Awards Watch: Cinematography

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If you're looking for diversity in Hollywood, look no further than the Oscar winners for best cinematography. During the past 10 years, the prize has gone to big-budget fantasies ("The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the King," 2002), stark period pieces ("There Will Be Blood," 2008) and even character-driven dramas ("American Beauty," 2000).

This year's nominee lineup continues that trend. Mauro Fiore
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("Avatar"); Bruno Delbonnel ("Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"); Barry Ackroyd ("The Hurt Locker"); Robert Richardson ("Inglourious Basterds"); and Christian Berger ("The White Ribbon") -- five cinematographers from five different countries with five very different films, all of which feature widely varying technical means of image creation, including 35mm film, HD 3D video, 16mm film, high-speed HD cameras and a black-and-white process created in postproduction.

"The sampling is quite remarkable," Richardson says. " 'Avatar' is an astounding, highly technical film that has accomplished more than any other film before it -- I've seen it three times -- while 'The Hurt Locker' is the absolute opposite, taking film back to its honest documentary roots. It's the complete spectrum."


"Avatar"
 
The monster in the room this year is, of course, the James Cameron-directed "Avatar," which may simply sweep the technical awards (as his "Titanic" did in 1998). It may seem like a no-brainer that the 3D effects fest would earn a nomination for first-time nominee Fiore, but tech-heavy films are often ignored in the cinematography category, in part because many cinematographers reserve their ballots for pictures featuring traditional photography, using a camera and lighting as directed by a director of photography, as opposed to CG.

Now, in addition to color, black-and-white, widescreen and other options, 3D is part of the creative palette. "There is a lot of talk about 3D, absolutely," Richardson continues, "and not just because of the success of 'Avatar,' but because there is now the 3D infrastructure in theaters. The entire workflow is there."

"Harry Potter" has earned a third Oscar nomination for Delbonnel, previously recognized for "A Very Long Engagement" and "Amelie," which comes as no surprise, as the "Potter" franchise maintains a gold standard for fantasy films. Working with veteran director David Yates, Delbonnel sought a darker, almost monochrome look to match the dramatic tone of this more serious entry in the film series. While it has been reported that Warner Bros. was concerned the film was becoming too dark and that it called for more color, its daring paid off: "Prince" is the first "Potter" film to receive an Academy Award nomination for cinematography.


"The Hurt Locker"
 
"Hurt Locker" faced different challenges. Shot on 16mm with small, lightweight cameras to ensure character intimacy, Ackroyd says such a setup "added an immediacy to the story and helped put the audience in their shoes. We also had a physically demanding shoot on a hot, dusty location, so the compact size of our gear was an advantage there as well."

A first-time Oscar nominee, Ackroyd's eye for taut, emotional images emerged in 2006's "United 93." "Locker" is ostensibly an action-thriller, featuring the slow-motion explosions, handheld camerawork, and other visual cues of the genre, but effectively it is an intimate character sketch.

"There is a loneliness in the film," says Ackroyd, who cut his teeth making documentaries. "Part of the photographic style was to document that as honestly and simply as possible. It's done by trying to allow the action to play out in real time, instead of compressing things, which makes it seem as if the viewer is experiencing it firsthand."

Among the most honored cinematographers working today, with five previous Oscar nominations and wins for "JFK" and "The Aviator," "Basterds' " Richardson makes use of both smooth Hollywood-style photography and down-and-dirty, black-and-white images shot in Super 8, sometimes in the same movie. His lighting can range from naturalistic to wildly expressive.


"Inglourious Basterds"
 
" 'Inglourious Basterds' was a very difficult shoot," says Richardson, who photographed the picture in anamorphic widescreen, using 35mm film. "Especially the opening farmhouse scene, which looks simple. We shot in continuity for the sake of the performances, meaning we had to constantly move the camera back and forth and around the two actors. But Quentin (Tarantino) had a very specific plan to follow the emotion of the scene as it built."

Christian Berger, nominated for "The White Ribbon," is virtually synonymous with director Michael Haneke; this is their fifth collaboration. Berger also has been nominated for an ASC award, but the first-time Oscar nominee is not yet well-known in Hollywood.

"Ribbon," which won the 2009 Palme d'Or at Cannes, is a sinister period piece that takes place in a rural German village on the brink of World War I. To avoid any sense of nostalgia, and partly inspired by the work of Sven Nykvist in the films of Ingmar Bergman, Berger sought a crisp, "modern" image. To that end, he used fine-grained color 35mm film stocks, contrasting lighting, sharp lenses and some postproduction adjustment of the image during the digital intermediate stage. At that time, the color was also drained from the images, leaving them crisp and vibrant.

Black-and-white remains a rarity in today's feature realm and "Ribbon" is only the ninth monochrome picture to be nominated for cinematography since the separate black-and-white cinematography category was eliminated in 1967.

But Berger says "the sheer force of black-and-white cinematography evokes something from the audience. It makes them work harder and forces them to complete the information, at some level, that's missing. 'Ribbon' doesn't fulfill the conventional sense of what an audience expects at a movie theater. Its difference is precisely why it works."

Will it work come Oscar night?


"The White Ribbon"
 
One predictor is what's come to be known as the ASC snub, a trend over the past 10 years when its top honoree has only taken the Oscar 50% of the time. However, just one film, "Pan's Labyrinth," shot by Guillermo Navarro, has won the Oscar in that timeframe without being nominated for an ASC Award.

On Feb. 27, the American Society of Cinematographers, whose membership is well-represented in the Academy's cinematography peer group, will hold its award ceremony. But the Oscar winner is selected by a much larger group, the Academy as a whole, which means sheer visual spectacle may be overcome by the intangible power of an emotional connection between viewer and film.

To prognosticators, Richardson advises: "The better a film is, the better-looking it is. That doesn't mean it's beautiful, but that the photography is appropriate to its relationship to telling story. That's how I always judge a picture."
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