The LAMB Devours the Oscars – Best Cinematography

by Dylan · January 29, 2009 · LAMB Devours the Oscars · 4 Comments

Editor’s note: Welcome to the first (!) of a 24-part series dissecting the 81st Academy Awards, brought to you by the Large Association of Movie Blogs and its assorted members. Every day leading up to the Oscars, a new post written by a different LAMB will be published, each covering a different category of the Oscars. To read any other posts regarding this event, please just click on the tag following the post. Thank you, and enjoy!

By T.S. of Screen Savour.

Unlike other technical awards, cinematography is rarely tied a film’s chances at taking the Best Picture. Since 2000, no film has won both categories, and historically the record is also spotty: between 1967 (when the Academy did away with two separate categories for color and black-and-white) and 1999, only nine times* has the film of the year matched the recipient for cinematography.

The discrepancy makes a great deal of sense: a film needn’t be good to look good, just as it needn’t be bad for it to look average or below. The cinematography of a film also stands alone; because we expect the camera to play an important role in any movie, broader audiences are engaged with how the film looks (or, at least more engaged than other technical elements, like sound mixing, art direction, costume design, etc.). Anyone can judge cinematography, and frequently it can be among the most memorable aspects of the film.

Its wild card status of half-tech/half-general, with the complicated factor that a film doesn’t have to be great to be nominated and win, makes it tricky then to predict. The nominees for 2008 are:

• Tom Stern, Changeling
Stern has been Eastwood’s go-to director of photography since Blood Work in 2002, and despite lensing such films as Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and Letters from Iwo Jima, this is Stern’s first nomination. Although I thought the film had numerous problems, the cinematography wasn’t one of them; Stern creates the washed-out, hazy look of 1920s Los Angeles surprisingly well. The film looks old and fragile, and there are moments where the camerawork captures an image or mood so bleak it looks for a moment like it might have crossed from color into black-and-white. It’s not the best looking of the bunch, but hey, it’s nice to be nominated, isn’t it?

• Claudio Miranda, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Working in an all-digital format, Miranda’s effort on Benjamin Button attempts to capture the epic passage of time from the 1910s through the 2000s, and aside from what we know about the story, it is the camera that helps us determine when and where we are. The overarching sensation that prevails in Miranda’s camerawork is the fulfillment of a visual fantasy, which is certainly not easy to create. As much as the particular shots, angles, and styles create a mood in the film, there is also the issue of Miranda’s lighting choices. Many scenes are hardly lit, save the warm glow of a few light bulbs. In many cases, too, Miranda’s lighting greatly aided the film’s make-up staff and helped the illusion of Cate Blanchett’s aging and Brad Pitt’s youth-ing. The Academy hasn’t quite come around to the idea of all-digital work, but Benjamin Button is a step in the direction where some films will be heading.

• Wally Pfister, The Dark Knight
Although complaints about the film’s direction and story have dogged it in some circles since its premiere, reaction to Pfister’s cinematography on The Dark Knight has been widely positive. Twice nominated for Oscars (for Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Prestige), his work on the second installment of the rebooted Batman franchise involved extensive on-location filming in Chicago, filming in both night and day, and included many unique and unexpected shots. Pfister also has working in his favor the film’s IMAX sequences, which neither he nor Nolan had ever shot in before, but which has received many accolades and suggested such exploration might be beneficial for films in the future. The memorability of particular shots may work in his favor as well – particularly the scenes with the Joker, including the 180-degree turn in last scene and the now-famous silent shot of Ledger hanging out of a speeding police squad car.

• Roger Deakins and Chris Menges, The Reader
Roger Deakins is a seven-time (now eight) nominee who has never struck gold. Last year he helmed the camera on three visually compelling films – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (nominated), No Country for Old Men (nominated), and In the Valley of Elah (not nominated), but he lost to Robert Elswit, who, in all fairness, deserved his award for There Will Be Blood. This year Deakins had another triple play with Revolutionary Road, Doubt, and The Reader, plus he served as a technical adviser on lighting and atmosphere for Wall•E. His nomination is shared with Menges, a two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer. The Reader pulled a surprise coup with its Best Picture and Best Director nominations, but I was not particularly awed with its camerawork. Others see great beauty here, and there’s a possibility I’ll be surprised come the telecast because my view on the film has soiled any potential appreciation of its cinematography. There is certainly some nice lighting, but like the film itself, I felt the camera seemed to play it too safe. You see a nomination like this and you begin to think how much the Academy must have hated Revolutionary Road. (Note: The reason both men are nominated for The Reader is that Deakins worked the first half of production before it stalled, and Menges worked the second half. There isn’t much of a noticeable slip in the film in terms of cinematography, so that might be one of its strengths. A clear weakness, however, is that it wasn’t intended to be a collaborative effort. You can’t fault Deakins for that, but I’m not sure you can reward him for it either.)

• Anthony Dod Mantle, Slumdog Millionaire
One word sums up Mantle’s Oscar hopes: energy. Despite differing opinions on Slumdog Millionaire (the Academy seems to have wholly embraced it, whereas me … not so much), the one thing you can say for Mantle’s camerawork is that it is vibrant and energetic, and as such, much different than the four other contenders. Many sequences in the film are occasionally beautiful, and Mantle’s cinematography sometimes strikes a precarious fairy-tale balance of dirty-made-beautiful-in-a-dirty-way, which could certainly draw support. Although there might be many awards awaiting Slumdog Millionaire on Oscar night that I wouldn’t necessarily endorse (writing, among them), I think the film’s look is its strongest element. That sort of achievement could speak well for Mantle, but then … well, you now know how cinematography and picture don’t always align.

Who Will Win: Mantle might have some wind at his back, with Slumdog Millionaire looking more and more like a shoo-in for picture and director; its chaotic style might pay off well in the cinematography category, especially since it seems to possess a different form of intensity that the others don’t have. Deakins has had his Oscar coming for quite some time, and as much as it agitates me, the Oscars do love to honor better past work with average current work; still, it seems cold to split his honor with another cinematographer, no matter how acclaimed, since neither didn’t worked the entire film. Pfister performed well in numerous aspects by working outside the box on The Dark Knight, which fared well in tech categories, and although the film has been a lightning rod in Oscar talk, people do seem to agree its look and style is among its best elements. Previous nominations might dictate seniority, which gives Pfister and Deakins & Menges a boost. Your true dark horse is Miranda. In other words, it’s a tight race. If you plan to put money in a betting pool, you might follow the lead of the American Society of Cinematographers (4 out of the 5 are the same; they have Revolutionary Road instead of Changeling) or BAFTA (same line-up). Reshuffling the deck in order of probability: Mantle, Pfister, Deakins & Menges, Miranda, Stern.

If I Had a Vote: Pfister, followed closely by Miranda.

Others The Academy Could Have Picked (in alphabetical order by film): Mandy Walker, Australia (more trivia: a woman has never been nominated for cinematography); Peter Andrews (a.k.a. Steven Soderbergh), Che; Eduardo Serra, Defiance; Colin Watkinson, The Fall; Harris Savides, Milk; Declan Quinn, Rachel Getting Married; Deakins alone, Revolutionary Road; Maryse Alberti, The Wrestler.

* The nine films which have won Best Picture and Best Cinematography between 1967 and 1999 are: Gandhi (1982), Out of Africa (1985), The Last Emperor (1987), Dances with Wolves (1990), Schindler’s List (1993), Braveheart (1995), The English Patient (1996), Titanic (1997), and American Beauty (1999).

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