Oscar Race for Best Cinematography Is Wide Open This Year

Multiple DP's who've created stellar work are competing for the coveted statuette

The Jungle Book Disney Live Action
Courtesy of Disney

After an unprecedented dominance of the field by DP Emmanuel Lubezki, who won the cinematography Oscar three years in a row for “Gravity,” “Birdman,” and “The Revenant,” this year’s competition in the cinematography category appears to be wide open.

Contenders range from extraordinary technical achievements (“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” “The Jungle Book”) to more indie-flavored human stories shot by relative newcomers (“La La Land,” “Lion,” and “Arrival”).

Such perennial candidates as Lubezki (“Knight of Cups”), Roger Deakins (“Hail Caesar!”), Tom Stern (“Sully”), and Robert Richardson (“Live by Night”) should not be counted out, but the field is more unpredictable than it has been in several years.

John Toll’s astonishing visuals for “Billy Lynn,” director Ang Lee’s bold foray into high frame rate, high dynamic range 3D, will garner significant consideration in spite of the film’s mixed reaction thus far from the public. The cinematography community is always watching in anticipation for the latest tech breakthroughs, and Toll, a master visual artist, may have shown them the first steps to the future.

Meanwhile, Bill Pope’s work on the lush imagery of “The Jungle Book” involved groundbreaking levels of collaboration with visual effects pros and other digital artists. As with “Gravity,” “Life of Pi,” and “Avatar,” a nomination here would likely spark controversy given the gray area between the two fields. Janusz Kaminski (“The BFG”) may be similarly situated.

On the other end of the tech spectrum is “Silence,” for which Rodrigo Prieto and Martin Scorsese returned to 35mm film in the anamorphic format to envelope viewers in 17th century Japan.

“Marty and I immediately agreed that we wanted ‘Silence’ to be on film,” Prieto says. “Film has incredible color depth for nature, which surrounds these missionary priests, and for skin tones. I love playing with film, bending and twisting the negative to achieve different textures.”

Three-time Oscar winner (“The Aviator,” “Hugo,” “JFK”) Richardson was nominated last year for “The Hateful 8,” in which he resurrected the widescreen Ultra Panavision 70 film format. A nomination for “Live by Night” would be his 10th, tying him with Conrad Hall and leaving only Deakins and a handful of golden-era DPs with more.

On “Live by Night,” Ben Affleck’s Prohibition-era tale, the cinematographer felt the story and shooting style would benefit from large-format digital. He shot with a combination of Arri Alexa 65 — a camera formerly on the bleeding edge but fast becoming a standard tool — and Panavision lenses, some with older glass.

Richardson says, “65mm film cannot be compared at this time to a larger digital sensor, but that might prove to be a false statement in the years to come. That said, there is a unique quality to the Alexa 65, and I am learning.”

Speaking of cinematography royalty, Caleb Deschanel was tapped by Warren Beatty to film “Rules Don’t Apply,” the director’s long-gestating Howard Hughes-in-Hollywood project. The film has been a disappointment at the box office, but considering Beatty’s old-school popularity at the Academy, don’t count out Deschanel, a five-time nominee. His imagery is unfailingly elegant, with each frame masterfully considered and executed.

Australian DP Greig Fraser vaulted into strong contention by taking the top prize at the 2016 Camerimage Intl. Festival of the Art of Cinematography in Poland with “Lion,” the emotional story of a lost Indian boy who is adopted by an Aussie family. Camerimage jurors noted the film’s dependence on visual storytelling rather than on dialogue. Fraser has been wowing cinematography insiders for some time with his range on “Snow White and the Huntsman,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Foxcatcher,” and “The Gambler,” and he also shot the forthcoming “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.”

Another next-generation director of photography is Linus Sandgren, whose distinctive, improvisational approach fits perfectly into the jazz nightclub locations in “La La Land.” Sandgren’s talent has been apparent for a while — “American Hustle” featured his evocative imagery and earned 10 Oscar nominations, albeit not one for the DP. Perhaps the Academy will take notice this year. Anthony Dod Mantle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) brought his iconoclastic approach to Oliver Stone’s “Snowden,” taking the Bronze Frog at Camerimage.

The Silver Frog at the influential fest went to Bradford Young, who served notice in 2014 of a strong new voice with his work in “Selma” and “A Most Violent Year.” This year, his genre-defying imagery on Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” was a breath of fresh air.

“It’s important to understand and appreciate the work of the greats, but I also try to deconstruct my notions of what filmmaking is,” says Young. “I grew up around creative people, so I try to take inspiration from all the arts.”

That dynamic — respect for the masters, and an eye for the fresh and new — will be in play as Academy members choose this year’s nominees in the wide-open cinematography category.