Eye on the Oscar: The Cinematographer
The Academy’s nominees for cinematography have always exhibited a more international flavor than most disciplines recognized on Oscar night, but this year’s crop is especially notable for its global diversity, with d.p.s who hail from Poland, Mexico, France and the U.S. (vs. last year’s Yank-heavy nominee list).
“Hugo’s” Robert Richardson and “Warhorse’s” Janusz Kaminski may tout the deepest Oscar cred (Richardson’s award-winning work on Oliver Stone’s “JFK” set the standard for aggressive, mixed-media stylization, while Kaminski’s partnership with Spielberg seems to break ground with every outing), but Emmanuel Lubezki has won the lion’s share of critics awards to date for his crystal clear, ethereal, largely naturally lit work in Terrence Malick’s ambitious “Tree of Life.”
But the Acad has also exhibited a soft spot for b&w (“The Artist,” shot by first-time nominee Guillaume Schiffman), as witnessed by noms for such films as “Raging Bull” and “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” and Kaminski’s Oscar-winning lensing of “Schindler’s List.” Finally, Jeff Cronenweth’s cool, clinical — at times chilling — lensing on “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” like that of “Hugo,” represents the latest bar raising for digital capture, with a richness and tonality that’s almost impossible to differentiate from film with the human eye.
Jeff Cronenweth | Janusz Kaminski | Emmanuel Lubezki | Robert Richardson | Guillaume Schiffman
“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”
Overview: “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is Jeff Cronenweth’s third feature film with director David Fincher. The duo had previously collaborated on “The Social Network,” “Fight Club” and numerous commercials and music-videos. “Girl” is a remake of a 2009 Swedish version that was based on the novel by Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson. Cronenweth replaced Swedish d.p. Fredrik Backar a few weeks into the shoot.
Pedigree: Cronenweth earned his first Oscar nomination for 2010’s “The Social Network.”
Aesthetic: “It’s a murder mystery, so we wanted to avoid images that were too romantic, with gratuitously beautiful sunrises and sunsets. In fact, for the scenes we did shoot at that time of day, we used the DI (digital intermediate) to eliminate some of the color so they didn’t become too magical. For exteriors, we created a cool, somewhat monochromatic palette, suitable for the north of Sweden where a good portion of the story takes place. The setting is an important aspect of the movie, and we shot extensively in Sweden, so I wanted to be sure the audience felt that. Some of that is color temperature, but having worked as an assistant with Sven Nykvist on seven movies, I could see where he was coming from in terms of soft winter light. Interiors are warmer and more intimate and inviting, often lit with candles or firelight, and often shot with wider lenses. In terms of composition, we borrowed the clean, symmetrical lines you see in Swedish cinema, musicvideos and commercials.”
Most challenging scene: “There are two major sexual assault scenes that were extremely intense and exhausting to shoot. Fincher chose to cover them with a very delicate approach, without being gratuitous in the least. It’s done in such a sensitive, controlled and purposeful manner, and masterfully crafted in a way that increases the tension, without being obvious in terms of what is shown. Those scenes are incredibly effective emotionally, but very difficult in the making.”
Type of camera used: Red One and Red Epic 5K
— David Heuring
Overview: Janusz Kaminski and Steven Spielberg have made more than a dozen films together, beginning with “Schindler’s List” in 1993 and continuing with “A.I.,” “Catch Me if You Can,” “The Terminal,” “War of the Worlds,” and “Munich.” “War Horse” is Spielberg’s take on a World War I story that began life as a children’s novel and became a hit stage play.
Pedigree: Kaminski won Academy Awards for “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan,” and earned nominations for “Amistad” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”
Aesthetic: “We wanted to make a movie that felt old-fashioned in terms of the look, composition and colors,” says the Polish-born d.p. “It has a very idyllic feel, with many wide shots. Steven was very much inspired by John Ford. We shot at tremendously beautiful locations an hour or two from London. We waited for the right natural background light, and staged and planned scenes according to the quality and direction of the light. Meanwhile, I poured light on the cast in the foreground to bring them into balance. It’s slightly out-of-this-world because you see the landscape changing as the skylight moves, but the cast stays lit by movie lights. These days, with digital intermediate, I could bring the sky and the clouds into balance so quickly. But there’s a different quality of light when you actually put the light on people. I wanted them to be a part of that landscape.”
Most challenging scene: “For a scene at the end of the film, I pushed the film to the limit. We shot silhouette against the sun, and I brought in a couple of 18Ks, very strong lights, and I knocked it all down with red and yellow filters. My keylight was a stop and a half brighter than the daylight. You can barely see the people and their expressions, and clouds are moving fast behind them. I knew in my mind what I was going for, but I was being brave with the filtration, and I’m very happy with the results.”
Type of camera used: Arriflex 435, Arriflex 235, Arricam LT, Arricam ST
— David Heuring
“The Tree of Life”
Overview: “The Tree of Life” is Emmanuel Lubezki’s second feature collaboration with director Terrence Malick after “The New World” (2005). “The Tree of Life” is an impressionistic depiction of the journey from childhood innocence to disillusioned adulthood, and the quest to regain meaning in life.
