Oscar D.P. Contenders Downplay Tools, Play Up Visual Language

Tech Merely a Tool for Oscar
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

For the first time in the 88-year history of the Oscars, no film nominated for cinematography was shot on 35 mm film. But fans of emulsion — who include top-flight directors like Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino — can take consolation from the fact that two of the nominated movies were photographed analog, albeit in nonstandard film formats: Super 16 (“Carol”) and Ultra Panavision 70, a 50-year-old large-format anamorphic film gauge resurrected by Tarantino, Panavision and three-time Oscar winner Robert Richardson for “The Hateful Eight.”

The move to digital in the industry overall has brought sharper imagery and, some say, less personality. Cinematographers are placing greater emphasis on the choice of lenses to lend a distinct personality to a given project, a trend that only gained momentum in 2015.

Old lenses like the Ultra Panavision 70 glass are being pulled out of storage, cleaned up and rehoused, while new glass is being designed and manufactured to mimic the desirable artifacts of older lenses. What used to be accomplished by varying exposure and development is now done in lensing and in the DI suite. A super-clean digital look with the sharpest lenses is also an option, as evidenced by Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki’s work on “The Revenant.”

If Lubezki takes home the statue, he’ll join Richardson and Vittorio Storaro as the only living d.p.’s with three Oscars and make history as the only cinematographer ever to win three consecutively.

“The Revenant” was made under extraordinarily difficult conditions and shot partly with another unusual format, Alexa 65, which uses a larger, 65 mm chip for additional image area and resolution. That leaves two nominated films shot with the Arri Alexa XT, the closest approximation to a current digital standard.

Throughout his hot streak, Lubezki created Oscar-worthy imagery using bleeding-edge technology. On “The Revenant,” Lubezki and director Alejandro G. Iñárritu brought the brand-new Alexa 65 camera into the Canadian Rockies and combined it with an extremely low-tech but challenging approach to lighting that prized natural illumination.

In spite of the film’s success, Lubezki can’t say if he would use the 65 mm digital format again.
“We were lucky to find the right language to tell this precise story,” he says. “You want to have a certain understanding of how images can express and evoke emotion for the audience. But you don’t want to have a formula or repeat yourself. Each individual project asks you to combine the way the director wants to tell the story and what the script tells you. That’s how you find the visual language that’s right for each film.”

While the choice of format is a distinctive aspect of the year’s cinematic imagery, the marketing blitz from equipment manufacturers can obscure the artistic side of the profession. Thirteen-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins (“Sicario”), an important early adopter of digital, says an overemphasis on the technical aspects of cinematography misses the point.

“I certainly think there is an obsession with technical abilities at the expense of creativity and substance,” Deakins says. “Cinematographers such as Oswald Morris and Conrad Hall had great technique, but they were not technicians. Their knowledge was used as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. I was watching Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’ the other day. Certainly in Hollywood terms, you might not say that film was ‘beautifully shot.’ The cinematography garnered no nominations. But Vadim Yusov’s work is actually stunning — maybe not ‘beautiful’ but stunning.”