From ‘La La Land’ to ‘Jackie,’ Celluloid Thrives in Cinematography Oscar Race

The first note of interest when looking at this year’s contenders for the cinematography Oscar is that the victor in this category three years running, Emmanuel Lubezki, looks to be sitting the race out for a change. The second is that there are, notably, a number of celluloid productions in the hunt. Last year’s race saw 70mm (“The Hateful Eight”), 35mm (“Bridge of Spies”) and even some 16mm (“Carol”). This year has some of that variety, too.

At the top, DP Linus Sandgren’s lensing of “La La Land” is special not just because it was a film production, but because it was captured in the 2.55:1 CinemaScope aspect ratio. The effect isn’t as eye-poppingly wide as Robert Richardson’s “Hateful Eight” work, of course, but it provides a vast canvas for Damien Chazelle’s musical to play out with gorgeous lighting and blocking throughout.

Martin Scorsese, meanwhile, has gone back to 100% film after taking the digital dive with “Hugo” and dabbling in it for “The Wolf of Wall Street.” With “Silence,” Rodrigo Prieto has amassed a series of stunning images, judging by the trailer alone, using film to pick up more color depth in the movie’s lush environments. (He’s also pulling digital duty with the Arri Alexa 65 camera on “Passengers” this year.)

Jackie” provides the most unique visual experience of the contenders this year. Lenser Stephane Fontaine shot the film on Super 16mm in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, leading to countless gorgeous frames and an aesthetic that truly stands out from the fray.

Seamus McGarvey’s work on “Nocturnal Animals,” a 35mm production, also bears a mention, as does 13-time nominee Roger Deakins, going back to film for the first time since “True Grit” on the Coen brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!” And Charlotte Bruus Christensen, whose gorgeous signature can be found in films like “The Hunt” and “Far From the Madding Crowd,” shot Denzel Washington’s “Fences” on 35mm film as well.

In the digital realm, you have to start with the aforementioned Robert Richardson. After testing out some old school tech on “The Hateful Eight” with those long-forgotten Ultra Panavision lenses, he sought them out again for use on Ben Affleck’s “Live By Night.” Alas, DP Greig Fraser had whisked them away for use on “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” Still, with the Alexa 65 and Super 70 lenses, Richardson has cooked up a positively luxuriant experience, a Florida-set gangster picture that soars below the line.

A pair of legends working in their own throwback space this year also could find room with their peers: Caleb Deschanel (“Rules Don’t Apply”) and Vittorio Storaro (“Cafe Society”). Both films, like “Live By Night,” nicely showcase detailed design elements with striking, old-fashioned lighting. On that note, Don Burgess also deserves a mention for “Allied,” a 1940s-set World War II yarn that used some CGI trickery to achieve its look.

Speaking earlier of Greig Fraser, in addition to “Rogue One” he also has “Lion” on offer this year. It’s beautiful, evocative stuff, and already a prize-winner: Fraser won the coveted Golden Frog at this year’s Camerimage cinematography festival in Poland. Recent winners that went on to Oscar nominations include “Carol,” “Ida,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and “Pan’s Labyrinth.” And if “Rogue One” hits with the Academy, he could even be a double nominee.

Camerimage’s Silver Frog went to Bradford Young for “Arrival” this year. Young has been on a steady rise for years now, and he’ll also be playing in the “Star Wars” sandbox with the upcoming Han Solo stand-alone film. This year, however, he brought a subdued palette to Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi film, giving the film a singular visual identity. (And to round out this year’s Camerimage winners, Oscar-winning “Snowden” lenser Anthony Dod Mantle won the Bronze Frog.)

Beyond that, there are a lot of questions left to be answered by the cinematography branch this year. For example, will they be at all drawn to Bill Pope’s work in “The Jungle Book,” even if the results are more in the realm of visual effects than traditional photography? “Avatar” and “Life of Pi” had no trouble, but they were strong best picture contenders, so who knows?

Also, what about “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk?” John Toll is a legend (indeed, one of only a handful of back-to-back Oscar winners in the field), but the 120 frames-per-second thing really just didn’t work for this film. It feels like tech better suited to performance and sporting events than narrative filmmaking.

And how far outside the in-club will they stray? There is exceptional work on the indie circuit this year, from James Laxton’s gorgeous, expressive lensing of “Moonlight” to Jarin Blaschke’s naturally-lit “The Witch.” The bold imagery of “The Birth of a Nation,” courtesy of 40-year vet Elliot Davis, deserves consideration as well, and war films like “Hacksaw Ridge,” shot by Simon Duggan, are always worth keeping an eye on here.

We’ll see how the DPs sort it all out. The American Society of Cinematographers will provide some clues when they announce their nominations on Jan. 10.

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