“The story is,” a couple of network correspondents sitting next to us in the press room summarized, “there is no story.” They were looking for their Oscar headline as they packed up their gear, though that wasn’t quite accurate.
It’s true that this wasn’t the same story we’d seen the last couple of Oscars, where one film tended to dominate the above-the-line awards, while another scooped up the below-the-line nods. This year, awards were scattered around almost promiscuously, as mixed-review host Seth MacFarlane might say.
Though one pattern, at least, reached a kind of synthesis. Hollywood has recently honored a historical film (The King’s Speech) and a movie-about-movies (The Artist) and now, with best picture Argo, a historical film about movies. Or, at least, a movie about the movie fakery that results in tangible good, not just a series of lawsuits and broken careers.
For below-the-liners, the most telling note, perhaps, came when the Academy’s orchestra – playing live, but a few blocks away, from the Capitol Records building – aggressively drowned out Life of Pi visual effects winner Bill Westenhofer, and his crew, when Westenhofer was about 20 seconds in to his acceptance speech, trying to talk about the recent woes of bankrupt visual effects house Rhythm and Hues. That the orchestra used the music from Jaws to do this, only increased the irony.
Not because of Hollywood’s shark-like reputation – à la Nathanael West – but rather because Bruce-the-shark, though made of pistons and latex, was one of the first great animal special effects that drove a box office hit. And here was Westenhofer, trying to talk about the plight of the artisans who’d brought us the amazing digital tiger, Richard Parker, being smothered by Bruce’s theme.
Winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda, also from Life of Pi, was asked about the R&H situation, and mentioned he also worked with Digital Domain, another storied FX house forced through restructuring. “I would hope we could support visual effects companies,” he said.
Even more so, perhaps, the Academy’s juxtapositioning of awards might reveal a certain writing-on-the-wall for the cinematographer’s craft: Claudio’s Oscar wasn’t presented by another DP, but rather, by the cast of The Avengers, who were also there to give out Life of Pi’s VFX statue.
Increasingly, the cinematographer’s craft is entwined with VFX. So too are the tentpole plans of the studios, but as Westenhofer worried aloud, “We’re artists, not just technicians,” a sentiment later echoed by winning director Ang Lee, who also said of his VFX collaborators, “I refuse to think they’re (just) technicians.”
Lee also mentioned wanting to work more with both visual effects and 3D, citing inspirations like 2001: A Space Odyssey, but then managed to encapsulate a couple of film biz contradictions by adding, of effects, “too bad they’re so expensive.”
He also noted that 90 percent of Life of Pi was shot in Taiwan, with generous help from the government and institutions there, so it might be hard to see how visual effects can uncouple itself from the pressures of global capital, and its flight, affecting film production overall.
Other below-the-line highlights included a rare Oscar tie – the first since 1994 – in the sound editing department, when Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty wrestled to a draw. Zero Dark Thirty’s editor Paul N.J. Ottosson claimed some prescience in that department, saying backstage “Just before our category came up, another fellow nominee sat next to me and I said, ‘You know, what if there’s a tie? What will they do?’”
Evidently, what they do is announce it and double up on statues. As Skyfall co-winner Karen Baker Landers said that “any time you win an Oscar,” it’s a good thing, tie or otherwise, and who would argue with that?
Similar good things befell Lincoln’s production designer, Rick Carter, who was quick to thank his set decorator, Jim Erickson, saying “so much of what is in Lincoln, visually, that is seen, that creates the intimacy of the sets and the setting is Jim’s work.”
When asked about moving between more virtual productions like Avatar and Polar Express, and historical recreations like Lincoln, he said, “one of the things that’s interesting for me in my career is that I started in what you would call the analog world, and my mentor was Richard Sylbert who had (designed) Chinatown and a number of other movies at that time. And he noticed in the early ’90s that he thought I’d be going into the digital realm of design.”
Winning editor William Goldenberg also spoke of historicity vs. modernism, when we asked whether the ’70s aesthetic that director Ben Affleck was after – not only in terms of setting, but style of filmmaking – was something he emulated when cutting Argo.
“I watched a lot of films from the ’70s that Ben used for reference, you know, Network, All the President’s Men, Sunday Bloody Sunday – movies like that, just to get a feel for it. But when I was cutting, I was merely just trying to tell a great story, trying to get the best performances. So, much of that feel of the ’70s was done by all the great people who were in production design and makeup and hair and costumes. And so, once the footage got to me, I just tried to tell a great story with it.”
Goldenberg, it should be noted, was competing against some other successful storytelling of his, as he was nominated, along with Dylan Tichenor, for Zero Dark Thirty. Asked about that, he replied, “I was lucky enough to work on two movies this year and especially movies of this quality. And it was a blessing to be nominated for both.”
Another happy two-fer occurred when Lisa Westcott and Julie Dartnell won for Les Miserables in the combined makeup and hairstyling category. “The hair and makeup thing in England is not an unusual mix,” Dartnell said. “We are ex-BBC so we are always trained to do both. And so, for me, I would never ever even accept a job that would separate the two because the very nature of the job and the very essence of the job is to create characters, and to create the character you need all the tools in the box.”
Honoring some of the best or most memorable use of those tools – in all categories – is what Oscar has theoretically always been about. But as more and more of those tools become virtual, instead of tangible, other questions keep lurking from one Oscar telecast to the next: Which tools are getting replaced? And who’s willing to pay for those tools as their nature keeps changing?
When surprise supporting actor winner Christoph Waltz was asked what he thought of Django Unchained being the highest-grossing Western ever, he said, “I’m an actor, not an accountant.” He may be tacking against another trend in studio filmmaking.
Though perhaps those bottom lines will keep hitting the below the line categories first. But the Jaws theme won’t be able to drown out all of Hollywood’s award contradictions forever.
Watch the water. And we’ll see you back at the Dolby next year.
The winners of the 85th Academy Awards are:
Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained
Best Animated Short Film
Paperman, John Kahrs
Best Animated Feature Film
Achievement in Cinematography
Life of Pi, Claudio Miranda
Life of Pi
Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer and Donald R. Elliott
Anna Karenina, Jacqueline Durran
Lisa Westcott and Julie Dartnell
Best Live Action Short Film
Curfew, Shawn Christensen
Best Documentary Short Subject
Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine
Searching for Sugar Man
Malik Bendjelloul and Simon Chinn
Best Foreign Language Film of the Year
Achievement in Sound Mixing
Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson and Simon Hayes
Achievement in Sound Editing
Zero Dark Thirty, Paul N.J. Ottosson
Skyfall, Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers
Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables
Argo, William Goldenberg
Production Design: Rick Carter; Set Decoration: Jim Erickson
Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Score)
Life of Pi, Mychael Danna
Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Song)
“Skyfall” from Skyfall
Music and Lyric by Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth
Screenplay by Chris Terrio
Written by Quentin Tarantino
Achievement in Directing
Life of Pi, Ang Lee
Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook
Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role
Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln
Best Motion Picture of the Year
Grant Heslov, Ben Affleck and George Clooney, Producers