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The Craftsmen Behind the Blockbusters Vie for Oscar Gold

As in most recent years, the ranks of the contenders for the 89th Academy Awards are largely populated by festival darlings such as “La La Land,” “Manchester by the Sea,” and “Nocturnal Animals.”

But the blockbusters of Hollywood also have horses in the race, including “The Jungle Book,” “Doctor Strange,” and “Captain America: Civil War.”
While the films in the race look to achieve their Oscar dreams through stellar writing, directing, and performances, they’re also relying on below-the-line crafts to catapult themselves into the minds of voters.

Leveraging a combination of technology and sheer talent, an array of artisans provided details and enhanced narratives that helped create memorable experiences for filmgoers.

Cinematographers captured remote destinations to ground this year’s stories in reality. For Martin Scorsese’s passion project “Silence,” Rodrigo Prieto trekked through muddy locations in Taiwan, where the crew endured a 6.1 earthquake. For “Lion,” DP Greig Fraser labored in the congested city of Kolkata and the rugged Hooghly River region before moving to Tasmania to shoot gentler landscapes as he followed the story of lost boy Saroo on his travels across India and over to Australia.

Lensers captured visuals on anamorphic as well as spherical lenses. For example, cinematographer Bradford Young established rules for two sets of spherical lenses to highlight parallel tales in the intimate sci-fi tale “Arrival,” and DP Linus Sandgren chose anamorphics to capture the fanciful dances of “La La Land.”
And while digital continues to dominate, many movies were shot on 35mm or 16mm film.

These include “Jackie,” which delves into the mind of first lady Jackie Kennedy in the days immediately following the assassination of her husband; “Hidden Figures,” in which three mathematically gifted African-American women defy racial segregation at NASA to help launch the United States into space; and “La La Land,” which charts the harmonies and disharmonies of love between an aspiring actress and a wishful jazz pianist.

Other contenders shot on celluloid: “Fences,” adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by August Wilson; the thriller “Nocturnal Animals,” for which DP Seamus McGarvey created three different visual looks using earthy red tones to connect each story thematically; and “Silence,” in which Prieto captured the bleak grays, muted greens, and misty landscapes of Taiwan, which stood in for 17th-century Japan.

Sound editors and mixers carried the aural weight to support the dazzling pictures. Randy Thom put archived audio of the London Blitz into the World War II spy thriller “Allied.” Shannon Mills cultivated new sounds to detail the astral planes and magic at the heart of the fantastical “Doctor Strange.” Production mixer Steven Morrow recorded up to 32 audio tracks for songs in “La La Land.” And Willie Burton managed dozens of script pages in a single scene of “Fences.”

Editors, tasked with putting it all together into a single coherent story, wielded their own magic. Jennifer Lame and Joe Walker shifted time to advance the plots of “Manchester by the Sea” and “Arrival,” respectively. In “Hacksaw Ridge,” John Gilbert never shied away from the World War II saga’s violence and gave scope and depth to the battlefield.

Other crafts contribute to the nuances of storytelling and add to the emotional palette.

Music explores both composure and sadness in “Jackie,” strategically expressing the first lady’s thoughts. In “Love & Friendship,” the hair and makeup traces back to the 1790s. And the production design team of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” constructed 1920s Manhattan inside a studio.

None of these films, nor those described in the pages that follow, would have had the emotional impact they so effectively wield had they not been boosted by those working behind the scenes to serve the story in unique ways.

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