When the ASC launched its awards in 1986, a single statue was given for feature film cinematography, presented by Gregory Peck to Jordan Cronenweth for his work on Francis Ford Coppola’s “Peggy Sue Got Married.”
Now, 36 years later, the American Society of Cinematographers Awards is returning to the smaller scale of yore even as it promises to celebrate a wide range of image-makers. The ceremony will take place on March 20th at the ASC Clubhouse, the org’s modest, if stylish, headquarters in Hollywood, rather than in a cavernous ballroom.
But even though ASC has reduced the scale of the event this year, the scope of the awards has continued to expanded significantly since that first evening. Honors now go to TV categories as well as documentary. The ASC’s Spotlight Award joined the parade in 2013 to recognize films seen mainly on the festival circuit, in limited theatrical release or outside the U.S. — a kudo that often reveals fresh talent.
Career recognition will go to DPs Ellen Kuras (lifetime achievement, the first woman so honored), and Peter Levy (for his work in television), and to Panavision’s Dan Sasaki (for technical contributions in lensing).
As is often the case, the ASC’s five feature film nominations are closely reflected in the Academy’s Oscar noms, with perennial nominee Janusz Kaminski’s work on Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” taking precedence in the Oscar race over Haris Zambarloukos’ tender, mostly black-and-white imagery in Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast,” nominated for an ASC Award.
Zambarloukos is a first-time ASC Award nominee, a recognition that also goes to Ari Wegner, who shot Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” and became the second woman to earn an Oscar nomination for camerawork, one of 12 noms accorded the film.
The field is rounded out by Dan Laustsen, getting his second ASC nomination for “Nightmare Alley”; Greig Fraser, for “Dune,” his third nom; and Bruno Delbonnel, whose work has earned consistent plaudits from his peers going back at least as far as “A Very Long Engagement,” widely regarded as a cinematographic masterpiece. This year, Delbonnel is being recognized for his stark yet elegant black-and-white work in “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”
The feature nominations are a reminder that great filmmaking requires deep and complex human interaction — an aspect of the cinematographer’s skill set that is often overlooked in favor of technical expertise.
Wegner spent a year prepping with Campion before production began in earnest, and she credits the director’s humane approach for infusing the film with its unique feeling and flavor.
Zambarloukos and Branagh have made seven films together, and “Belfast” was an especially personal essay for the director. Delbonnel now stands alongside Roger Deakins as the Coen brothers’ go-to director of photography. And Fraser collaborated with director Denis Villeneuve, who called “Dune” the project he’d been working towards his entire life.
“Every film’s different, obviously,” says Wegner. “Our extended prep meant that we could draft ideas, with the ability to interconnect and cross-reference those ideas with all the other departments. There’s an intricate kind of work going on, a methodical weaving, not unlike the rope in the film.”
Wegner adds, “after a while the changes become so impactful because they’re so specific. There’s a playfulness or an easing of tension when ideas are flowing. You don’t get obsessive or lock on to a single idea. Whether or not we go with a particular idea is almost inconsequential — the fact that you can freely raise it is the most important thing.”
Also critical for Wegner is the relationship between director and DP. “Working with Jane and building our friendship over that year, I saw how her approach informed the entire film,” she says. “I’ve never seen a filmmaker who had such great instincts — not only in how she wanted the film to feel and look, but knowing that she could contribute just as much creativity in choosing the people, the rhythm of the day, how pre-production unfolds, in a way that works for her. It’s a director’s job to shape that — and some directors don’t realize it.”
Zambarloukos’ experience on “Belfast” was informed by Branagh’s autobiographical connection to the story. “Looking back to when I started, I remember being focused on learning the craft,” he says. “What’s surprising to me at this point in my career is the personal relationships that evolve while we’re trying to create together. I feel very lucky to have worked with — and enjoyed the company of — people like Ken, people with whom I share ideas about the story, how to tell it and what’s worth telling.”
Such rapport “comes through in the images,” he adds. “ ‘Belfast’ is an intimate film. The place and time led us to create fewer images than other films that are more cutty. Those images have to count. The shots you linger on need to be thoughtful and multidimensional. We’re overwhelmed with images in modern life, and it was our intention to provide a contrast to that.”
James Laxton, who was nominated for an Oscar and an ASC Award in 2017 for director Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” is ASC-nominated this year in a television category for an episode of the Jenkins-helmed “The Underground Railroad,” a combination of fact and fantasy set in the 19th century.
“Barry and I have a deep history, and it goes beyond learning which lens does what and what camera tool produces which result,” Laxton says. “It has to do with who we are as individuals and where our hearts are at in the world. The way these characters are portrayed photographically has everything to do with who we are as people.”
Laxton adds, “taking on a project like ‘The Underground Railroad’ opens your heart to all kinds of things. To come to work daily with a close friend like Barry, and to be willing to feel all the emotions that one feels capturing the scenes that take place in the show — you have to do it with people you care about. Otherwise, your feelings might be too much. You might break down. We made the show with our friends and families. That’s the only way we could have done it.”