AWARDS SEASON: Cinematography
February is here and that means this year’s awards season is almost coming to a close. The Oscar nominees are out and since I’m more of a photographer/cinematographer than anything, I figured I would start my Awards season series of post on Cinematography. I’m sorry if you came here looking for another rant on how Christopher Nolan was NOT nominated for directing. This year has been a great year for films, especially when it comes to visuals. The candidates are Wally Pfister (INCEPTION, Roger Deakins (TRUE GRIT), Matthew Libatique (BLACK SWAN), Jeff Cronenwerth (THE SOCIAL NETWORK), and Danny Cohen (THE KING’S SPEECH). Each of these films is different than the other, not just in subject matter, but in visual approach. BLACK SWAN and it’s heavy use of handheld camera work in combination with the rough look of 16mm helped create a sense of tension through-out. INCEPTION’S impressive camera trickery helped us delve into the surreal nature of the dream world. TRUE GRIT’S visual maturity mirrored it’s young, fearless protagonist played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. More importantly, every film looked like it’s cinematography was deeply in tune with the narrative. So let’s start this discussion with the heavy favorite, Roger Deakins.
Roger Deakins has been nominated for an Academy Award a whopping eight times, but has yet to take home a golden statue. Many claim this will be his year and given the Academy’s track record, you would find it hard to disagree. However, Deakins work in TRUE GRIT is nothing to scoff at. His use of subtle camera movements and naturalistic lighting set ups, while not flashy, meshed well with the film. The film is at it’s best during the night portions of the script. Deakins employed 30 18K lights to illuminate the shadows of New Mexico. The film shifts from golden warm interiors to harsh moonlight exteriors with ease and feels as mature as it’s cinematographer. I don’t think it’s the best looking film of the year, but it’s certainly a joy to look at.
Wally Pfister delivers the goods yet again in Christopher Nolan’s Sci-Fi actioner INCEPTION. This is Pfister’s 4th nomination and possibly his best piece of work. Another shooter that believes in naturalist approach, Pfister dazzles with his warm keys, camera tricks, and diverse color palate. Pfister did not turn to IMAX for this adventure, but he did utilize a myriad of formats: Anamorphic 35mm, VistaVision, and 65mm 5 perf. A big part of INCEPTION is the layered dream idea. Having dreams within dreams taking places simultaneously could have been very hard to manage, but thanks to Wally and Chris decision to color tune each layer and some nifty editing by Lee Smith, the film ran without a hitch. Wally brought sunny LA to it’s knees in the first level, creating a rainy car chase with blue overtones. In the second layer he utilized deep orange warm tones to light Joseph Gordon Levitt’s tumbling acrobatics. In the final layer Pfister beautifully captured the stark mountains of Calgary and thrilled with zipping handheld bits of 007 inspired ski shenanigans. Pfister is not only great with lighting, but a fantastic operator. He’s been the A camera operator on every project he’s done with Chris and he follows the action wonderfully. One of my favorite moves of his is the slow dolly in during those intimate scenes in Chris’s films. The camera creeps closer and closer to the actors really bringing you into the space and making you feel like you’re in the moment. Though the odds are not in his favor, you could certainly argue that Wally Pfister’s work was a cut above the rest for 2010.
BLACK SWAN is one hell of a ride and part of the reason it’s so exhilarating to watch is because of Matthew Libatique’s fantastic camera work. BLACK SWAN had the smallest budget of all the films in the running for Best Picture, but that didn’t take one bit from it’s creative vision and execution. Swan is a visceral edge of your seat kind of film. The camera is rarely on a set of sticks and it spends a lot of time stuck behind Natalie Portman’s head, bobbing side to side. The train sequences were shot entirely on DSLRs, particularly the 7D, which allowed Libatique to run and gun with minimal difficulty. The photography is very harsh from the grainy 16mm image, to the muted color palate and this intensity is only lessened during the performances, where the camera work transforms. The camera begins to float and glide with the dancers as Clint Mansell goes to work with the orchestra. The cinematography is rough, but not rough because Libatique is lacking, but because it creates a mood. Watching Black Swan felt like being abducted and throw into a dark van full of stuff you love for two hours.
David Fincher’s The Social Network is the only film nominated this year that is shot entirely on a digital format. Fincher, renowned for his love for long takes and many of them, turned to the RED to bring Aaron Sorkin’s script on the creation of Facebook to life. This film also marked Fincher and Cronenwerth’s first reunion since 99”s FIGHT CLUB. David Fincher stated that no lighting set up in this film took more than 25-30 minutes to light that is the power of digital cinematography. It is a beautiful film with many scenes lit using small light sources, practical housings, and two to three of them. The entire movie is shot on RED MX using Zeiss Master Primes, all wide open at T 1.3. I feel bad for Tony Revitti(1st AC) though he did a fantastic job keeping everything nice and sharp. Cronenwerth made a beautiful film out of disposition rooms and back and forth banter.
Rounding out the list is Danny Cohen for his work in The King’s Speech. The King’s Speech is another fine looking film that along with its brilliant art design, transports audience members to the year 1925. This is Danny’s first Oscar nomination and if The King’ Speech is any indication, it will not be his last. The film shines with its earthly autumn tones, strong use of wide angle shots, strong lighting and heavy use of negative space. The film’s look points to some of the old film stock of the early 20s, bringing the likes of Kodachrome to the mind. The King’s Speech is the most nominated film at the Oscars this year and while I do think it’s a beautiful film, I think this is one category it might not run away with.
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