Cinematography in 2014

The Oscars are tonight. Let’s talk about my favorite category:

Best Cinematography.

To most people who hear me talk about a film I love for more than a few minutes, this isn’t surprising. Cinematography is one of my favorite aspects of filmmaking: it’s the field I want to enter into upon graduating film school, and it’s always the thing I am most conscious of while watching a film. And when it’s good, you can feel it, even if you can’t articulate it.

This year’s Oscar crop of cinematographers is an interesting one, in that it contains three of my favorite cinematographers, one I immensely admire, and two (collaborating on the same film) whose work I have never seen. It’s a good set of films, and one of the few categories where I don’t feel there were any egregious snubs. But 2014 was a tremendous year for film (and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise), and there are a lot of cinematographers with work in 2014 that deserves commendation. Let’s talk about the nominated gentlemen (they are, regrettably, all men, and I am hard pressed to think of a woman cinematographer other than Amy Vincent), and then about who else had amazing work in 2014.


Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman – The Frontrunner

Lubezki is my second favorite cinematographer. His work on Children of Men and Gravity remains some of the most spellbinding work I’ve seen in film, but all throughout his incredibly diverse body of work – from Nickelodeon flick Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events to auteur Terrence Malick’s masterpiece The Tree of Life – he brings an astonishing awareness of the frame’s ability to convey not just emotional meaning and mood, but also symbolic and allegorical heft. Known for extended long take shots – such as Children of Men’s 12 minute battle sequence and Gravity’s many extended space sequences (the opening shot is about 15 minutes I believe, and there are only ~30 cuts in the film overall by my last count) – Lubezki has established himself as a strong stylistic voice that few cinematographers can challenge. It is no surprise that, after years of being denied the Academy’s prize, he is very likely to make a repeat appearance and claim a second award just a year after winning his first for Gravity (a back-to-back feat accomplished only by one other cinematographer in the history of the Academy – John Toll, winning in 1994 and 1995 for Legends of the Fall and Braveheart, respectively).

But Lubezki’s frontrunner status points to a couple of long-standing biases in Oscar voting. Many a critic has pointed out that in most cases, the awards go not necessarily to the “Best” in a given category, but rather to the “Most.” Roles with a significant acting challenge like a speech impediment of physical handicap tend to be nominated over roles without them, because the technical accomplishment of the performance is “more” acting. Films with strong focuses on whip-smart and fast paced dialogue tend to get screenwriting nods because they’re the “most” writing. And in Lubezki’s case both last year and this year, the film with the “most” cinematography – that is, the most technical and visually evident photography – gets the nomination and the prize. Additionally, it is very common for films like Birdman that have a lot of praise in categories across the board to buoy themselves and increase their chances at winning categories overall simply by virtue of its overall strength. My own opinion of Birdman is a little complicated and ultimately skews slightly negative, but I can unreservedly praise Lubezki’s work on it. It’s quite breathtaking for the first fifteen minutes, and then fades into the background, still giving the affairs a wonderful sense of immediacy without distracting and pulling the audience out of the film. When he very likely wins the award, it will be well deserved.


Robert Yeoman, The Grand Budapest HotelThe Newcomer

Yeoman is another of my favorite cinematographers, most specifically for his work as Wes Anderson’s stable director of photography. It is wonderful to see him finally up for a statue, because his work has been consistently fantastic. This is his first nomination, and I’d be gobsmacked if it’s his last. I also considerably doubt that he will take home the Academy gold. Yeoman’s work on The Grand Budapest Hotel has been most widely praised for his brilliant use of aspect ratio. The film is a nested narrative with three distinct time periods, and each time period utilizes a different aspect ratio. The most recent time period uses the 2.4:1 ratio common with blockbuster and big studio films: the wide, anamorphic screen providing a wonderful way to show your budget up there on the screen in huge panoramic vistas in exotic locations or by showing off your production designer’s hard work on set dressing. There’s a general feeling among film students that 2.4:1 is more “cinematic,” a term we use without really breaking down why 2.4:1 is more cinematic, but we shoot our films that way regardless (full disclosure: the film I myself shot last fall was shot at a ratio of 2.4:1, and I would love to tell you all of my pretentious film student-y justifications for that… another time). When the film retreats a little further into the past, it drops to 1.85:1, which is a pretty standard film aspect ratio, pretty common in broad comedies and smaller scale indie films and the like. But the bulk of the film takes place even further in the past, in a post-war Europe, and uses the aspect ratio 1.33:1 – the old Academy standard. It looks a lot like a square, because it’s pretty close to one, and definitely has an almost nostalgic, old-timey feel to it. After all, movies haven’t been shot this way regularly for many years.

