The majority of Acad members often overlooks cinematography that is character-driven

For cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s latest picture, “21 Grams,” he used three film stocks and innovative processing techniques to create distinctly different looks as the film’s Byzantine narrative interweaves three stories. He then altered the gradations of those looks to reflect the characters’ emotional arcs. It’s one of the most inventive turns by a d.p. this year.

“Rodrigo is one of the most brilliant young cinematographers coming up in this new generation,” says Laszlo Kovacs, the d.p. behind “Easy Rider” and “Shampoo.” “Every one of his films is different visually in style and approach, and yet the styles fit the stories perfectly.”

And yet Prieto’s admirers think he has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning an Academy Award for cinematography. In fact, many doubt he’ll even get nominated. Grim and gritty movies about tortured, self-destructive characters don’t have a great track record at the Oscars. Prieto knows this and tries to be philosophical about it. “What matters in the end, and is more rewarding as years go past, is the work and how well it wears,” he says.

But he can’t quite break free of Oscar lust. It would be mighty nice, he admits, to stand up there on that stage and feel the weight of that cool gold statuette in his palm. “The Academy Awards are always very exciting because so many people know about them,” he admits. “That’s why they have a meaning, because your parents will be incredibly proud of you if you win.”

Most cinematographers are keenly aware that the vast majority of Academy members who vote for the cinematography award have no real understanding of the craft. The whole enterprise is silly, really, not worth getting worked up over, they say.

And yet, says Owen Roizman, “It always bothers me.” Nominated for his work on “The French Connection” (1971), “The Exorcist” (1973), “Network” (1976), “Tootsie” (1982) and “Wyatt Earp” (1994), Roizman has never won. “You learn to take it in stride,” he adds, “because there’s not a lot you can do about it.”

A glance over the list of past nominees and winners quickly produces evidence of Oscar’s tendencies. For every worthy winner — Charles Rosher and Karl Struss’ work on “Sunrise” (1928); Ernest Haller and Ray Rennahan’s lensing of “Gone With the Wind” (1939); Freddie Young’s majestic work on “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) — there are glaring omissions. In 1941 Gregg Toland (“Citizen Kane”) lost to Arthur Miller (“How Green Was My Valley”). In 1968, Geoffrey Unsworth did not get nominated for “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but Daniel L. Fapp did for “Ice Station Zebra.”

Lucien Ballard’s “The Wild Bunch” failed to secure a nomination the following year, but Harry Stradling Sr.’s “Hello, Dolly” did. Gordon Willis was not for his groundbreaking work on the first two “Godfather” movies.

Fred Koenekamp and Joseph Biroc’s efforts on “The Towering Inferno” won the Oscar in 1974, beating, among others, Bruce Surtees’ “Lenny” and John A. Alonzo’s “Chinatown.” When Vilmos Zsigmond — d.p. of “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971) and “The Deer Hunter” (1978) — is reminded of this, he explodes with outrage: “‘Towering Inferno’ is a disgrace!”

To be fair, the Academy’s d.p. nominees are determined by its cinematographers branch, which this year includes 183 practitioners. The final vote for the winner, however, is determined by the entire voting membership of approximately 6,000 — 1,300 of whom are actors.

But beyond the math, there are logical explanations for each of these seemingly inscrutable acts of Oscar neglect. ” ‘Citizen Kane’ was not a commercial success at the time it came out,” Roizman observes. “That probably had something to do with it not winning. Had ‘Citizen Kane’ been a huge, huge hit that year, there’s no doubt it would have won.

“As for Gordon Willis not being nominated for either of the ‘Godfather’ movies, I think that’s because he did something totally different. He went for shadowed faces, recessed eyes and darkness that none of the old-time cinematographers had ever seen before. They didn’t like dark images, because it went against their entire training.

” ‘The Godfather’ opened up a whole new era, and a lot of people emulated that look after that. They found out they could get away with it. Before that, the studio system would never allow a cinematographer to go as dark as Gordon went. For him not to have gotten the Oscar is one of the great travesties of all time.”

Genre prejudice

But Willis has plenty of company. Westerns traditionally have been looked down upon. The stunning work of Bert Glennon in “Stagecoach” (1939), Russell Harlan in “Red River” (1948), Winton C. Hoch in “The Searchers” (1956) and Ballard in “Ride the High Country” (1962) went unnominated.

Science fiction also gets little respect, which may explain why the Academy ignored Jordan Cronenweth’s cutting-edge photography on “Blade Runner” (1982).

Comedies are a deathtrap. Rollie Totheroh’s brilliantly distilled work on “City Lights” (1931), “Modern Times” (1936) and “The Great Dictator” (1940) was ignored, as were Joseph Walker’s shimmering imagery in “It Happened One Night” (1934), and W. Wallace Kelley’s hallucinatory use of color in “The Ladies Man” (1961) and “The Nutty Professor” (1963).

