Judging by this year’s awards-worthy entrants in the cinematography category, the format wars have been settled, and the winner is “all of the above.”
Movies with a legitimate shot at trophies originated on everything from Super 16 film to Ultra Panavision 70, an anamorphic film gauge last used in 1966.
Cinematographers have always chosen format and lenses according to the opportunities offered by the story and the demands of the shoot. But today’s proliferation of digital formats, combined with the adaptation of lenses old and new, gives d.p.s an unprecedented range of options.
Many major directors still see the value of shooting film, and the cinematography world is abuzz with anticipation for Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” a Civil War-era Western photographed by three-time Oscar winner Robert Richardson. With the help of Panavision’s lens guru Dan Sasaki, Tarantino and Richardson resurrected the old Ultra Panavision 70 technology, which is able to fit a frame with an aspect ratio of 2.76 to 1 onto 65mm film.
The format’s roots reach back to the silent era, and a version was used most memorably in 1959 on “Ben-Hur,” which won 11 Oscars, including cinematography for Robert Surtees.
Tarantino reportedly paid to retrofit dozens of theaters around the country so that audience can see 70mm roadshow-type presentations — creating tremendous goodwill among lovers of cinematic spectacle.
On the digital side, Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki’s large-format imagery for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “The Revenant,” shot on the Arri Alexa 65, is also eagerly awaited. With a win, Lubezki would become the first cinematographer to receive three consecutive Oscars, having won previously for “Birdman” and “Gravity.”
Publicity surrounding the film emphasizes the difficulty of the shoot, but the success of the revenge story will likely have more impact on Lubezki’s Oscar chances.
The fastidious and delicate imagery in Todd Haynes’ “Carol,” shot by Ed Lachman, leapt into Oscar contention when the d.p. copped the Golden Frog in November at the Camerimage Intl. Festival of the Art of Cinematography in Poland. Lachman photographed the pic on Super 16 film, using the smaller gauge’s grain and perspective to poetically portray Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as illicit lovers in the New York of the 1950s.
Dariusz Wolski, the eye behind most of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, has two films getting awards buzz: “The Martian,” his fourth film with Ridley Scott, and “The Walk,” made with Robert Zemeckis.
“The Martian” originated in 3D with stereo camera rigs, while “The Walk” was shot 2D and converted to 3D using post-production techniques. The fact that both films are in the conversation for cinematography awards shows how far post 3D conversion has progressed.
Roger Deakins, a perennial nominee, may find his 13th outing to be the charm. Cinematographers speak in breathless tones of his digitally captured imagery in “Sicario,” and this time, the Deakins vote won’t be split by a second nom for the d.p. — which in the past has pitted him against himself.
Veteran John Seale’s inventive camerawork in “Mad Max: Fury Road” is similarly admired by camera pros, and two-time Oscar winner (“Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan”) Janusz Kaminski’s latest film, Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies,” capably delivers chilling Cold War atmosphere and texture in part through Kaminski’s bold lighting and use of 35mm film and anamorphic lenses. Tom Hanks in the lead won’t hurt with Oscar voters.
Elsewhere, Anthony Dod Mantle, Oscar winner for “Slumdog Millionaire,” shot Ron Howard’s 1820s whaling tale “In the Heart of the Sea” with digital Arri Alexa cameras. Dan Mindel used 35mm anamorphic film and some 15-perf 65mm Imax film on “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and given what he did with J.J. Abrams on “Star Trek” and “Star Trek Into Darkness,” the results should be stunning. And Masanobu Takayanagi delivered Scott Cooper’s take on the Whitey Bulger story, “Black Mass,” on 35mm anamorphic.
Of course, technical considerations only go so far with the Academy membership. Without an effective story and strong characters, cinematography is robbed of its true potential. Oscar handicappers would also do well to remember that the five nominees are chosen by the members of the cinematography branch, and that the Academy membership at large chooses the winner from among those five — on a ballot that lists film titles, but no names.
But given this year’s field, it’s clear that powerful cinematic images, made by using the latest high-tech tools as well as a 75-year-old technology, are essential to filmmaking success.