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Cinematographers Embrace Large Formats and Rich Images

Whether on film or digital, many cinematographers feel the need to create visually sumptuous pictures

Handicappers eyeing the upcoming Oscar race in the cinematography category are unusually confident, predicting that 2018 will be the year Roger Deakins finally brings home a statuette after 13 previous nominations without a win. “Blade Runner 2049,” pictured above, showcases the DP’s masterful taste, skill and instincts, and the esteem in which the original “Blade Runner” is held can’t hurt.

Also, this time around, the highly regarded Deakins won’t be competing against himself, as has been the case more than once in the past.

A number of visually sumptuous films promise to compete, however, including several epics shot with 65mm film, among them Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express” (cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos) and Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” (Hoyte van Hoytema).

Film emulsion in the standard 35mm gauge was used by perennial contenders Janusz Kaminski (“The Post”) and Ed Lachman (“Wonderstruck”), the latter shooting black-and-white stock for period scenes emulating classic silent-era films that also serve as a metaphor for a deaf protagonist’s perceptions.

Lenser Matthew Libatique and helmer Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan”) returned to the Super 16mm film format for “Mother!” to lend texture. They said that 35mm film was “too clean” for the tale.

Larger formats were a growth sector in digital, as well. The ARRI Alexa 65 camera, originally designed as an effects plate camera, is now enthusiastically embraced by directors of photography for its filmic portraiture and boosted, yet organic resolution. And distinctive lensing continues to serve as the best way to lend flavor to a film’s imagery.

Seamus McGarvey chose the ARRI Alexa 65 for “The Greatest Showman,” a three-ring-circus period musical.
“There’s a big, kinetic style to the film and I wanted to use the ARRI 65 to give a sense of the scale of it all,” McGarvey says. “But we start in a much more macro fashion before the story evolves and opens up into the big stuff. So the format is perfect because its attributes cater to displaying both scenarios. It brings me back to my background in still photography and medium format. The incredible randomness and gradations, the details in the eyes — it’s extraordinary.”

Top-flight visuals also grace a number of high-tech fantasy films, a genre that has suffered at times from a lack of imagination, according to some observers. Jess Hall’s extraordinary and enveloping imagery for “Ghost in the Shell” dovetails perfectly with the design and visual effects to echo Japanese manga. Javier Aguirresarobe’s delicate color work in “Thor: Ragnarok” recalls the work of artist James Turrell. Both of these films were done on the Alexa 65 with Codex Vault Lab 65 technology.

“We were able to control color to an extent previously unattainable,” says Aguirresarobe. “LED lighting, the Alexa 65 camera and post-production meant that everything was possible. The camera captures a tremendous range of color with consistency and accuracy. I got fantastic faces and never missed filtration. Sometimes when the image is technically perfect, it can be boring. Instead, the combination of camera and lenses gave the picture a natural sweetness and smoothness.”

Hall used lenses carefully tuned to his specs by Panavision, and also took a very detailed approach to color.

“In manga, there’s a certain painterly quality as well as a certain kind of bloom or halation around highlights,” he says. “We were looking for imagery that paid homage to the visual quality of the anime, but that also worked for what we were doing — a movie. We needed a format subtle and sophisticated enough to rival film in terms of color reproduction, and the spatial resolution to work with all the different distribution types.”

Hall adds that they planned to shoot in Hong Kong at night “using a lot of available lighting, and the correct perspective — flatter, and wide angle, with a wide field of view but without distortion.”

Among the human-scale dramas generating Oscar buzz are “Mudbound,” directed by Dee Rees and sensitively photographed by Rachel Morrison, and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” directed by Martin McDonagh and photographed by Ben Davis.

The latter took the audience prize at the influential Camerimage Festival of the Art of Cinematography in Poland. Prizes in the main competition went to Hungarian Máté Herbai (“On Body and Soul”), Russian Mikhail Krichman (“Loveless”) and Brit Anthony Dod Mantle (“First They Killed My Father”).

Of course, the technology means nothing without the soul of an artist behind it.

“The great cinematographers take naturalism to a new level,” says Morrison, whose work for Ryan Coogler in “Black Panther” will hit screens in early 2018. “I know how much work it takes to make it seem effortless, but it makes all the difference. Engaging the audience, and taking them on a journey through the character’s eyes — that true subjectivity is perhaps the style most influential to me.”

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