January 28, 2014 11:45am PT by Carolyn Giardina
ASC Awards: Sizing Up The Feature Nominees
A three-way tie resulted in a varied group of nominees in the feature competition of the American Society of Cinematographers’ 28th annual ASC Awards for Outstanding Achievement, which will be handed out Feb. 1 at the Ray Dolby Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland.
They are Sean Bobbitt for 12 Years a Slave, Barry Ackroyd for Captain Phillips, Philippe Le Sourd for The Grandmaster, Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki for Gravity, Bruno Delbonnel for Inside Llewyn Davis, Phedon Papamichael for Nebraska and Roger Deakins for Prisoners.
Lubezki has won ASC awards for Children of Men and The Tree of Life and received his fourth nomination for director Alfonso Cuaron’s astronaut survival story, Gravity.
"Alfonso wanted the audience to be immersed in the movie," Lubezki said. "We found the scenes worked my better with fewer cuts. And not cutting was allowing us to express more the inner feelings of the characters and to express what we felt about the environment."
Putting the actors in space involved virtual cinematography techniques and Lubezki worked in close collaboration with the VFX team. "Virtual cinematography should be the job of a cinematographer because it's not just lighting, it has to do with the feeling of the movie and evoking emotion," Lubezki said of the process.
Of the use of 3D, he added: "You don't want the 3D to be uncomfortable, so things are mostly inside the screen. Very few times for dramatic reasons do things come closer to the screen."
To create the realism, the cinematographer said the team put together a "visual bible" -- a huge collection of NASA photos that were available on the Internet -- for reference. "We wanted reference of all of these places as different times of day. We also saw Hubble 3D as a reference for the quality of lighting that we wanted to achieve."
Deakins has three previous ASC Award wins (Skyfall, The Man Who Wasn't There, and The Shawshank Redemption) and 12 total nominations, as well as the 2011 ASC Lifetime Achievement Award. This year, he's nominated for his work on Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners, a thriller that surrounds the search for two children when go missing on Thanksgiving.
"Denis and I spent quite a lot of time talking about the look," Deakins explains. "It's a difficult film to judge what it should look like. You could go handheld in a documentary way or more as a gothic drama or a thriller -- but we wanted it to be a character piece. We wanted the audience to relate to the characters more than anything, so we decided to pull back and shoot in quite a minimal style.
"We were shooting in Atlanta and we wanted it to be very grey and have rain and the feeling of the climate. Denis wanted to feel the weather like a character. Atlanta isn't know for its variety of weather; we were lucky they had a particularly wet winter and production was flexible with the kind of light we were getting."
The movie was lensed using an Arri Alexa camera.
Delbonnel -- who won an ASC award for A Very Long Engagement -- received his third ASC nomination for the Coen Bros.' Inside Llewyn Davis, which was shot on film and follows the title character’s experiences in Greenwich Village's folk music scene during 1961.
The cinematographer said he approached the film as it if were a folk song. "The lyrics to folk songs are stories, and there are different stories inside this movie, which are the different scenes. There's his relation with Carey Mulligan's Jean, his travels to Chicago, his meeting with [club owner] Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). Those are the lyrics to a sad, folk music song.
"My approach was to translate those lyrics into lighting. Folk songs talk about something that could happen and never happens -- that's where I saw a relationship to the script, so I approached the photography with sadness and melancholy and hope without any good answer to it."
With two prior ASC nominations in TV, Papamichael said of Alexander Payne's Nebraska, "We chose black and white and the widescreen aspect ratio to convey the main themes of the film: Father and son traveling across this vast bleak landscape, the emotional isolation of the characters that we place into our wide frame compositions. We wanted to hold these tableaus to let the scene play out with a limited amount of shots, without a fast editorial pace."
For inspiration, Papamichael -- who shot the movie with the Alexa -- watched classics The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon. He and Payne also took the road trip to Nebraska. "The emptiness of the Midwest -- the space between people and towns felt like a character in itself and I wanted to capture that feeling," he said. "To capture the vastness of the landscapes, the sky, the textures, I juxtaposed the wide cinemascope compositions with selectively used close-ups of our characters. My goal was to bring the audience into the widespread despondency of the Midwest and emphasize the nuances of each actor's performance.
"I love that black and white can remove the distraction of having color palette. It creates a place where viewers enter a different reality and better immerse themselves in [this] story of human frailty, hope, humor and compassion."
First-time nominee Bobbitt said the approach to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave -- based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup who was kidnapped and sold into slavery -- was about simplicity. "The story's there and the camera really didn't need to do much but be true to the story and simply observe," he said. "Within that was the subject and the nature of the story -- the horror, the oppression, the brutality that Solomon Northup goes through. Steve McQueen and I wanted the camera to be very frank and not let the audience off the hook in relation to what was going on in Northup's life. In a way, we were trying to distil a visual truth about the conditions that not just Northup but all slaves were bound by under the existing economic structure."
Bobbitt also wanted to balance that with the natural beauty of the locations. "Louisiana is a beautiful state, and was probably even more beautiful in the days of Solomon Northup. We didn’t want to fight again that; we wanted to use it and embrace it and have it there as a counterpoint to the horrors that humanity was perpetrating upon itself."
To look at the 2009 hijacking of a U.S. cargo ship by Somali pirates, Ackroyd gave a handheld, documentary feel to Captain Phillips. "It's my style, from films like The Hurt Locker (for which he previously earned an ASC nomination)," said Ackroyd. "I have this deep passion for social realism, where you are telling human stories in a way that the audience has to believe there’s a truth to it. It’s what [director] Paul Greengrass has in his work as well."
The film was mostly lensed with 35mm film, and used 16mm for shooting in the skiffs and the Alexa for helicopter shots. "We had to travel though the water on skiffs and I wanted to have the lightest camera," he said of using 16mm. "It becomes like a real observer of life; that's what make documentaries shot on 16mm really visceral. That make me feel comfortable being inside the skiff and [for instance] being able to swing around and see Tom Hanks as Captain Philips up there on the ship.
"Then we went to 35mm to give the feature film quality to the other sides of the story. I think the combination gives you more realism -- that and the [handheld] camera style."
Le Sourd earned his first nomination for Wong Kai-Wai’s The Grandmaster, an epic inspired by the life of the kung fu master Ip Man. The story spans the tumultuous Republican era that followed the fall of China's last dynasty and was lensed with film on location. "Going on such a long journey during three years and shooting in such different locations in South China and Manchuria in the North, the inspiration for the cinematography went from Clair Obscur with its muted color palette in Manchuria to Klimt's Golden period in South China," Le Sourd said. "We tried to make visible the introspection of the subject to make strong choices in the composition and the light. The light became a character by himself and part of the emotion of the scene."
He said he also drew from references as varied as Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull, da Vinci's The Last Supper, the works of dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch; various Kung Fu movies; and the photography of Alexander Rodchenko, Brassai, and Edward Steichen.
Le Sourd, Lubezki, Delbonnel, Papamichael and Deakins also make up the field of nominees for the Oscar in cinematography. BAFTA nominated Bobbitt, Ackroyd, Lubezki, Delbonnel and Papamichael.
Over the past 10 years, the winner of the ASC Award went on to win the Oscar on four occasions. The ASC Award mirrored the BAFTA winner in cinematography just three times in the last decade.