The force of nature is a double-edged sword

The unspoken rule for Oscar-winning cinematography is this: Pretty landscapes win. Veteran Hollywood cameramen know this and privately bemoan it. The late William Fraker once joked that, when location scouting and coming across an especially gorgeous vista, he thought sarcastically, “Well, there’s an Oscar in them thar hills!”

But this year, several acclaimed films depict nature as a harsh, unyielding force — a place less of beauty than menace, and a reflection of these films’ troubled, challenged characters. In “True Grit,” “Get Low,” “Winter’s Bone” and “The Way Back,” the comfort of a pretty picture in nature has been sometimes stunningly replaced by a more muscular, intense and sensorial experience.

“Get Low” cinematographer David Boyd describes the feeling as “subconscious, coming into your body, where it really hits you.” That was his primary aim with director Aaron Schneider in their visual conception of a grand Depression-era yarn involving a hermit/craftsman who’s preparing for his death. “With a great story like this, you don’t knock the audience over the head with your images, but let the images seep in,” he says.

Boyd, who used an older generation of anamorphic lenses and got Schneider’s backing for photochemically printing the film in post rather than digitally, went for a particularly harsh depiction of the film’s setting, in a denuded forest (filmed in northern Georgia on the site of the Civil War battle at Pickett’s Mill) under calm, cool winter light. “I wanted a harsh natural setting from the start,” says Boyd, “because we were inspired by the Depression era’s harshness, which runs through the story. It was also important to convey a feeling of being exposed by existing outdoors. A key to this was draining the color, which really means leaving more silver in the color negative.”

Adds Roger Deakins, whose cinematography on Joel and Ethan Coens’ “True Grit” exceeds his own extraordinarily high standards: “You sometimes have to take the settings you find, and adapt to them.”

This new version of Charles Portis’ classic Western novel about a young teen girl’s determination to track down her father’s killer with the aid of two odd lawmen in the wilds of Choctaw territory depicts a wilderness thick with dangers at every bend.

“It was quite important,” notes Deakins, “to switch from the 19th-century modernity of the film’s early section in Fort Smith, which we filmed in Granger, Texas, just north of Austin, to wilderness. What was behind this was suggesting a hostile environment where bad things can happen: The trees are leafless; the land is cold, bleak and absolutely unforgiving.”

For all the film’s fidelity to the original material, it’s in a creepy, unsettling section invented by the Coens — when a man is found hanging from a barren tree’s uppermost branches — that best encapsulated Deakins’ intentions.

“We were then shooting in New Mexico,” he says, “and we had looked everywhere for a single, lonely barren tree in a landscape, and couldn’t find it. But we landed upon a cottonwood grove, and this sight of many leafless trees somehow only added to the menacing feeling. You never know what you’re going to find that might help improve the original idea.”

When planning and shooting director Peter Weir’s continent-spanning “The Way Back,” Russell Boyd was able to realize one of his personal credos, which is “locations are one of the most important elements of the story for the cinematographer. And here, we were having to find locales that would take us from the Soviet gulags, south toward Mongolia, through China, across the Himalayas and into India,” the course of the true-story odyssey taken by Gulag escapees during World War II.

“It was the most physically difficult movie I’ve ever worked on,” says Boyd, though he mentions that Weir and he weren’t new to the film’s unbelievably brutal desert midsection, set in Mongolia’s Gobi and shot in Morocco. “We had filmed a sequence of ‘Gallipoli’ on a large salt lake, and we were both recalling that experience.”

The film’s keystone is to convey the extreme challenges the trekkers endured, from blinding blizzards, insect infestations, intense heat and waterless conditions, to the heights of Tibet and verdant India. “It wasn’t our aim to make anything look beautiful,” Boyd says. “yet that sight of green at the end of the film is really amazing, after so much browns and whites — the range of palette I was able to use was very critical to put across the vast ranges of nature these characters were passing through.”

For cinematographer Michael McDonough, the title of “Winter’s Bone” was “central — it said it all really. My temptation to get as hard a winter setting as possible made me first push for upstate New York during winter, but (director) Debra Granik wanted to maintain the story’s local focus and flavor in the Missouri Ozarks.”

The setting they found, in the Mark Twain National Forest, “was my key inspiration. I took thousands of photos, and photoshopped many of them to help me in post when I might need to digitally alter images. What we shot in was a very graphic landscape, full of leafless trees, very vertical, with years of ice storms having broken off the tree tops. The sight of trees without leaves is strange, dramatic and best of all, incredibly cinematic.”

More from Eye on the Oscars: The Cinematography
From pretty pictures to fatal beauty | Filming ‘Hours’ a challenge | Is it real or is it fx? | Sensuality floods frame | ‘Town’s’ unfussy authenticity | Read my lips | Gothic tone asserts itself

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