By Leonard Klady
Back in 1967 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to combine its two cinematography categories (black-and-white; color) into a single award. Few films were being shot monochromatically and, of course, those films were not precluded from the ballot. Conrad Hall, ASC joked that his first Oscar was actually for In Cold Blood as it was the only black-and-white film nominated in the first year the category was combined. In succeeding years, nominations for cinematography that happened to be in black-and-white went to Robert Surtees, ASC for The Last Picture Show and Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC for The Man Who Wasn’t There, and Janusz Kaminski, ASC got the statuette in 1993 for his stellar contribution to Schindler’s List.
The list of standouts behind the lens in 2003 almost demands that the award once again be bisected. However, now the separation exists between movies filmed on celluloid and those shot digitally. A longer discussion is in order down the line, but there’s a distinct aesthetic difference between film and electronic as a capture medium and a not unexpected bias toward the former among veterans in the field.
A digitally shot movie of note is the nightmarish 28 Days Later, captured by Anthony Mantle. There was also the stunning, Herculean effort of the single-take Russian Ark that regrettably isn’t eligible—lost in the cracks of a 2002 qualification run that few people caught in a timely fashion.
Thirteen, shot by Elliot Davis on Super 16 and posted on digital intermediate, possesses an immediacy and intensity few could match and a style radically different from Davis’s work on Legally Blonde 2.
Cinematography is as close as below-the-line categories get to stardom and glamour. Dating back to Billy Bitzer and Birth of a Nation, the men behind the camera are a brood too numerous to mention individually and whose contribution to the art is singular and legendary. The current working titans—names like John Toll, ASC Chris Menges, ASC Vittorio Storaro, ASC, plus Deakins and several other perennials—are certain to be included on the 2003 ballot.
Among former Oscar winners there’s excellent odds that John Seale, ASC will be back for Cold Mountain, which, like his trophy work for The English Patient, reteams him with writer-director Anthony Minghella. Based on the award-winning novel of passion and mayhem set at the time of the Civil War, Cold Mountain weaves the epic with the intimate and captures a bygone time on cinematically fresh locations in Romania. Similarly two-time honoree Toll revisited Japan of the 1870s for The Last Samurai, but shot in pristine venues in New Zealand. It is vivid and lush but a bit disappointing that director Ed Zwick opted almost entirely for a realistic vision based on a couple of early, impressionistic sequences in the film.
New Zealand also served another former winner, Andrew Lesnie, well in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Lesnie was honored for the trilogy’s first outing and almost inexplicably was bypassed for the second chapter. There’s no question that Lesnie is again in top form, adopting a consistent and compelling fantasy world that even if ultimately not awarded a second statuette is a prime candidate for the Purple Heart.
Philippe Roussellot, ASC won his Oscar for A River Runs Through It in 1992 and could well be back in competition for Tim Burton’s Big Fish. As befits past work by the filmmaker, the new outing demands both a thread of realism and an otherworldly quality in what evolves into a very emotional shaggy dog story. The true artistry of the piece is the manner in which the two strains meld into a single vision.
Another favorite is Deakins, with five past nominations, an ASC prize and two decidedly different movies this year. Deakins again collaborates with the Coen Brothers for Intolerable Cruelty, a glossy piece of froth with a palette worthy of early Technicolor extravaganzas. However, he’s likely to be considered more Oscar worthy for The House of Sand and Fog, a tragic tale in which Deakins manages to convey a sense of foreboding in everything from pouring rain to blinding sunlight.
Other highly regarded past nominees may miss a ballot berth simply because their films happened to be critically reviled or commercially obscure. The former certainly applies to both Caleb Deschanel, ASC and Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC who worked respectively on Timeline and Dr. Suesss’ The Cat in the Hat—the latter viewed more as a triumph of production design. Menges was, as always, masterful in both The Good Thief and Dirty Pretty Things. However 2003 is so crowded and competitive that one suspects the ballot will be comprised exclusively of high-profile endeavors.
Two highly regarded cinematographers that have amazingly never been nominated may have finally found the vehicles that will provide official Oscar notice. Russell Boyd last worked with Peter Weir on Gallipoli, and two decades later his robust yet unfussy professionalism shines through in Master and Commander. It’s difficult to find the exact words that best describe Boyd’s accomplishment but precise and perfect certainly apply in the period adventure. John Schwartzman,ASC best known for big Jerry Bruckheimer movies, including Armageddon and Pearl Harbor, seized the opportunity Seabiscuit provided and rode it like a champion, capturing not only the thrill of the race but the juxtaposition of 1930s swagger, style and dust.
There might also be room on the ballot for Donald McAlpine, ASC who provided the new Peter Pan with a quality of awe and wonder attuned to the story’s beloved quality. Like McAlpine’s prior Oscar nomination for Moulin Rouge, the new adaptation of the J.M. Barrie character involved close to a year of studio filming. McAlpine says the delicacy of the material benefited from the ability to control the light and space.
However, if I were a betting man (and I am) I wouldn’t be putting down any money for the chances of such well crafted entries as Robert Richardson, ASC’s graceful and operatic Kill Bill, Vol. 1, the free-wheeling antics of Pirates of the Caribbean captured on film by Dariusz Wolski, ASC or Bill Pope, ASC’s double duty on the Matrix films. In all three cases, it’s safe to assume there will be other films, nominations and possibly that golden statuette in the future.
Several films that deserve mention face an uphill climb against the bigger and louder pictures previously noted. The members of the camera branch of the Academy have a sterling record of nominating international artists and this may be the year to finally cite Guy Dufeux, one of Quebec’s best shooters and in very fine form on the Cannes prize winner The Barbarian Invasions. It’s subtle and atmospheric work, beautifully rendered. A similar kind of signature style is apparent in The Human Stain, the final work of celebrated French cameraman Jean-Yves Escoffier. It’s impossible to explain why the images are visually haunting but they are, and it provides the film with an edgy quality that lingers in the mind. The Academy has twice before honored a cinematographer posthumously.
Portugese-born Eduardo Serra, ASC, AFC literally delivers the most painterly work of the season with Girl with a Pearl Earring, a fictional “what if” involving Johannes Vermeer and the model of one of his most famous works. Serra, who’s worked for such diverse filmmakers as Chabrol, Vincent Ward and M. Night Shyamalan, rather sublimely suggests the artist’s style without undermining the homage in one of the year’s artistic surprises.
And it would be criminal not to mention the fine work of Declan Quinn in In America. Quinn’s work in films such as Leaving Las Vegas, and the new Jim Sheridan movie fits nicely into that category. There’s an emotional quality to the work that’s in sync with the rollercoaster ride and mood swings of the material. It’s giddy, brooding, optimistic and all other points on the sloppy spectrum without ever losing its firm grasp of humanity.
By Leonard Klady