Oscar Breakdown: Best Cinematography

By  · Published on March 7th, 2010

Editor’s Note: For his first official article here on FSR, we’ve commissioned Luke Mullen to use his vast technical knowledge to break down the category of Best Cinematography. The result is the excellent debut article you’re about to read below…

There seems to be more discussion about this category than usual, even from casual movie-goers, for one big reason – Avatar. The inclusion of James Cameron’s latest indie featuring copious amounts of CG imagery begs a very basic question: what is cinematography? The cinematographer, usually called the Director of Photography or DP for short, is in charge of the lighting and camera decisions. He or she chooses the film stock and lenses, decides on camera placements and camera movements, and frames and lights each scene.

While Avatar certainly includes a great deal of CG material, it’s important to note that they did shoot a lot of live action material as the basis for the film. Did it deserve to be nominated? While the quality can be debated, technically speaking there’s no reason to discount it. DP Mauro Fiore had to make the same decisions as the other nominees while shooting his film. In fact with all of the post-production work as well as shooting in 3D, Fiore arguably had even more to worry about when placing his camera on set. The flip side of that argument could be made that since so much work would be done in post, things that Fiore did on set could be changed. And while that’s true, the majority of his work is still there in the end product, the framing, lighting and camera movements of the live-action sequences are all Fiore’s doing, and quite frankly they are very well done.

A whole article could be written just on this subject. I haven’t even touched on whether or not Academy voters themselves understand the concept of cinematography. Will they vote for it because of its amazing visual imagery, even though much of it is computer generated? Will they pass over it for the same reason? Those issues aside, here are the nominees and my picks for who should win and who I think will win on Sunday night.

Quick note: For the record, I’ve seen all of these films. I saw all of them in the theater, except The Hurt Locker which I didn’t catch until it came out on Blu-ray. I saw Avatar in 4K 3D digital projection, and the others in 35mm.

Avatar, Mauro Fiore (first time nominee)

One of biggest movie events of all time, Avatar incites both love and vitriol in equal measure. Valid though many of the criticisms are, even the most ardent of detractors can appreciate the stunning visuals. Most of you have probably seen Avatar and can attest to this yourselves. The question remains whether Academy voters will view its vast digital augmentation as a positive or a negative. While last year’s Oscar winner in this category, Slumdog Millionaire, was the first film shot utilizing digital cameras to win for best cinematography; it also shot some scenes on 35mm. Avatar is the only digital nominee and, if selected, would be the first film shot entirely digital to win this award. It was supposedly Fiore’s work on Tears of the Sun that caught Cameron’s eye and ultimately led to his work on Avatar.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Bruno Delbonnel (third nomination)

While not too highly regarded as a whole, the newest entry in the Harry Potter franchise certainly looks pretty. DP Bruno Delbonnel is no stranger to striking imagery, having worked on Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s surprise hit Amelie as well as his follow-up, A Very Long Engagement and racking up Oscar nods for both. He also acted as DP for the Coen brother’s short in Paris, Je ‘Taime and Julie Taymor’s love letter to the Beatles, Across the Universe. Shot in expansive 2.35:1, the new Harry Potter is an immersive film with a dour color palette filled with greys and beiges that match up well with the serious and ominous tone of the film.

The Hurt Locker, Barry Ackroyd (first time nominee)

I’ll get the technical stuff out of the way first. This film shot on 16mm, instead of the vastly dominant 35mm format. I’d love to see a breakdown of the last time a film shot on 16 was nominated for best cinematography. In fact, it may never have happened. Ackroyd also mixed in some digital footage, utilizing the high-speed Phantom camera for some awesome slow motion work. The Hurt Locker is nothing if not intense. It puts you, the viewer, in the shoes of the miliatry’s elite bomb squad as they get called in to deal with all manner of explosive devices in the Middle East. You almost find yourself sweating as Jeremy Renner’s SSG William James traces down a wire to find a spiders web full of bombs. Both Renner and director Kathyrn Bigelow do a great job of bringing the viewer along for the ride, but it wouldn’t be half as effective without Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography.

Part of the big problem with action films these days are the quick cuts and medium and close shot framing that make it all but impossible to get a sense of scope (see: Quantum of Solace). Ackroyd displays a much better understanding of how to frame shots so the audience knows what’s going on, and it’s particularly important for this type of story. The stark nature of the full wide shots as you realize Renner is pretty much on his own out there, the mediums that remind you that even though the other soliders have taken cover they’re still in harm’s way if there’s a detonation, and finally the closeups that show the beads of sweat, the eyes filled with focus and determination, all compliment the tone and structure of the film in the perfect way. I don’t think I realized until I started writing about it, but Ackroyd’s work on The Hurt Locker, while maybe not the one you think of as the prettiest or most stunning imagery, absolutely fits the rest of the movie like a glove. Perhaps a more understated choice, this may actually be the best work on display this year, and that’s saying something.

Inglourious Basterds, Robert Richardson (sixth nomination)

Robert Richardson is no stranger to the Kodak theater. The man has been nominated for best cinematography in a motion picture a mind-blowing six different times, first for Platoon in 1984, then Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, Snow Falling on Cedars and The Aviator. He actually walked away with the Oscar twice for two high-profile biopics, first for JFK in 1991 and then for Scorcese’s Howard Hughes opus The Aviator in 2004. Basterds is an absolutely beautiful film. The colors pop off the screen, from the blues and greens of the sky and the grass in the opening scene to the reds and crimson of the Nazi emblems and bloodshed, the image is bright and vibrant almost humming with electricity. It looked great in 35mm in the theater and looks damn good on the currently available Blu-ray with a transfer that’s very faithful to the print. Basterds is definitely some of Tarantino’s best work and the cinematography is no slouch. The climax in the small Parisian theater couldn’t be more beautifully rendered to film. And the last shots of the final scene revealing an act that’s been described throughout and then flipped to show the reverse point-of-view is a pitch perfect wrap-up to a fantastic film.

The White Ribbon, Christian Berger (first time nominee)

The new film from Michael Haneke was a bit of a surprise nominee in this category. It’s played all over the festival circuit, including heavy hitters like Cannes and Toronto, accumulating a strong but quiet buzz, but was often overshadowed by more mainstream fare. Shot by frequent Haneke collaborator Christian Berger, The White Ribbon is a complex film about a serious of enigmatic atrocities being committed in a small German village just prior to the outbreak of World War I. Berger and Haneke decided to shoot the film in black and white, which only serves to highlight the stark nature of the subject matter. I’m sure the correlation between black and white and right and wrong is not lost on such a staunch moralist as Haneke. The White Ribbon made a big splash earlier this week, when the American Society of Cinematographers (that full name of that mysterious ASC acronym you so often see in film credits) announced that Berger had won its top award for Outstanding Achievement in a feature film. Akin to directors and actors winning Guild awards, Berger’s acknowledgment amongst his peers lends truck loads of credibility to its Oscar nod, and, arguably, turns it from a seemingly out-of-left-field nomination to possible dark horse front-runner.

Who Should Win:

At the start of this article, I would have said Inglourious Basterds showcased the best cinematography of the year. While writing, to my surprise, I realized that The Hurt Locker’s cinematography complimented its story so well, that I might have to change my mind. That said, The White Ribbon is a beautiful film, with the backing of the rest of the worlds’ top cinematographers, and also ties in very well with its subject matter. It’s a hard choice, but I think I’m going to go with The Hurt Locker.

Who Will Win:

Like I said, I think it’s a bit of a dark horse, but I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb and guess that people will notice the ASC win and look to The White Ribbon when the ballots come around.

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