Friday, February 8, 2013

2012 Oscars: Cinematography

This is a strong year for this category, featuring strong work in strong films, and including a few long overlooked nominees. The nominees range from flashy 3D CGI work to subtle, tableau-crafting compositions, with some retro homage and bold colorful action sequences thrown in for fun. Almost any of these nominees could win and deserve it, but a few stand above the rest.

Anna Karenina - Seamus McGarvey
Django Unchained - Robert Richardson
Life of Pi - Claudio Miranda
Lincoln - Janusz Kaminski
Skyfall - Richard Deakins

5. Anna Karenina

Basically, the camerawork here was just capturing all the movement of the sets and actors. Which is no small feat, to be fair, and the theatrical lighting is impressive. I saw one article, though, that suggests the long take of Anna and Vronsky dancing almost deserves this award by itself... except it was really a triumph of staging and choreography more than cinematography, and was really just ripping off (or perhaps intentionally referencing) the scene from West Side Story where Tony and Maria meet for the first time. 

4. Django Unchained

Richardson is always remarkable, but in Django, all of the B-movie flourishes and fast zooms distracted more than enhanced. And although there was certainly gorgeous scenery shots and a great Western feel, the work here seemed more serviceable than really interesting.

3. Skyfall

Roger Deakins isn't a big budget action movie cinematographer. But then, Skyfall isn't your typical action movie. Even the basic action scenes like motorcycle chases were framed somehow more elegantly than they had any right to be. And the lighting schemes in the Macau casino, the fight in the skyscraper, and obviously all the fire and nighytime photography at the climax... well, it's all breathtakingly beautiful work that elevates this Bond flick to visual poetry. That said, having the best cinematography in an action film of the year doesn't necessarily mean it's the best cinematography of any film of the year, there...

2. Lincoln

It's almost not even noticeable how hard Kaminski was working here. It's very tempting and almost very easy nowadays to give way to epic crane shots, fast hand-held work, and strikingly wide lens angles or shallow depths of field. But Kaminski restrains so much here. He locks his camera down or if he moves it, it does so so slowly as to be almost imperceptible. He allows his composition and Spielberg's blocking to dictate his camera. And these are the conscious decisions of a master - don't forget this is the guy who helped popularize the docu-drama shaky-cam with Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, so he can do all of that too, but that's not what Lincoln calls for. This is a film that calls for a claustrophobically shot cabinet meeting, with cigar smoke in the air and a shuttered windows letting only the necessary light seep in. Or white-washed windows with sunlight flooding the halls of Congress, keeping the outside world both invisible and impossibly bright. There is so much going on here, if you blink you might miss it. I very nearly wish this would win, if it weren't for...

1. Life of Pi

I'm still not sure what to do with the relationship between heavy visual effects use and the cinematography.  How much credit should Miranda get for images which were likely constructed in a computer? I'm not entirely sure, but neither can I deny the fact that the images captured here were utterly transcendent. And there was plenty of principal photography on the water and of course on sets during the opening scenes of Pi's childhood, so it's not exactly Pixar we're talking about. And does adding a digital sunset, for instance, really compromise the work of the cinematographer any more than the heavy color correction that almost certainly went to Skyfall compromises Deakins'? The sinking of the Tsimtsum was a triumph of visual effects, yes, but also of cinematography. And nighttime on the floating island? Well sure the meerkats were digital, but the lighting on Pi during his night in the trees was haunting. I'm going to continue a philosophical debate in my head for a while about the relationship between CGI and the Cinematographer, but this year at least, I can't deny the partnership was a necessary symbiotic one when it comes to the most visually stunning work this year. You can't have one without the other here, so I say give them both Oscars.

I couldn't find a decent standalone clip on youtube, so just go watch the trailers.

Should win: Life of Pi (or Lincoln)
Will win: Life of Pi (or possibly maybe Skyfall)
Should have been nominated: The Master, Cloud Atlas

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