Pedigree: Lubezki has four previous Oscar nominations, for “A Little Princess,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “The New World” and “Children of Men.”
Aesthetic: “A very important theme in the movie is the constant passing of things, the changes and flow that are part of life,” says the Mexican-born d.p. “By not imposing yourself on nature, you are able to catch these very fleeting, ephemeral moments. That theme had a parallel in our approach to the filmmaking. We used real light, and the sun, wind and rain and other elements that came our way became part of the story. We used almost no movie lights. If you really look carefully at natural light, you realize how complex it is, and how it’s constantly shifting. Handheld camera plays an important part in Terry’s movies. We filmed some scenes in 65 mm because of the high resolution. One of the rules Terry and I follow is to achieve maximum resolution whenever possible. When these scenes appear in the movie, they give you a jolt. It’s a feeling of enhancement and majesty. It’s almost as if someone cleaned off the window you were looking through.”
Most challenging scene: “The entire shoot was incredibly difficult. Working with Terry differs completely, and in every possible way, from normal filmmaking. We joke that we are like fishermen. We are trying to get little bits from a river that is constantly flowing. Sometimes you catch one or two, and sometimes you don’t. It’s very nerve-wracking. Sometimes it seems like he is almost trying to create a mistake, to take the actors and the camera to a place where they are going to crash. And it’s those little accidents that are in the film and give it that naturalistic look and feeling. Those are the truly visually expressive moments.”
Type of camera used: Arricam LT, Arriflex 235 (35 mm scenes) and Panavision System 65 (65 mm scenes)
— David Heuring
Overview: “Hugo,” about an orphan who forms a bond with pioneering filmmaker Georges Melies in 1930s Paris, is Robert Richardson’s seventh film with Martin Scorsese since collaborating on “Casino” in 1995. This includes two rock docs: “Shine a Light” featuring the Stones and “George Harrison: Living in a Material World.” Upcoming projects include Marc Forster’s “World War Z” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.”
Pedigree: Richardson possesses two Oscars for Oliver Stone’s “JFK” and Scorsese’s “The Aviator.” He was nominated four other times for “Platoon,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Snow Falling on Cedars” and “Inglourious Basterds.”
Aesthetic: “Our images attempted first to support the extraordinary magic of Brian Selznick’s illustrated book, ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret,’?” says Richardson. “The style of ‘Hugo’ developed out of the heart of Brian’s book both visually and emotionally. Our images leaned towards a vivid distortion of reality, intentionally artificial, with the desire to immerse the audience deeply within Hugo’s environment. Rich and lush colors spun through the prism of autochrome. Yesteryear atop today’s technology pushing towards the future. The approach was aided greatly by the use of 3D. The depth of the frame was enormously enhanced. That allowed for us to manipulate the sets, the lighting, the framing towards either furthering the depth or reducing the depth. And with that choice came, for me at least, a clear sense of place and character that was near magical. An enhancement of everyday life for Hugo.”
Most challenging scene: “Within this film, the recreation of the works of Melies with all of their illusion posed the greatest challenge. To reproduce this filmmaker’s work with justice and, as importantly, with a fresh eye for those who have not experienced his films before was a near daunting thought. Reality, illusion and dreams mixed as to become indistinguishable. ‘Films have the power to capture dreams,’ Melies said. That was our goal and our challenge — not necessarily the greatest technical challenge as a director of photography, but the most important creative challenge.”
Type of camera used: Arri Alexa
— Todd Kushigemachi
Overview: “The Artist,” about a silent-film star experiencing culture shock of talkies, is Guillaume Schiffman’s third feature film collaboration with director Michel Hazanavicius after a pair of James Bond spoofs starring Jean Dujardin: “OSS 117: Lost in Rio” (2009) and “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies” (2006). Schiffman next teams up with Hazanavicius and six other directors in the forthcoming film “The Players,” a series of sketches about infidelity.
Pedigree: “The Artist” is Schiffman’s first Academy Award nomination.
Aesthetic: “(Michel Hazanavicius) and I saw a lot of movies of this time and we tried to get a feel for the way it looks and the way it is directed,” says the French d.p. “We read interviews and histories and then when we start to shoot we forget everything and we say, ‘now we know how it has been done so now let’s do our own movie.’ The big challenge is not to shoot in black and white. It is to shoot a silent movie. You have to remember always what you do in the frame and what you do with the light tells a story because (the actors) can’t talk. When you light the shot (you consider) ‘Oh this scene is funny so let me put in more light or this scenes is more dramatic let put some more shadows on it.’?”
Most challenging scene: “Two scenes were very challenging for me. The one that takes places in the screening room, because Michel and I had a reference about Orson Welles at the beginning of ‘Citizen Kane,’ and also the last scene. My father was in love with Ginger Rogers so I saw all the movies of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and I saw all the musicals of Busby Berkeley. For me I never dreamed about even doing one shot like this when I started as a d.p. Then I had to try to do exactly the same. For me it was very challenging to get everything shiny, the reflections and the way it looked and also at the end everything had to be more bright and more sharp because it’s the ’40s and it’s not silent anymore.”
Type of camera used: Arriflex 535 with lenses from the ’50s and ’60s
— Dan Doperalski