Monday, February 7, 2011

OSCARS: Best Cinematography

Winner - 2007 There Will Be Blood
Rober Elswit - Cinematographer
One of the original categories, Best Cinematography has been awarded every year since the Academy Awards began in 1928. From 1939 to 1967, with the isolated exception of 1957, the award was split, honoring achievements for both black & white and color cinematography. This was a gradual accommodation for the craft, with Special Awards given in 1936, ’37, and ’38 for individual films photographed in color. By the late 1960s color had won out as the dominant form of the trade. Black and white films are still occasionally produced and when they manage to achieve a visual presentation that captivates an audience they are acknowledged. In 1993 Janusz Kaminski won the award for his work on Schindler’s List (1993), which also won best picture that year (the first B&W film to win Best Picture in over thirty years). Most recently Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) was nominated for both Best Cinematography and Best Picture as well.

The word “cinematography” is composed to the two words: cinema and photography, which essentially means the art of photographing motion pictures. More than just pointing the camera and hitting record, cinematography is a delicate art that relies heavily on ones skill. A real cinematographer must possess an understanding of light, shadow, distance, depth, space, framing, color, composition, not to mention technical variables such as shutter speeds, aperture settings, lenses, tracking and motion, focus and zoom, and how each of these elements will affect one another and the result it will have on the final image. They are as much artists as they are technicians.

Winner - 2009 Avatar
Mauro Fiore - Best Cinematography?
One thing that has become more commonplace is the recognition of visual effect driven films. Initially being able to photograph an effect heavy film was an achievement worth honoring. The cinematographer had to compensate several elements of composition such as lighting, framing, movement, focus, etc. for the image that was to be added later. However, in today’s digital world visual effect films are produced in a controlled environment and many of the variables can be altered at the touch of a button to match the director’s vision. That is why, along with animated films, any film relying on visual effects should not be eligible for competition in the category of cinematography, depending on the percentage of live action. People tend to confuse good visual effect for good cinematography and that is absolutely not the case.

Traditionally the Academy chooses to award films predominantly set in the outdoors. These films showcase the cinematographer’s ability to capture images while manipulating natural light. It is an exercise in control, but there is also an element of spontaneity as well. A well-photographed landscape that is utilized in the story is a much more difficult task than working on a set where the cinematographer can work until they get it right. Working in the outdoors, if you lose the light, then you lose the day. There is something to be said for set oriented cinematography. Just because it is controlled doesn’t mean the cinematographer is in control. A lot of motion pictures are cut and dry when it comes to photography, but if the environment is controlled it allows a skillful technician to become creative, exploring new angles and arranging visual themes, or setting lighting tones. A worthwhile cinematographer will possess mastery in both arenas and be able to maintain visual continuity through the piece.

Another trend present in the Best Cinematography category is the foreign element. There was a fifteen-year span, between 1976 and 1991, when no American born cinematographer won an Academy Award. Since then the award has been distributed between Americans and foreigners about fifty-percent of the time. This is significant because the Academy was founded in America, with its foundation set firmly in Hollywood, with most of the productions originating here. Yet, when it comes to photographing our visual entertainment exports we tend to outsource to foreign talent. There could be a correlation between outdoor cinematography and foreign-born technicians. Not having the luxury of Hollywood soundstages, or the constant sunny weather of southern California, these cinematographers must hone their skills in whatever environment is available to them, leading to a versatile set of location-developed skills. It’s just interesting to note the patterns that develop among the winners.

Based on these trends it would seem that this year is finally going to see Roger Deakins receive his award for the cinematography in True Grit (2010). Throughout his career Deakins has been nominated for his achievements in cinematography nine times for such titles as The Shawshank Redemption (1994), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), and The Reader (2008). He was also a visual consultant on the animated films WALL-E (2008) and How to Train Your Dragon (2010). Beginning his career in the 1980s, Deakins worked on the films 1984 (1984), Sid & Nancy (1986) and Air America (1990). Since 1991 he has been the cinematographer on all of the Coen brother’s films. His work is strong and diversified, able to capture the emotion of a scene or character and set the mood for the entire film. This year Deakins happens to fit the winner’s profile: outdoor film, foreign born. This is coupled with another trend that the Academy (unofficially) tends to honor people for past exhibitions that are not necessarily that year's work.

This year's nominees for Best Cinematography:
Danny Cohen – The King's Speech
Jeff Cronenweth – The Social Network
Roger Deakins – True Grit
Matthew Libatique – Black Swan
Wally Pfister - Inception

-       Upholding a strong tradition of professional cinematic photography through environmental exploration.
-       Splitting the award for B&W and Color achievements during the transitional phase.
-       Robert Krasker for The Third Man (1950), Robert Surtees for Ben-Hur (1959), Freddie Young for Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and John Alcott for Barry Lyndon (1975), which used all natural light.

-       Not acknowledging B&W triumphs such as Young Frankenstein (1974) and Ed Wood (1994).
-       Overlooking the innovative talent of Dean Cundy for his work in The Thing (1982), Back to the Future (1985), and nominating Stephen Goldblatt for Batman Forever (1995) over Apollo 13 (1995), and not giving him the award for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988).
-       Awarding the highly inorganic Avatar (2009) over the un-nominated District 9 (2009), which at least utilized organic settings and practical special effects in its compositing.

"Cut and print."

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