Cinema is a global language, and this year’s roster of Oscar nominees for cinematography is a good illustration. The list boasts a distinctly international flavor. The stories come from Poland, Germany, England, Mexico and the U.S., and the nominees are almost as diverse in nationality.
Meanwhile, on the tech side, the trend toward multiplicity in formats continues, with 35 mm film emulsion (“The Favourite,” shot by Robbie Ryan), large-format digital (“Roma,” shot by Alfonso Cuaron, also the director), anamorphic combined with digital (“A Star Is Born,” by Matthew Libatique), an unusual aspect ratio (“Cold War,” by Łukasz Żal) all represented.
Caleb Deschanel lensed a more standard digital format en route to his sixth nomination, for Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s “Never Look Away.” His resume includes “Being There,” “The Black Stallion,” “The Right Stuff,” and “The Patriot.” He sees the proliferation of formats and shooting styles as linked to changes in technology in both production and distribution, leading to a renaissance for cinematography.
“In general, people are more aware of how films look,” he says. “They don’t accept bad quality anymore because they’re used to seeing, even on television, extraordinary work. I think it’s great.”
Deschanel points out that “in Hollywood in the 1930s and ‘40s, there were so many movies being made, and anytime you have an explosion in creative work, you’re going to get advances, and you’re going to discover people. It’s very noticeable with the foreign-language films now. The quality has gone up incredibly in the last couple of years.”
Deschanel also sings the praises of digital’s convenience. “As much as I love film, the fact that you can now buy a digital camera for very little money that’s good enough to shoot a feature film has changed things. From Kazakhstan, or Mali, or some little place in the Middle East — these people can make really excellent quality films without relying on the labs.”
The Oscar nom is Libatique’s second (his first was for 2010’s “Black Swan”). “Cold War” also brought Żal his second Oscar nomination and reteamed him with “Ida” director Paweł Pawlikowski. Although the films share the squarish 1.37:1 aspect ratio and black-and-white imagery, “Cold War” was a significantly more expensive and time-consuming undertaking. The filmmakers wanted to avoid the common technique of creating a look through their choice of lenses.
“We didn’t want the lenses to impose any particular look,” says Żal. “Working digitally with modern, sharp lenses is very hard. They really show the work, and they force you to find something more raw and textured in the details of the set and in the light and shadow. We played a lot with depth, and we often kept a lot in focus, which makes it feel special. You can feel the three dimensions of the space. It’s a lot of work, but in the end it pays you back.”
On “The Favourite,” nominated for 10 Oscars, first-time nominee Ryan and director Yorgos Lanthimos made bold cinematographic choices that would have been considered sacrilege in another era. Low angles abound on the actors, and extremely wide angle lenses distort the sets in certain scenes, heightening a surreal sense of and advancing derangement. Ryan says they chose film emulsion in part because in today’s environment, it sets their movie apart.
“It’s a very interesting time,” he says. “If I had my way, we’d still be filming on 35mm, with a dolly on tracks all the time. But that’s just not the way anymore, and the technology gives us other options to tap into. For example, how Matthew Libatique used color in ‘A Star Is Born.’
“Cinema is in a weird place, going through a cathartic stage. We’re saturated with images. That means there’s a lot more content to be shot, which means more need for technology. You almost have to find a clever way to make your film stand out. Audiences constantly want a new experience and are open to unusual ways of making films, which is fantastic.”
(Pictured above: at left, director and star Bradley Cooper, palms out, on the set of “A Star Is Born” with cinematographer Matthew Libatique; at right, DP Caleb Deschanel, nominated for “Never Look Away.”)