Modern Gadgetry, Dusted-Off Technology Highlight Cinematography Oscar Race

From post-production stitching to 65mm anamorphic lenses, it's a playground for geeks this year.

The Revenant Sicario The Hateful Eight
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox/The Weinstein Company/Lionsgate

It seems like we say it every year, but the Oscar race for best cinematography is as heated as it has ever been this season.

Most eyes, certainly, are on Emmanuel Lubezki. The reigning champ joined a very exclusive group of back-to-back winners in the category upon claiming the prize for “Birdman” last year (He also won for “Gravity”). With Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s best picture follow-up “The Revenant,” Lubezki shot on brand new Arri Alexa 65 cameras, even freezing a few of them in Alberta, Canada, while using only natural light. The stitching technique that was employed to make “Birdman” appear as one unbroken take was used in a number of sequences as well. No one has even seen the film and you’d be forgiven for thinking it the frontrunner sight unseen.

But three-time Oscar winner Robert Richardson had his own box of toys to play with on Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.” Dusting off Ultra Panavision technology and lenses not used for a half-century (since 1966’s “Khartoum”), his work will mark the widest 70mm release in 20 years. Plans are in motion to outfit some 100 theaters with projectors to screen the limited engagement roadshow version of the film. That’s candy for this branch. Straight up candy.

While Richardson has picked up 10 nominations from the American Society of Cinematographers but has yet to win (despite three Oscars), Roger Deakins has amassed 12 Academy Award nominations and remains a bridesmaid (despite three ASC Awards). Once again, Deakins has exemplified the virtues of digital photography on Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario,” dabbling in techniques (as in a riveting thermal imaging sequence) that show the veteran ever enlivened by his craft.

Danny Cohen has been singled out by the ASC for Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech” and “Les Misérables,” and Oscar-nominated for the former. He brings the soft, wide-angle aesthetic that has served them well to “The Danish Girl,” aided, of course, by the task of capturing beautiful design elements. If the film is an overall hit with the Academy, he should have no trouble squeezing in. (Cohen also, by the way, breathed a lot of visual life into Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room,” which could be singled out as well.)

But one has to wonder what the branch will think of 70-year-old John Seale operating camera like a boss on war rigs tearing through desert scenery in George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road.” The DP came out of retirement for the film, which boasts some of the most dynamic imagery in the category. Perhaps it could be dinged by being a product of heavy post-production, but so much is these days that it shouldn’t factor in too much. The four-time Oscar nominee won the prize for 1996’s “The English Patient.”

Janusz Kaminski keeps his collaboration with maestro Steven Spielberg going with “Bridge of Spies.” Full of the milky, blown-out frames that have become a hallmark of their work together, it’s a moody world Kaminski has put up on screen. Both of his Oscars and five of his six nominations have come for Spielberg films, so he should be seen as formidable — particularly if the film soars as an across-the-board player (which it very well could).

Speaking earlier of Deakins (and of celluloid), Sam Mendes tapped Hoyte van Hoytema for the latest James Bond experience, “Spectre.” Not only that, but the franchise went back to film after Deakins’ ASC-winning digital work on “Skyfall” in 2012. Somehow, despite being one of the most exciting DPs in the game with celebrated work on films like “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “Her” and “Interstellar,” Hoytema has yet to pick up an Oscar nod. Might that change this year?

Edward Lachman is a true artist of the form, having been singled out by the Academy once before for Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven.” He teams with the director again on “Carol” for some of the most exquisite frames you’ll see this year. On one hand it could depend on how well the film does overall with the Academy, but I could see Lachman’s colleagues in the cinematography branch standing up for this even if few others do.

Last year brought a surprise for many when the category found room for Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski’s work on Polish drama “Ida.” People forget this branch is well-populated with European artists with an eye to any and all contenders, not necessarily just those in the thick of the best picture Oscar hunt. With that in mind, Mátyás Erdély’s unique work on Hungarian Holocaust drama “Son of Saul” has to be kept on the table. The whole story of the film is in how it was captured visually, using extended takes that keep the central character front and center, never drifting to cover peripheral events but rather letting his reaction to them set the tone.

Finally, there is Danny Boyle and DP Alwin H. Küchler’s bold decision to shoot “Steve Jobs” in three different formats — 16mm, 35mm and digital — to liven up its three distinctive acts. Is it too much to-do or a brilliant visual storytelling device (meant to convey the eponymous computer pioneer’s efforts to push us toward the digital age)? I could see voters going either way, but it’s unlike anything else in the race, that’s for sure.

That’s 10 and I feel like I’m barely scratching the surface. What about Yves Belanger and Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s jaw-dropping period visuals on “Brooklyn” and “Far From the Madding Crowd” respectively (still two of the most exquisitely shot films of the year)? What about Masanobu Takayanagi’s on-going, under-the-radar dominance as a master of moody detail, reflected again in “Black Mass?” What about Anthony Dod Mantle re-invigorating Ron Howard’s mise-en-scène with “In the Heart of the Sea” after cranking out such delicious work on “Rush?” Adam Arkapaw’s lush frames from “Macbeth?” Luca Bigazzi’s stark compositions on “Youth?” A one-take experience in “Victoria” to rival “Birdman?”

I could mention so many others. But I’ll just point you to the category’s dedicated Contenders page, where we’ll be attempting to handicap this incredibly competitive race all season long. Suffice it to say, I do not envy the cinematographers this task of narrowing things down.

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