Why care what longtime Food Network personality Alton Brown thinks about the nominees in the Oscar’s cinematography category? Because he knows lenses, film stock, and formats as well as he knows ingredients, recipes, and cooking techniques.
“I started off as a cameraman when I was still in college, and moved into shooting music videos in the ’80s, then became a full-time cinematographer and a director-cameraman for TV spots, which I did for about 10 years,” Brown says.
Eventually burnt out by the ad business, Brown saw two choices. “I could either move on to New York or Hollywood and concentrate on shooting, or I could go to culinary school and try to make a food show.”
He chose the latter, resulting in the groundbreaking 14-season series “Good Eats,” which holds up so well that repeats continue airing today. Brown directed 200 of its 250 episodes. He calls his latest show, “Iron Chef Gauntlet,” which debuts on Food Network in April, a return to the franchise’s roots as one of the toughest cooking competitions on the planet.
Brown’s standards for cinematographers are every bit has high as they are for chefs. He lists Gordon Willis (“The Godfather”), Gregg Toland (“Citizen Kane”), Vittorio Storaro (“Apocalypse Now”), and film noir pioneer John Alton among his favorite cinematographers.
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“I’m very much affected by the DPs who studied in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” he says. “I mean, there are a lot of fine shooters around now — journeymen guys like Roger Deakins who can still crank out movies that are absolutely amazing to watch — who have also made the jump over to the digital side.”
What does Brown look for in films?
“What I look for is when you can sense, taste, smell, and certainly see the relationship between the shooter and the director so that the project becomes a piece of work that could not be separated from that cinematographer.”
While Brown says this year’s nominees include his top films of the year, from a cinematography standpoint anyway, he felt one fell short.
“I was so aware of ‘Silence’ being lit that it distracted me. When you’ve got a film that supposedly has a lot of candle- or torchlight, you look back at the people who did that well — even as far back as Stanley Kubrick with ‘Barry Lyndon.’ It’s critical that you see the movement of that light.” He says he didn’t care for the story that much either. “It’s a shame, because Rodrigo Prieto is a magnificent DP. But it definitely looked lit to me. And I was put off by the fact that they mixed formats.”
“Lion” is the only film among this year’s nominees that Brown feels could have been well done by any number of skilled cinematographers, due to the director and performances. “But the honesty that came out of the documentary style and the way they shot on the smaller model of the Alexa — all of those really fantastic crowd scenes that framed the first third of the movie,” he credits to cinematographer Greig Fraser.
“ ‘Lion’ is a great example of a BEAUTIFUL film shot to look like it’s in a documentary style when it’s not. I’m especially interested in the fact that it was shot all with LED lighting. But I like the movie. It’s a tear-jerker, and I’m usually put off a little by tear-jerkers, so I’ve kind of set that one aside.”
While he acknowledges “La La Land” is a lovely and ambitious film with a strong sense of connectivity between the cinematographer and the material, Brown saw some faults, too.
“I felt a real mismatch between the cinematography and the production design and costume design. I noted them all at work. You know, if you’re going to make a joyful musical with nods to the ‘50s, those things have to gel together in a way I don’t feel they did. I love [director] Damien Chazelle’s work—‘Whiplash’ was freaking phenomenal — and I like [cinematographer Linus] Sandgren’s work — ‘American Hustle’ is certainly his best work — and I love the film, I love that they made this dedicated push to shoot on film. But there was something in the overall production design that I think worked against the lighting a little bit.”
That leaves “Moonlight” and “Arrival” as his top two contenders.
“‘Arrival.’ Wow. What a subtle new take on anything science fiction. It’s an emotional science fiction film that I don’t think would have worked anywhere as well as it did had it not been for Bradford Young’s work — right down to how he and the director worked on lens selection.. I think in every single frame of that movie the cinematography brings the story to full fruition, which is ultimately what a cinematographer has got to do.”
Although “Arrival” includes some amazing CG work, Brown says those scenes are not what makes the film work. “It’s the human scenes, that’s what makes that film work.”
Brown uses words like “poetic” and “painterly” to describe “Moonlight,” noting the accomplishment is so much greater considering it wasn’t a big-budget studio film.
“It’s a visual poem told in black, blue, green, and white. To me, the movie is about the color blue in so many ways,” he says. “The high-contrast decisions they made in grading the film; their approach and how to deal with the DI—digital intermediary; in how they dealt with their post process I thought were just astounding. “
He says he’ll be thrilled if “Arrival” or “Moonlight” wins the cinematography Oscar.
“Those films just pulled me in. I don’t live in the world of ‘Moonlight,’ I don’t live in Liberty City Miami. I don’t know that experience any more than I know what it’s like to talk to a giant octopus on a spaceship that looks like a rock. These things are alien to me, yet both of those movies strike at the heart at what it means to be human. Ultimately, I don’t know what higher goal a cinematographer could reach for.”