What’s brilliant about this use of aspect ratios is that it gives each time period a distinct visual look. But it accomplishes more than that as well. Frequently, the film will cut between these time periods with match cuts in similar locations, and the shift in aspect ratios becomes readily apparent then. In particular, there’s a cut near the end of the film from the small, 1.33:1 ratio to the full 2.4:1 anamorphic widescreen. The scene in question is in the dining room of the title hotel, and the 1.33:1 shot features a busy place with lots of background extras. But when the film cuts to the 2.4:1 shot, the dining room, though now much larger in scope, is silent and empty. It’s a powerful visual reveal that the once thriving hotel has fallen on hard times, and it is extremely effective.

The biggest thing working against Yeoman is, perhaps ironically, the pedigree of his director. Wes Anderson has a particular reputation among film buffs, particularly us younger sort, and that reputation is a huge part of the reason he’s been overlooked by the Academy for so long. His off-kilter, twee hipster aesthetic frequently toys with long held and cherished film practices – often to potent effect – and has been likened to a very elaborate dollhouse play. It’s a unique style, one that justifies the stuffy French critics who first proposed the idea of the film director as the author of the film, but one that the Academy has been loath to honor in the past. This style, however, is so idiosyncratic and so very Wes that is has become indelibly associated with the director, to the detriment of his collaborators. How much of the cinematography of this film was actually the work of Yeoman? Probably a lot of it – but Wes Anderson is the name associated with this film. Every frame of this film screams his name to the heavens, and no matter how brilliant Yeoman’s work may be, if this film takes home any gold, it’s going to have Wes Anderson’s name on it; not Yeoman’s.


Roger Deakins, Unbroken The Perennial Second Placer

Roger Deakins is my favorite cinematographer. If you ever want to know why, walk up to me and mention Skyfall. I’m not going to spend as much time languishing praise on this man, who is perhaps the most praised cinematographer still alive today (especially among us film student types), and who I so shamelessly tried to emulate last fall, but suffice to say the man is a genius with the camera.

His nomination here isn’t necessarily puzzling, but is a neat footnote. Deakins is one nomination short of tying the record for most nominations without a win – currently 13, held by George J. Folsey – and his lack of a statue remains one of the most widely agreed upon failings of the Academy in recent years. He’s been nominated six times in the past decade – 2007, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2013, and 2014 – and has worked with directors as widely praised as the Coen Brothers, Sam Mendes, and Martin Scorsese – and still no statue. But he’s almost always nominated. Because even the Academy can’t deny the allure of a Deakins-photographed film.

His nomination for Unbroken is especially neat because it codifies the critical narrative of the film that Jolie’s direction did not live up to the pedigree of her technical collaborators. Deakins shot the film beautifully, but that’s about all that’s going on in Unbroken. He was given an equipment truck to play with, and play with it he did, but the film just didn’t work outside of that. Unbroken is hardly represented in the other categories this year, but Deakins’ work gets his now-customary nomination nod, only for the award to be more than likely passed on to somebody else – likely somebody who already has a statue – and forcing him to wait another year for another shot.


