feature Film by the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), the only outlier from the Academy’s list. (The ASC did not include Judas and the Black Messiah.) Sigel also shot Spike Lee‘s Da 5 Bloods, which might have gained more attention in a theatrical setting than on Netflix. And Christopher Nolan‘s Tenet, shot by Hoyte Van Hoytema, ASC, FSF, NSC on IMAX, would be far more impressive on a big screen than a smartphone.

Here are the five Oscar-nominated titles, in alphabetical order:

Sean Bobbitt

Sean Bobbitt (R) with Director Shaka King (Photo: Warner Bros.)

Judas and the Black Messiah, DoP Sean Bobbitt, BSC

When director Shaka King recreated the story of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (played by Oscar-nominated Daniel Kaluuya) and FBI informant Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield, also nominated), it was up to Sean Bobbitt to capture not only the scope of the film — from pool halls to ritzy steakhouses, FBI offices to church rallies — but intimate moments of friendship and betrayal. One of Bobbitt’s most challenging tasks was a scene in which Hampton gave a fiery address to a church audience. Using multiple cameras, Bobbitt could highlight responses in the crowd as well as Kaluuya’s performance.

Judas and the Black Messiah features a bravura shoot-out between Chicago cops and Black Panthers pinned in their headquarters, a sequence involving several complex locations, from street to stairwell to apartment to rooftop and back. Bobbitt, who shot Hunger and 12 Years a Slave for Steve McQueen, also used a moving camera (and at times cars) to mirror the pounding soundtrack.

Messerschmidt

Erik Messerschmidt (Photo by Miles Crist)

Mank, DoP Erik Messerschmidt, ASC

David Fincher‘s account of self-destructive screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) made mincemeat of history, but did give Messerschmidt the opportunity to recreate the look of Silver Age Hollywood. The gauzy soft-focus close-ups of Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) mimicked the north lighting Josef von Sternberg used on Marlene Dietrich, while the filmmaking scenes employed the extreme depth-of-field that characterized Gregg Toland’s work on Citizen Kane. Messerschmidt’s high-contrast black-and-white imagery fetishized studio styles in the same way that Fincher festishized the politics of the pre-WWII movie industry. Very little in Mank is true, but Messerschmidt’s vision remains compelling. He also worked on the second season of Mindhunter, Fincher’s version of the rise of serial killer profilers. 

Dariusz Wolski

Dariusz Wolski on set (Photo by Bruce W. Talamon)

News of the World, DoP Dariusz Wolski

Wolski grew up in Poland before the fall of the Soviet Empire, and remembered the Westerns he saw as an expression of freedom unimaginable behind the Iron Curtain. He had never worked with Paul Greengrass, a director known for furious handheld visuals. The two came up with a camera scheme that was still handheld, but that also celebrated the stoic calm of the Western frontier. 

News of the World has an epic feel, but was shot on a comparatively meager budget. Wolski had to rely on minimal equipment, although he did persuade Greengrass to use some helicopter shots. “We revamped one set for three different towns, we used natural lighting as much as we could,” he said in an interview with Below the Line. “We didn’t have fancy equipment, just pickup trucks to do all the tracking shots.”

In talking about the shoot, Wolski emphasized the beauty of the locations as much as his work. It’s true that the New Mexico landscapes add a grandeur and mystery to the quest by Capt. Kidd (Tom Hanks) to return an orphan (Helena Zengel) to her relatives, but it was Wolski’s choice to shoot them in Magic Hour conditions, or to grapple with inhospitable weather, that gave the visuals their power. 

Wolski cited Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew as an inspiration, as well as the 1950s Westerns by Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann. The latter is especially evident in a spectacular shoot-out staged on a rock outcropping. 

Nomadland

Frances McDormand in Nomadland (Photo: Searchlight Studios)

Nomadland, DoP Joshua James Richards

This is the third collaboration between Richards and his wife, writer, director and editor Chloé Zhao, after Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider. Nomadland won the top prize at 2020’s prestigious Camerimage, echoing his debut cinematography win there in 2015 for Songs My Brothers Taught Me

Although Nomadland has been vacuuming up nominations and awards, Richards’ work has tended to be overlooked. Some critics and reviewers have written about the film’s “documentary” feel, citing its stark, unadorned locations and a script with real-life people playing themselves. Nomadland is far more carefully conceived and constructed than “documentary” suggests. Disney, which now owns what used to be Fox Searchlight, went so far as to ask me to remove the word “nonfiction” from a piece on Richards.

The look of Nomadland is derived in part from a vision of the West shared by Richardson and Zhao, but even more so from Richards’ interactions with performers. He and Zhao earned so much trust from the cast, nonprofessionals as well as veterans, that they could film deeply personal moments that feel unforced, natural. They could also stage elaborate tracking shots that explore landscapes both exotic and grim. Richards’ work doesn’t call attention to itself: you feel as if you are discovering a world, rather than being shown a vision that has been carefully thought-out. 

From the bare-bones Nomadland (“I mean my lighting package was really a trip to Home Depot,” he wrote in an email), Richardson transitioned to camera operator to DoP Ben Davis on Marvel’s The Eternals (directed by Zhao).

Phedon Papamichael

Phedon Papamichael, ASC (Photo: Matt Petit/AMPAS)

The Trial of the Chicago 7, DoP Phedon Papamichael, ASC

At Camerimage to discuss his work on Ford v Ferrari, Papamichael said his next project, a 180-page courtroom drama, was “all talk, page after page of dialogue.” Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is an account of an infamous miscarriage of justice that followed the riots at the 1968 Democratic Presidential convention. The movie was originally scheduled to be released by Paramount, but Sorkin agreed to go with Netflix provided it would be released before the 2020 elections.

Trial was shot primarily in New Jersey, with a few days on location in Chicago. There Papamichael had to recreate riots with fewer than 200 extras. He decided to shoot the scenes documentary-style, imitating in part Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool.

The trial sequences were complicated by the fact that so many characters were involved: the defendants and their lawyers, the prosecuting team, the judge and jury, and the spectators. What’s worse, they had to remain in roughly the same locations throughout the trial. William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) may walk up to the witness stand at times, but for the most part he is seated in the same chair behind the same table. 

Keeping the visuals fresh was made more difficult by the fact that Sorkin did not work from traditional shot lists. Papamichael joked during press conferences and interviews that Sorkin didn’t even look at the monitor during takes, interested only in his dialogue. It’s a funny story that Sorkin more or less corroborated, although the two actually collaborated much more closely. Because Sorkin could count on Papamichael to deliver a great shot, he could focus on how the dialogue was performed.

Shot on a limited budget, The Trial of the Chicago 7 still has an expansive feel. Even relatively minor scenes, like prosecutor Richard Schultz’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) job interview, or Kunstler meeting with Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton), have compelling angles, with Papamichael’s trademark push-ins adding dramatic weight to Sorkin’s lines.

The deadline for the 35th ASC Awards is April 13, while the Academy Awards voting deadline is April 20.

You can read the full list of ALL the nominees for the 93rd Annual Academy Awards here.