Grit versus grandeur

Academy enamoured with pretty pictures

Throughout the celebrated history of the Academy Awards, the Best Cinematography category has often been the least understood.

Some observers claim the voting members of the Academy often miss the big picture as almost all of the winners shot exterior films with big landscapes and breathtaking settings provided by nature, visually punctuated with an obligatory sunrise and magic-hour scenes.

“Don’t get me wrong,” says DP John Bailey (“As Good as It Gets”). “A lot of great films [have won], but there were maybe 130 cinematographers in the peer group doing the nominating, and some 6,000 members of the Academy voting. The majority of Academy members still tends to vote for pretty pictures.”

Bailey’s point is that even if all of those cinematographers deserved to win, they were generally selected for the wrong reasons. That complaint still echoes.

“My best work never includes beautiful photography,” DP Adam Greenberg says. “It’s always movies where no one recognizes what I have done because the photography is (integral) to the story. That’s what counts.”

Wet and wild

Greenberg’s current work in progress is “Sphere,” tabbed for a February release by Warner Bros. Greenberg guesses that at most there are only a couple of minutes of scenes filmed in sunlight. The rest of the movie takes place underwater and in the confines of a spaceship.

For the underwater scenes, he had small custom lights, reflectors and diffusion designed and built into the diving helmets worn by the actors. Greenberg explains that each of the performers needed their own light, maybe slightly harder or softer, especially for close-ups.

The consensus is that now is a great time for the art of cinematography. Some say it’s a Golden Age. “I don’t remember another time when there were this many talented cinematographers doing so much great work,” says American Society of Cine-matographers vice president Steven Poster. “The only sad part is that it’s still difficult for cinematographers who shoot smaller films and ‘relationship’ movies to be recognized at Oscar time.”

The ASC tried to remedy that situation in 1986, the first year of the ASC Outstanding Achievement awards. One of the goals, according to Michael Margulies, who pioneered the concept, was education. They wanted to show the larger community of filmmakers the values that are important to cinematographers. About 80% to 90% of the ASC nominations for feature film cinematography have paralleled the Oscar nominations during the past 11 years.

So far, however, only three of the 11 ASC winners have also claimed the Oscar, and each time it was for a big exterior film: John Seale for “The English Patient,” John Toll for “Braveheart,” and Dean Semler for “Dances With Wolves.”

Current hits

Ask top lensers for their personal favorites in 1997, and the recurring names are Russ Carpenter (“Titanic”), Janusz Kaminski (“Amistad”), Dante Spinotti (“L.A. Confidential”), Darius Khondji (“Alien: Resurrection”), Roger Deakins (“Kundun”), Robert Fraisse (“Seven Years in Tibet”), Fred Elmes (“The Ice Storm”), Amy Vincent (“Eve’s Bayou”) and Bailey (“As Good as It Gets”).

If the Oscars were a horse race, the handicappers would probably put Carpenter at or near the top of the list. “With all of the scope of “Titanic,” I’m proudest of how the smaller, more intimate scenes were lit,” he says. “Kate (Winslet) has an inner glow, and I wanted to bring that out. I’m happiest when I see close-ups that give the audience an opportunity to enter the soul of another human being. She has such beautiful eyes and I wanted the light to catch that twinkle and the radiance of her face.”

The handicappers would probably penalize Khondji, because “Alien: Resurrection” was out of synch with the audience’s di-minished appetite for recycled sci-fi horror pics. But Khondji did his part: There is no sun or moonlight, no day or night on spaceships.

“That made lighting an even more intellectual process,” he says. “Exposure of the negative is one of the most important things for me. That is what defines the spirit of the movie. There are so many choices. It is like making a political or spiritual statement.”

All of the lights were built into the set, and they were linked to a dimmer control board, which gave him absolute control over the use of colors, direction, angle and intensity of light. Consequently, Khondji was able to choreograph lighting with the movements of the actors and cameras, and orchestrate moods in perfect synchronization with the story.

“It’s the way of the future,” he says. “It changes everything. It gave us more freedom and enabled us to shoot scenes faster. We shot complex scenes in long hallways with 14mm and even 10mm lenses that reveal the whole perspective of the set.”

Elmes is even more difficult to handicap because “The Ice Storm” is an independent feature earning raves from peers but getting limited screen time. “Ang (Lee, the film’s director) is a soft-spoken man who uses words sparingly. He liked the painting style of the photo-realists, so we visited galleries and looked at lots of books. We found painters whose style we liked from the period, and we selected those who imitated the fine details and lighting in photographs.”

Like Carpenter, Dante Spinotti will probably be included among the front-runners as well. Like many top contemporary cinematographers, he launched his career shooting documentaries. “L.A. Confidential” is a period film set in the 1950s, but it avoids the stylish temptation of a faded photograph. Like almost all of the films singled out by the cinematographers, “L.A. Confidential” is composed in wide-screen (Super 35) format.

It’s not so much the scope of the settings, which are mainly confined interiors. Spinotti explains that scope was used to draw the audience deeper into the environment, and to give the actors and director a bigger frame to play in.

And that was one of the dominant trends in cinematography of 1997. More DPs are shooting in one of the two popular wide-screen formats, Super 35 and anamorphic, in mainly interior films. They are making the wider frame an important part of their visual language.

In “Alien: Resurrection,” Khondji sometimes fills the edges of the frame with deep shadows that would conceal the alien. It helps keep the audience on edge.

Also a trend, more cinematographers and directors are collaborating on the use of special print film processes offered by different labs, which enables them to deliver deeper blacks and generally richer images.

Technology means flexibility

Poster adds that steady advances in the convergence of film and digital technologies is giving cinematographers much more creative flexibility. It’s becoming standard practice for them to shoot blue and green screen elements of effects shots in addition to background plates. That work used to be done by specialists from the effects studios. Carpenter did it on “Titanic,” Khondji on “Alien: Resurrection,” Don Burgess on “Contact,” and that’s just a very short list.

Michael Ballhaus took it a giant step further on “Air Force One” when he worked with the computer artists at Hollywood-based Cinesite to fine tune digital composite shots.

“It made a big difference,” Cinesite’s Brad Kuehn says, “because he was the only one who knew what was in his mind when he shot the film. It was a lot of little things, like recognizing that the sun would be coming through an open door of an airplane, bouncing off a wall and putting a slight red reflection on the side of an actor’s face. It rings true with the audience and makes the whole film more believable.

“This will be the way of the future,” Kuehn says. “Cinematographers are expanding their influence by using digital post tools.”