Dick Pope, Mr. TurnerThe Idiosyncrat

Dick Pope’s body of work is incredible. In particular, his work on The Illusionist is some of my favorite, and really made that film a lot better than its script and direction (which were middling). I would love to say more about him – but at the end of the day, I’m simply not familiar with the breadth of his body of work, and having not seen Mr. Turner, I can’t really comment on this specific nomination.

Pope’s frequent collaborations with Mike Leigh, however, lead an interesting narrative to this nomination. Leigh has a reputation as a very idiosyncratic filmmaker who does his own thing with little regard for convention – not unlike Wes Anderson, but Leigh is much less rigidly structured than Anderson’s twee aesthetic – and Pope’s nomination here is an interesting appearance for the film. Mr. Turner received a lot of critical accolades over its festival roll out and has been widely acknowledged as another great film from Mike Leigh, but it has been relatively unrepresented in awards season. Pope getting a nod here is perhaps a concession to a film the Academy loves, but not enough to pull it into other categories, perhaps due to Leigh’s reputation as a bit of an iconoclast.


Łukasz Żal and Ryszard Lenczewski, Ida The Dark Horses

It’s rare that a foreign film gets a cinematography nomination! The last time this happened was 2009’s The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke’s dark meditation on evil in human nature, but prior to that was 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth, when Guillermo Navarro took home the gold for his work on that dark fantasy masterpiece. It’s always nice to see world cinema get wider representation, however – as with Mr. Turner – I have not seen this film and can’t comment too much on it yet. Given the lack of love for Ida in other categories, these two remain an incredible long shot.


Bradford Young, Selma ­The Honorable Mention

Bradford Young’s work on Selma was… odd. I saw it with a friend who, upon seeing his credit in the film’s rousing closing credits (Common’s song is great), expressed her thoughts very simply: “Huh.” But I loved his work. Unconventional though it was, Young eschewed a lot of traditional compositional techniques and instead focused on the size of his subjects. He would frequently frame Dr. King from low angles in extreme close ups, giving the man a genuine larger than life feel, as if he were just bursting out of the frame (Oyelowo’s crushingly-unnominated performance did wonders for that). But when King had a low moment in his home life, a moment of human weakness when he had to comfort Coretta King after the FBI attempted to sabotage their marriage, he was shot from a high angle in wider shots: a human like the rest of us. George Wallace was frequently short-sided on the extreme edge of a frame, making him look very small indeed, especially in a crucial scene he shared with Tom Wilkinson’s Lyndon Johnson, who, in one of the few scenes where Johnson was filled with a righteous fervor, was shot in a way similar to King, to make him look larger than life, looming over Wallace. Young understood the work the film was doing. It wasn’t exactly mythmaking – King’s been lionized by American culture basically since the event the film depicts – but it was certainly dealing with figures who, were it not for the amazing fact that they actually existed, might be considered too unrealistically charismatic.


Jeff Cronenweth, Gone GirlThe Technician

Jeff Cronenweth and David Fincher are a match made in heaven. Cronenweth’s consistent pushing of the limits of technology fits so well with Fincher’s cold, detail-oriented direction. The camera moves with an eerie precision, not so much a character or actor in the events of the film (as a lot of cameras typically behave) as a guided tour through a haunted house of Fincher and screenwriter Gillian Flynn’s maniacal construction. Rarely handheld, almost never close up, and frequently a sickly green, the look of the film is almost as crushingly overbearing and haunting as Rosamund Pike’s brilliant villainess, keeping the audience at arm’s length as they witness this modern trash masterpiece unfold. Cronenweth rarely does things that are particularly revelatory, but he is an efficient and precise cinematographer who manages to execute Fincher’s visions expertly almost every time. He’s a loyal soldier in Fincher’s army of technicians, and his work is never boring, always fascinating.


Hong Kyung-pyo, SnowpiercerThe Lateral

I could gush about this guy’s work on this brilliant brilliant film for a while. Instead, here’s a video that explains basically everything that works about it and why it’s amazing.


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