Tuesday, February 11, 2014


When I did my first Oscar Quest in 2011, I had zero idea of what cinematography entailed, and I wish I had stumbled across this before the awards rather than after. My understanding of cinematography has certainly grown in the years since as I've linked it more and more to my still photography knowledge. As such, I'm excited to take a stronger (if still critically underinformed) look at the category than I've been able to in the past.

The nominated films:
  • The Grandmaster
  • Gravity
  • Inside Llewyn Davis
  • Nebraska
  • Prisoners

One of the real strengths of Prisoners is its color work. A lot of it is shot in really dismal colors appropriate for rural suburbia in the late fall, but there are a lot of scenes that explore the richness of that muted world. The tone setting throughout via the choices in color for the scenes are exquisite and really define the world. The lighting work is nicely done throughout. There is almost an overuse of slow zooms, but they accurately imbue a sense of foreboding to their scenes. It's a thriller whose tone is made up greatly by these choices, and it doesn't disappoint. It's no surprise that, after coming to these conclusions I find that the cinematographer was Roger Deakins. The aforementioned article spoke of his work on True Grit thusly, "his depictions of an undomesticated outback are nothing short of exquisite, while his subtle ability to set the mood with color is unparalleled." Replace "undomesticated outback" with "dreary suburbia" and the statement holds no less true.

If we want to talk about a film that simply wouldn't be without great cinematography work, Nebraska is a great example. With no intention of underselling the rest of the parts, Phedon Papamichael captures exactly what he needs to with lingering shots of dysthymia that perhaps remind me best of his work on The Weather Man. Bruce Dern's slow, sulking characterization of Woody Grant is highlighted beautifully by a lot of tightly focused, well-contrasted shots. Will Forte's role as Woody's son David is time and again shown in the shadow of the action, almost forgotten. If you forget to pay attention, though, you'll miss a lot of his subtle and telling acting that would have been easily lost to another cinematographer's framing. The long, lingering shots of Woody and of the sprawling West North Central states highlight the monotonous calm of small town living and Midwest travel. There's a lot to miss here if you aren't paying attention, just as there's a lot to miss in the grain belt if you lose focus. As my dad used to say during our drives to Iowa, though, "keep your eyes peeled," because it's worth every moment.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a film that I'm having trouble pinning down for its cinematography. I think a lot of the camera work and lighting is nicely done, but nothing blew me away. They were executed well enough to not hamper anything, but the real pillars of this film came elsewhere. The color and lighting give the film an appropriately dismal look for a folk singer playing dives and trying to get by. It really looks like a Cohen brothers film, which I can appreciate. Something about the preponderance of acoustic guitars, beards, cats, corduroy and filters left the film with a really bad taste of Instagrammed hipster. I think "overproduced" is the word I'm looking for. And maybe that's perfect for the film. Maybe I still don't like it.

Alfonso Cuarón has worked with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki on a number of films now. It was their collaboration in Children of Men that put Cuarón on the map for me despite having known of him since Y Tu Mamá También. It was in the former that I first paid attention to Lubezki's long uncut masterpieces which I had mistakenly been attributing entirely to Cuarón. The opening twelve and a half minutes of Gravity as I said yesterday is cinematic gold. If we're honest about Gravity, it's the technical awards that really carry the film. The lighting of the sun is spot on - crisp when needed and soft when appropriate -, the film colors crisp, and the choreography of cameras is a sight to behold. The amount of tension that the camera work builds cannot be understated. The framing of the scenes and the awesomeness of the setting deserve being seen on the biggest of screens; I hope you didn't miss out.

The Grandmaster opens extremely on point with gorgeously lit scenes, aching contrasts of light and shadow, and mild slow-motion interspersed between frames with a perfect depth-of-field in what is the most cinematographically pleasing burly brawl I've yet seen. The camera panning around buildings and the framing between characters is on point. Both of those lead to a lot of negative space at times which is handled really exquisitely. The slow motion isn't overplayed and instead gives a more honest sense of fight time as the elite martial artists see it. Focal depth is toyed with a lot. It never feels overwrought or gimmicky, but instead highlights the vision just as is necessary. Throughout there are a number of harshly edited fights, but Philippe Le Sourd gets his time to shine with slow, looping camera sweeps to express the perfect moods.

This is a really strong field (especially if I can get past some of my negative feelings for Inside Llewyn Davis), and I'm glad each of these films got recognized. To me, Nebraska and The Grandmaster are the two strongest films with Gravity being a close second. The Grandmaster is magnificent; it has the strength, precision, and grace to convey the mastery of kung fu. Its cinematography fits the film remarkably, and I'd cast my vote for it. That said, Nebraska perhaps equally matches its easy-going, peaceful setting to cinematographic technique. I would be surprised if Papamichael didn't take home a statue for his work on it. Good on him, because his work here is superb.

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