Lensers take worldly view

Foreign-born cinematographers have a history of dominating the Oscar race, and this year is no exception.

The British are coming. And so are the Mexicans, one Hungarian -- and a sole American. This year, four out of the five Academy Award nominees for achievement in cinematography hail from abroad: Hungary-born Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC; Britain's Dick Pope, BSC; and Mexicans Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC, and Guillermo Navarro, ASC. Only Wally Pfister, ASC, was born in the U.S.

And while much has been made about the diversity of this year's nominees in the acting category, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a long history of recognizing the talent of foreign-born cinematographers. Fifteen of the past 20 winners were born outside the U.S., the majority of whom hail from Australia (five) and the U.K. (four). Still, each wave of foreign-born cinematographers has struggled to find footing in America, and the Mexico-born cinematographers are the latest to be tested. Navarro notes that in his first attempt to seek representation, an agent rebuffed him, saying, "We already have a gardener in the office, so the Mexican position is taken."

Now, Navarro has created a magical garden of images, both fantastical and harshly realistic, for Picturehouse's "Pan's Labyrinth," written and directed by Guillermo del Toro. The film intertwines two story lines, one about the brutal reality of fascist Spain, the other a beguiling and terrifying fantasy. "We had to create very particular atmospheres and film language to create bridges between these two narratives," Navarro explains. "The fascist world had a color palette that went with the cold environment, lines that intersected. The house inhabited by women was a warm, comfortable environment that expresses the expectation for life. And that's connected to the fantasy life of the girl, where you have to discover with her how much is real."

Navarro says he occasionally worked against expectation with his lighting. "We did something that would have been a mistake in other circumstances," he says. "When they bring the guy in to be tortured in the warehouse, all the world outside is very cold, but the inside is very warm. Even though the sources of light inside the warehouse were the windows, where the light was cold, we made that space warm because it's inhabited by the rebel who represents the world of light and hope."

Fellow Mexico-born cinematographer Lubezki shot a very different period piece. Universal's "Children of Men," directed and co-written by Alfonso Cuaron, depicts a dystopian future with elements that are frighteningly familiar. "I wanted to shoot all these violent scenes in a way that didn't glamorize them," Lubezki says. "We tried to make the whole war machine look horrible and unappealing."

"Children of Men" also featured handheld camerawork by "virtuoso cameraman" George Richmond, to make the film seem almost like a news report or documentary. The movie also is notable for its long shots, some of which were done in-camera and others that were seamlessly stitched together in the digital realm. "By not cutting and editing -- even if the audience doesn't understand that we're not cutting -- it makes them feel like they're trapped with the characters," he says. "You feel a bit more what the characters are going through."

The biggest challenge came shortly after the crew arrived in England to scout locations, and terrorists bombed the subway and buses, dramatically tightening security. "It got to the point where there was a rule that we couldn't close roads for any shooting," Lubezki says. "And it was a road picture, so that was a challenge. We had to find places where we could do complicated road shots in places that looked like roads."

This kind of shooting made for happy accidents. In one crucial scene, where the main character Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) is fleeing for safety in the immigrants' camp, a splatter of blood landed on the lens. "Cuaron was shouting, 'Cut! Cut!' But with all the bombings that were happening, we didn't hear him and finished the shot," Lubezki recalls. "We went back to video assist and watched the take, and (star) Clive (Owen) says, 'This is great -- it's amazing. And it's in the movie.'"

For his period film, Universal's "The Black Dahlia," director Brian De Palma went for a highly stylized film noir look. He called on Zsigmond, with whom he had collaborated on 1976's "Obsession," 1981's "Blow Out" and 1990's "The Bonfire of the Vanities."

Zsigmond had learned how to light with black-and-white film stock in his native Hungary, and he understood how to create film noir's signature shadows and hard shafts of light. Not unlike Pfister's trick of turning Los Angeles into London for Buena Vista's "The Prestige," Zsigmond, along with production designer Dante Ferretti, was tasked with transforming Bulgaria into Hollywood.

"The biggest problem was to have a good shooting crew in Bulgaria," he says. "Because of budgetary reasons, I couldn't use anyone from the U.S. Crew members from Bulgaria were very nice and enthusiastic but had little experience for a challenging, stylistic movie. Brian De Palma is one of the most visual directors around, who comes up with incredibly exciting and difficult shots."

