As is the case with all the craft nominations, the cinematography category is determined by a panel of professionals in the field, while the award itself is voted on by the Academy at large, a group whose expertise in the specific crafts is limited. Is it a popularity contest? Is the best work overshadowed by equal or lesser achievements in films less successful for reasons unrelated to cinematography?
Sunsets, sand dunes and beautiful sets have, according to more than one member of the ASC, overshadowed the finest example of cinematography in contention.
“I think the cinematographers branch (of AMPAS) has less than 150 members,” says five-time nominee William A. Fraker. “Actors have something like 1,700, so it’s predominantly actors who control the voting. Sometimes, actors will choose a picture if they feel the acting is good and the story is good and it looks pretty even if another cinematographer really accomplished more.”
Fraker says of “Looking For Mr. Goodbar,” which earned him a nomination: “I’m very proud of that film, of what we did and how we did it. I still take it with me to seminars. There are subtle things such as the out-of-sync strobe light Richard (director Brooks) wanted during the murder scene that turned out so well and made the film so disturbing.
“When you shoot an exterior, you enhance what God gives you,” Fraker explains. “With interiors, you start from black. Each light you set up must work with the next and they all have to work together in a way that serves the story. Cinematographers look mostly at interiors and how somebody lights the set. That’s what comes out of your imagination.
“Of course, it takes a strong cinematographer to keep exteriors consistent under all weather conditions like in ‘Legends of the Fall,’ but when I’m judging cinematography, I look mostly at the interiors.”
“Great lighting separates the men from the boys,” concurs Owen Roizman. “Unfortunately, if it’s done right, the audience just accepts it. It’s natural that people who aren’t cinematographers won’t pick up the subtleties.”
Many people still think a great vista or sunset is necessarily great cinematography and they overlook lighting and composition.
“I lit a scene in ‘The French Connection’ with one light bulb,” he proudly recalls. “That, I think, is more well conceived than the greatest sunset.
“Obviously, it takes talent to make that sunset register properly, but to make a scene work with one light bulb – that’s the kind of thing that makes me proud. Audiences will take the sunset anytime, but cinematographers pick out the other things.”
“I think a lot of people don’t appreciate what’s involved in shooting dialogue scenes,” says Conrad Hall, a seven-time nominee and winner for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
“Particular stunning images have traditionally won. Often, those are more to do with production design or great locations,” Hall says. “Even in ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ the tent interiors, which were very good, weren’t looked at as much as the exteriors.”
Hall would prefer to see the cinematography Oscar chosen by a jury system such as the one employed at the Cannes Film Festival and at similar events.
“I was on a jury in Poland recently,” he says. “These were all people who understand what cinematography really is and exactly how it can serve the film. But, it’s almost impossible to definitively say who’s responsible for any aspect of a film.
“Nobody can take sole credit for anything in this business. The actors, writers, director, producer, production designer, the editor, everybody can make a big contribution.”
“Successful filmmaking is the result of collaboration,” says Haskell Wexler, a four-time nominee, two-time winner, and a member of the Academy’s board of governors. “To delineate photography from direction is already an unnatural act. If I’m working with a director or production designer sensitive to colors, my photography will be better. It’s really hard to say where their work ends and mine begins.
“Some very artful work that has no pyrotechnics,” he continues, “is at a disadvantage. This is true for any of the categories. If a make-up artist does a great job making an actress look exquisite, it may go unrecognized.
“But if someone makes a monster with blood pouring out its eyeballs, it attracts attention. Part of our obligation as cinematographers is to try to help people understand what we appreciate and why we appreciate it.”
The issue is becoming further complicated by the introduction of effects into every facet of a film.
“It used to be that visual effects were separate moments of a film – the matte painting of the castle on the hill,” says cinematographer Dean Cundy, “but that’s changing. Effects are now a major part of what the first unit is doing.”
And he should know. Cundy, nominated for “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” also shot “Jurassic Park” and “Apollo 13.” Achievement in cinematography can be overshadowed in effects-heavy films for audience members unaware of the critical role the cinematographer plays in creating effects and integrating them seamlessly into the surrounding images.
“For ‘Apollo 13,’ I was very meticulous, creating illusions with cinematography and lighting,” Cundy says. “A lot of the effect of being inside the space capsule came from work the production designer and I did that allowed us to light and shoot in very enclosed spaces.”
Cundy was recognized for his contribution to “Apollo 13” with a nomination for the ASC’s award, but not by the Academy. But Cundy expresses genuine gratitude for the nod he did receive for “Roger Rabbit.”
“It was the greatest honor I’ve had,” he says. “Attending the Academy Awards as a nominee really was the fulfillment of a dream.”
It is a sentiment that, quibbling notwithstanding, seems to be generally accepted by cinematographers. Fraker, an Academy member himself, holds the voting procedure nearly sacred, giving great weight to his choices in every category.
“You’ve got to try to eliminate all the classifications and think about what the director or the production designer and so on contributed because it is a very serious decision,” he says. “The Academy is probably one of the most respected organizations in the country and I think most of us are honest and have an integrity level of 1,000%. There have been years when I’ve been nominated that I didn’t vote for myself because I thought someone else’s work was better.”