After the Academy did away with separate awards for color and black-and-white cinematography in 1967, only one B&W movie, Janusz Kaminski’s “Schindler’s List” (1993), won an Oscar. The ranks of the gray-scale losers include Conrad L. Hall’s “In Cold Blood” (1967), Surtees’ “The Last Picture Show” (1971), Laszlo Kovacs’ “Paper Moon” (1973), Willis’ “Manhattan” (1979) and “Zelig” (1983), Michael Chapman’s “Raging Bull” (1980) and Roger Deakins’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001).

So what wins most years? Pretty pictures. Grand sweeping vistas with postcard colors, golden sunsets, snow-covered mountain peaks, smoke-filled battlefields with casts of thousands.

“Beautiful epic photography, very often done in natural light — things that are shot at the correct time of day and beautifully framed,” says Declan Quinn, who shot “In America” as well as “Leaving Las Vegas” (1995). “The irony is, those breathtaking shots that so impress people are often done by a second unit.”

Breathtaking scenery

No one is more aware of the inequity of this than the cinematographers who have shot those gorgeous Oscar-winning images. “I used to say Montana won the award, not me!” says Philippe Rousselot, who won for his high-country vistas in “A River Runs Through It” (1992). “I’ve done films that were far more difficult than that.”

“Philippe has done interior set work that is beautiful and stunning,” says Quinn, “but it hasn’t been nominated as much as the big outdoor epic stuff, which is more about letting God do the lighting.”

Eduardo Serra was nominated for “The Wings of the Dove” (1997), yet he suspects the architecture of Venice had as much to do with the recognition as his camerawork. “I must confess that I was lucky,” he says. “A period film has more of a chance than a contemporary one. If you stay in period films, it’s easier to get an Oscar.”

Zsigmond won for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” (1977), yet he is most fond of his work on less pyrotechnical films such as “The Deer Hunter” and “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” ” ‘Scarecrow’ (1973) was one of my favorites. It was such a simple little movie,” the lenser says. “But it didn’t have the big breathtaking scenery, so it didn’t even get nominated. Usually Academy voters think good scenery equals good cinematography.”

It isn’t fancy camera moves, dynamic lighting or breath-taking imagery that impress the cinematographers themselves. The work they most admire is nearly invisible: It’s camerawork that serves the story and characters of a film, that functions as prose does in a novel to convey the moods, emotions, even inner lives of the characters. The images don’t have to be pretty; they can be drab, even ugly, as long as they have the ring of truth.

In “The French Connection” (1971), Roizman captured the grimy, fluorescent-lit, cigar
ette-and-Styrofoam-coffee-cup-cluttered world of narcotics detectives and forever changed the look of cop movies. “‘The French Connection’ has a documentary feeling, yet it never strays into sloppiness,” says Richard Crudo, ASC president and d.p. of “American Pie” (1999) and “American Buffalo” (1996). “It’s got a professional patina, yet it’s very rough-edged and very immediate. There’s a lot of skill involved in getting that look. It’s an application of your skills and the technology to get cameras into places where they’ve never been before and capture a subculture in a way that’s fresh and visceral.”

Omens thinks “Searching for Bobby Fischer” (1993) is one of the late Hall’s finest films. “It is one of the greatest examples of a film that takes ordinary locations — bathrooms, kitchens, bedrooms — and makes them into stunningly beautiful experiences. The hardest thing to shoot is a contemporary film in small, contained, everyday spaces. That takes genius and inventiveness beyond description.”

“French Connection” and “Bobby Fischer” both were nominated for Oscars, but “Connection” lost to “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Fischer” fell to “Schindler’s List.”

Jury of their peers

Eighteen years ago, the ASC started its own awards so cinematographers would have the opportunity to be recognized by their peers. Another goal was to raise public consciousness about the complexities of their art. “We’re not only educating the public, but we’re educating our fellow filmmakers,” says Omens, who conceived of the awards with lenser Michael D. Margulies. “We think it’s important for producers, directors and writers to see what we see, and appreciate it.”

They’ve made some headway. Over the last 10 years, the Academy has followed the ASC’s lead on cinematography statuettes 50% of the time. The rest of the time, the Academy still favors eye candy like “Legends of the Fall” (1994) and “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001) over more subtle work like “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”

So for the moment, the battle for the hearts and minds of Academy members remains a stalemate. When asked to name their favorite examples of cinematography this year, most d.p.s pick smaller, nuanced films. “The cinematography for ‘In America’ by Declan Quinn was brilliant,” Roizman says.

“Roger Deakins is a very versatile cinematographer,” Kovacs says. “His approach on ‘The House of Sand and Fog’ — the tones and textures, the compositions, the mood — supported the drama and conflict. The way he lit Ben Kingsley as opposed to Jennifer Connelly set up a polarity beautifully.”

“I’m hearing a lot of buzz about ‘In America’ and ‘Dirty Pretty Things,'” Crudo says. “They are two small films that other cinematographers have told me, ‘Oh, there’s some great work there. You’ve got to see them!'” Then Crudo adds the inevitable coda to such endorsements. “But neither one is going to win an Academy Award, and probably won’t even get nominated.”

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