Oscars: Why Cinematographers Are Arguing for a Second Craft Category for VFX-Heavy Films

Oscars: Cinematographers - H 2016
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

This story first appeared in the Feb. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Until 1967, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences handed out two Oscars for cinematography — one for films shot in color and another for those in black and white. While regular use of black and white faded from the scene, the rise of digital filmmaking has triggered a new conversation — at the American Society of Cinematographers awards committee, among others — about whether it's once again time to hand out dual cinematography Oscars: one for 'classically' photographed movies and another for movies that employ lots of digital and visual effects work. "I wish there were two categories," says cinematographer Robert Richardson, nominated for The Hateful Eight, because there are "films that are shot relatively 'normal,' and then there are films that are shot with all visual effects and very minimal live action."

At one end of the spectrum is a movie like Richardson's Hateful Eight, which was shot in 65mm with Panavision Ultra 70 lenses. To create the 70mm film version for its Roadshow release, Richardson and his team even bypassed the commonly used digital intermediate process (during which color-timing is handled in a digital environment with more available tools than a lab process); instead, they did it old-school, using photo-chemical processes rather than digital tools to fine-tune the film's colors.

no longer existed," says Robert Richardson, who captured the film's super-widescreen images with Ultra Panavision 70 lenses that hadn't been used since 1966's 'Khartoum.'"]

And at the other end of the spectrum are such VFX-heavy projects as Life of Pi — a film that fueled the current debate when Claudio Miranda won the Oscar for cinematography in 2013. "It's just not a level playing field currently," contends Richardson. "A great deal of what viewers are looking at is not in fact shot by the cinematographer but is created by artists on a computer and by the director directing them and the cinematographer that's working hand in hand with them. So let's open this up so we have a more even playing field and a more exciting one — with 10 films, with a wider range. The dilemma is, how do you define it? It's extremely difficult to say what percentage is a VFX film versus 'classically' photographed."

Richardson shot 'The Hateful Eight' on 65mm film stock.

This season, Alejandro G. Inarritu's The Revenant, shot by Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki (who won the past two cinematography Oscars for Birdman and Gravity) also exemplifies the conundrum. The film was lensed in remote locations, primarily in Canada, with the Arri Alexa and new large-format Alexa 65 digital cameras, and the filmmakers have told how it was shot using natural light. While Lubezki wasn't available for comment, in discussing the bear attack, VFX supervisor Rich McBride explained how the various lighting conditions the company encountered were handled in the lab: "Those were the kinds of things that we evened out and worked with the DI to find a good baseline of color for the entire scene. We worked with Chivo very closely and got a lot of his feedback to make sure the lighting and plates were matching." In other words, some of the "look" of the film was achieved in postproduction. As lead colorist Steve Scott of Technicolor said it in American Cinematographer, "For each shot we went through, we would hand-animate mattes to conform to the natural contours and shadings of a moving face or body. Sometimes Chivo would want to light a whole face, and sometimes he would want to create more of a directional key light, so we would make a couple of mattes — one for the shadow side of the face and one for the highlight side."

With the digital tools now available, "it's becoming harder and harder to make that distinction between what is original photography and what is postdigital effects and photography," says Ed Lachman, nominated for the Super 16mm-photographed Carol. "They can create lighting. They can do everything in post if you have the time and money." While he agrees with Richardson that there's a case to be made for a second category, he also admits: "I don't think there's an easy answer. Every film is so different."

Lachman achieved a period look in 'Carol' through the use of Super 16mm photography.

John Seale, the Mad Max: Fury Road cinematographer (who won an Oscar for The English Patient) isn't convinced. "I don't think we need another category," he says. "I think cinematography should encompass the entire filmmaking process, from negative to post, as a single unit." On Fury Road, he says: "We did a lot of effects in camera. The end result was a lovely combination of live action to post action."

Roger Deakins, who received his 13th nomination this year for Sicario and who has served as visual consultant on such animated movies as How to Train Your Dragon, raises an interesting question: Why don't animated movies qualify for the cinematography prize? "There's some animation that isn't that far from some supposed live-action cinematography," he says. "Where do you put the line? And does it really matter? The Academy Awards is a celebration of film and film craft. We should look at it as a celebration of film and filmmaking."