The solution, Zsigmond says, was to select key people who worked on earlier features and TV films shot abroad. The diverse staff included Jaromir Sedina, camera operator (Czech Republic); Alexander Bscheidl, first assistant camera (Germany); Alexandre Szabo-Fresnais, second assistant camera (France); Nimi Getter, gaffer (Israel); Shimon Sabbah, key grip (Israel); and Rolf Konow, still photographer (Denmark).

Two other period films -- "Prestige" and Yari Film Group's "The Illusionist" -- offer similar themes of magic and illusion but presented different challenges for their directors of photography. Pope says that the jumping-off point for "Illusionist," set in turn-of-the-last-century Vienna and filmed in Prague, was writer-director Neil Burger's desire to evoke autochrome photography, an early form of color photography patented by the Lumiere brothers in 1903. With autochrome photos, the depth of field is very narrow, and delicate colors resemble hand-tinted photos. "We didn't want to make the film look old," explains Pope, who also shot turn-of-the-last-century theaters for 1999's "Topsy-Turvy" and 2002's "Nicholas Nickleby." "We wanted it to be real, but otherworldly. The film is set in 1900, when cinema and magic were closely interwoven, and magicians tapped early moving-image and projection devices to help create their illusions."

The film's earliest scenes, featuring the young Eisenheim (Edward Norton) and Sophie (Jessica Biel), are Pope's favorites. "We explore this early cinema and color photography, utilizing vignetting, hand-tinted frames and the flickering of hand-cranked cameras," he says. Pope gives credit to production designer Ondrej Nekvasil and costume designer Ngila Dickson. Another factor that lends authenticity, says Pope, is lighting. The first theater is lit by very early electricity, in which the bulbs were low and warm. Nekvasil had every fixture made by hand in Prague. And the second theater was lit mostly by flame. "It's very much in keeping with theaters at that time," Pope says. "The result is a very authentic feel."

"Prestige," directed by Christopher Nolan and shot by Pfister, also places magicians in a period piece, this time in turn-of-the-last-century London. This marks the third film on which Nolan, Pfister and production designer Nathan Crowley have collaborated (2002's "Insomnia" and 2005's "Batman Begins" are the others). "We have a great open line of communication," Pfister says. "The three of us sort of riff off each other. If it's what Chris is looking for, we take it to the next level."

One of the biggest challenges, Pfister says, was transforming Los Angeles locations into turn-of-the-last-century London. The best example of how it all came together is when the Universal backlot was used a stand-in for the rough-and-tumble streets of the U.K. capital city. "Chris had a wonderful idea of the London of that time, which was dirty -- a smoky environment, billboards plastered all over the buildings," Pfister says. "Nathan executed that, and my challenge was to make Los Angeles sunlight look like England." His solution was to wait to shoot until the sun sank below the level of the buildings. "We never shot in direct sunlight," Pfister says. "And a lot of the interiors and night scenes are done with the look of firelight, as in gas lamps, candles and torches. I used a combination of actual oil lamps and movie bulbs fitted inside oil lamps."

Working against the idea of a typical period piece, Pfister shot "Prestige" with a hand-held camera. "It brought an interesting approach to it," he says. "Normally, when you see a London period piece, you see a sweeping-crane move. Instead, with the camera on my shoulder, it brought in the language of today's films and created a more raw style, which Chris wanted." The hand-held camera also gave the actors more freedom to move around at will.

As with "Batman Begins," Nolan and Pfister also avoided a digital intermediate, whereby the final film is timed digitally rather than photochemically. "We had a fantastic color timer, David Orr at Technicolor," he says. "And both of us don't want to overmanipulate the film. The traditional system we've been doing for 100 years works for us, and it's a more organic process."

Five cinematographers, five very different, visually arresting films. Pfister, the only American on the list, marvels at the international cast behind the camera. "What's wonderful about our craft is that it is an area where people of all nationalities are part of the process," he says. "It's a great melting pot of filmmaking styles and ways to work, and the Academy is recognizing that."

MORE CRAFTS COVERAGE
Cinematography: Foreign-born DPs dominate Oscar race
Editing: Knowing when to cut -- and when not to
Sound: Creating rich aural environments

Guild honors:
ASC: Big names turn out
ACE: Spotlight a misunderstood craft

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