D.p.s sound off on year's most compelling work

Few if any groups in the film business are as famously collegial as cinematographers: It’s not for nothing that the American Society of Cinematographers’ Hollywood headquarters is dubbed “The Clubhouse.”

So what do some of the high achievers in this small, tight circle — some of them Oscar nominees and winners — think of their peers’ work in 2008? What images remained in their minds days, weeks, months after viewing?

If a highly unscientific survey of a handful of cinematographers is any indication, one trend continues to hold stubborn traction: It’s “Slumdog Millionaire’s” world, and the rest of us are just living in it.

Anthony Dod Mantle, the British-born d.p. whose intensely colored, half-digital, half-film work on “Slumdog” has become the cherry on top of a career as the cameraman of choice for the Dogma 95 group of Danish directors (Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, among others), is easily the most mentioned name, along with a notably large representation of other European-based peers.

Work on studio films lagged far behind in the mentions; as Oscar-winning “There Will Be Blood” cinematographer Robert Elswit puts it, “There wasn’t much work out of Hollywood this year that grabbed anybody.”

Along with Elswit, opinions are sampled from his fellow Oscar nominees from 2007: Roger Deakins (“No Country for Old Men,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and with a new nom, shared with Chris Menges, for “The Reader”), Janusz Kaminski (“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) and Seamus McGarvey (“Atonement”) as well as two-time Oscar nominee and Camerimage lifetime achievement award winner Stephen Goldblatt.

The international span of this group of five is reflected in a remarkably global range of choices, which in turn reflects that world-class cinematography is now being practiced worldwide.

Mantle’s “Slumdog” was “the biggest technical achievement of the year,” says Deakins, “because even though part of the film was shot on a 2K digital camera and part on 35mm, my eye could never detect the difference. Even though there’s a stark difference in the visual information and resolution between the two, with 35 still much greater than 2K, it was quite a feat to maintain a consistent quality of image throughout.”

Adds Kaminski: “I like cinematography that feels alive, and Anthony’s work felt that way for me. The shooting got the sense of the Mumbai streets, the reality of the gameshow, the nostalgia of the romance.”

Goldblatt agrees, noting that “Slumdog” was “a very adventurous mix of media, fun and beautiful and very courageous. I’ve worked in India as a photographer and know how tough it is there, so I was quite impressed with the results.”

McGarvey “loved how Anthony thought about how the various formats he shot in would serve each milieu in the story, so that the images never patronized the characters. It was such a ride.”

Closely mentioned after Mantle’s work was the lensing by Chilean-born, Southern California-raised Claudio Miranda on “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which Kaminski admires for using “beauty and the picturesque to tell the story, because part of the intent of the overall visual concept was to create a storybook atmosphere.”

Goldblatt terms Miranda’s work with director David Fincher to be “astonishing in its breadth and depth,” while Deakins called it “one of the truly showiest pieces of work this year.”

The name Wally Pfister pops up in conversation more than once for his dramatic widescreen work on “The Dark Knight.” “He’s an extraordinary cinematographer,” notes McGarvey, “because he can work on the grandest of scales but can also be terrestrial, and is able to provide an anchor to fantastical situations — a talent he shares with (director) Chris Nolan.”

Pfister’s ability to turn Chicago locations and sets into Gotham “was simply spectacular,” according to Deakins, who was “amazed at both the sense of scale, the sophistication of the effects and at the same time that naturalism of the light.”

Italian lenser Marco Onorato’s intimate, handheld work on Matteo Garrone’s mafia epic “Gomorrah” topped Elswit’s personal list of best-of-show: “It was the most alive, graphic and fascinating look at the mafia world that I’ve ever seen. When I first saw ‘Faces,’ I thought it was (the) most perfectly photographed movie — I still feel that way — in which all the pieces fit together. ‘Gomorrah’ is right in that league.”

Elswit also salutes Dutch cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s inventive visual redo of vampire movie tropes in “Let the Right One In”: “Oh, yes! That was awesome! It was designed so brilliantly, so a vampire movie about a girl became this love story. That movie was something else!”

“Great work can also be overlooked,” McGarvey reminds, “and I think that’s the case with ‘Hunger,'” lensed by Texas-born, U.K.-based Sean Bobbitt. “It contained a metaphysical quality that was really thoughtful, and beautifully evolved between extremely harsh realism and poetic reverie, which is so hard to do.”

French-born Maryse Alberti applied her considerable experience in documentary filmmaking to “The Wrestler,” which Kaminski feels is “extremely impressive realist cinematography, and reminded me of the Dardennes brothers’ films, particularly ‘Rosetta.'”

Kaminski also admires the lensing in “The Reader,” noting that “Chris Menges (who shares credit with Deakins) is a real inspiration for me.” Harris Savides (“Zodiac”) receives a high-five from Goldblatt for “Milk,” which “was thoughtful, evoked the film’s overall mood of collaboration and indicated how Harris is always in touch with his eyeball and his brain — he has such great taste.”

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