In the world of light and lenses, this year’s awards season is just beginning to come into focus.
The big enchilada is of course the Oscars, where the past two sets of nominees have included many fresh faces. First-timers highlighted the list of nominees in 2016 and 2017, including Bradford Young (“Arrival”), Greig Fraser (“Lion”), Dan Laustsen (“The Shape of Water”), James Laxton (“Moonlight”), Hoyte van Hoytema (“Dunkirk”) and Rachel Morrison (“Mudbound”).
But to a man (and to a woman, at last), cinematography nominees cheered the 2017 winner, Roger Deakins, who took the Oscar for “Blade Runner 2049” after 13 previous nominations.
So far, the buzz for 2018 displays staying power for many of those names. Fraser is back with the politically themed “Vice,” shot with a wide variety of film formats. Laxton’s unflinching large-format work can be seen in “If Beale Street Could Talk” and Morrison’s momentum continues with the widely praised “Black Panther.”
Sandgren, a first-time nominee and winner in 2016 for “La La Land,” is back with Damien Chazelle’s follow-up, “First Man.” Matthew Libatique, nominated in 2010 for “Black Swan,” is in the running with “A Star Is Born.” And keep an eye on 2014 nominee Lukasz Zal, whose black-and-white compositions in 2013’s “Ida” turned heads. Zal shot Polish Oscar entry “Cold War,” which earned “Ida” helmer Pawel Pawlikowski the director prize at Cannes.
Also in the awards season hunt are Chayse Irvin for “BlacKkKlansman,” Robbie Ryan for “The Favourite” and John Mathieson, a two-time Oscar nominee who shot “Mary Queen of Scots” on Panavision’s new DXL digital camera. Dion Beebe, an Oscar winner in 2005 for “Memoirs of a Geisha,” can’t be counted out. His work in “Mary Poppins Returns” deftly echoes and updates the merry Technicolor original from 1964.
Conversations with top cinematographers reveal that the technology pendulum is swinging back in favor of individual expression, after a period in which too many films seemed to be converging on a bland visual standardization.
“The technology has been growing and changing around us for the last 15 or 20 years,” says Libatique, who also shot 2018’s “Venom.” “It’s been very easy to lean on greenscreen visual effects and digital, with the result that things were starting to look the same. As filmmakers, I feel like we’re all trying to find a way to not go there. I applaud ‘First Man’ for pushing back on that notion.
“The more you shoot digital, the more you understand it. We can actually expose with intent, like we used to with film. We can make strong, bold choices in lensing. It’s important to work with that attitude. Relying on post-production and the DI can be lazy filmmaking. It allows fear to take over, and it can result in decisions that have not been thought out at the moment of execution.”
The notion of an overall similarity in the look of films is anathema to cinematographers. Sandgren fought that trend in “First Man” by shooting film in a wide array of stocks and formats, from Super 16 to the horizontal 65mm Imax gauge, and avoiding greenscreen and visual effects when possible. He also used 35mm and 65mm for “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.”
“If every filmmaker has the same digital camera, texture lacks variation,” Sandgren says. “The movement to vintage lenses comes from cinematographers’ urge to express themselves, to interlock their individual style with a story. So people have found lenses that are perhaps technically imperfect, but which give you a better image esthetically because they take the edge off of digital.”
For “If Beale Street Could Talk,” a realistic portrait of family life in 1970s Harlem, Laxton went with the large ARRI Alexa 65 digital sensor, with ARRI’s Prime DNA lenses, designed and built by IB/E Optics. He says that the choice of format was made with “the power and subtlety of James Baldwin’s voice” in mind. Baldwin wrote the source novel.
“I felt the Alexa 65 visually captured both of those aspects,” says Laxton. “A sense of strength, and at the same time, subtlety and nuance. We didn’t want a vintage feeling, and yet the lenses have a slightly older sensibility.”
Laxton recently used Vantage Film’s innovative 1.3x anamorphic glass on the feature “Here, Now,” and Hawk’s distinctive One T1 lenses on a Nike Jordan spot. He calls it the best time in history to be a cinematographer.
“Companies are bringing so many tools to the market, with new ways to shape the image,” Laxton says. “That’s exciting. Still, I find that the best choices that I’ve made as a cinematographer are the ones that can’t be explained and are not necessarily understandable. That’s what I love about the job and about films in general — there’s magic to them.”