A Milestone Year for Cinematographers

Francois Duhamel/Warner Bros. Pictures

A craft in transition saw bold moves -- black and white, hyper-realistic animation -- mingle with brilliant artistry within this season' impressive crop of standout lensmen.

There were many beautifully shot films in 2011 -- The Tree of Life, A Dangerous Method, The Artist, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, War Horse, Shame and Melancholia, just for starters -- but some of the greatest visual interest lay in the fusing of traditional camerawork with the interest of adventurous filmmakers to push into new technologies.

With so much attention focused on 3D in recent years, it hasn't gone unnoticed that the most exciting use of the format was made this year by great veteran filmmakers: Martin Scorsese in Hugo, Steven Spielberg in The Adventures of Tintin, Wim Wenders in Pina and Werner Herzog in certain sections of Cave of Forgotten Dreams. To that end, these directors have worked closely with their cinematographers to explore the boundaries; to figure out how to do things in 3D that haven't been done before, to expressively employ a format that has more often been used in cheap, vulgar ways.

Working on limited budgets in nonfiction formats, Wenders and Herzog brought fresh perspectives to the dance film and the geological documentary, respectively, thereby widening the perceived horizons for 3D. For his part, Spielberg merged his ambitious camera style with animation to achieve fluid, uninterrupted action shots that would have been impossible with live action.

In Hugo, Scorsese enjoyed the greatest opportunity to let his imagination go in a fictional, live-action context, encouraging his frequent partner behind the camera, Robert Richardson, to run wild through the train-station setting that dominates the film and use 3D to vivid dramatic effect as well as for visceral excitement. Nowhere is this more true than in the way they were able to strikingly convey the effect on the audience of the famous early shot of a train seeming to come straight at the camera; the technique is employed wonderfully in the clock tower, twisting up among the gears and mechanisms, and in scenes devoted to the production of Georges Melies' silent films. Rarely has 3D been better as a creative tool and less as a gimmick than in Hugo.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Bellflower, an ultra-low-budget film about drug-addled gearheads in Ventura, Calif., in which a homemade camera system was used exceptionally well. Evan Glodell's debut feature reeks of toxic fumes, with gaseous substances seeming to smear the lens, creating an intense visual scheme of beautiful/ugly colors that fueled the film's extreme events. A longtime devotee of "camera-hacking," the director built what he calls the Coatwolf Model II, a combination of high-end digital camcorder and old-fashioned "bellows"-style fine art still camera with a 4x5 imaging plane. The result was an indisputably unique look.

A film that looked like no other was Rango, in which the visual schemes of animation and live action arguably came closer together than ever before. The landscapes and details were so sharp that the film's look demanded to be called hyper-realistic, no doubt due to the crucial input of visual consultant Roger Deakins, whose recent work on such films as No Country for Old Men and True Grit can only have nourished this one.

Also notable was the presence of two impressively shot features in nearly extinct black and white. The more high-profile of the two was The Artist, the entire aesthetic of which rested on its reproduction of silent movie techniques, including the boxy 1.33 aspect ratio and monochrome film. In synch with the production and costume designers, cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman did a fine job recapturing a long gone style of shooting that one can easily reference. Another black-and-white achievement was the Chinese war drama City of Life and Death, in which cinematographer Cao Yu captured in both intimate and epic terms the massacre of Nanjing. 

More mainstream, viewers expect nothing but great visuals from director Terrence Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and, whatever else people thought of the film, on this level they could not be disappointed by The Tree of Life. Working with natural light, Lubezki created incredibly luminous images, an atmosphere essential to the impressionistic view of the 1950s. Equally impressive was A Dangerous Method, in which Peter Suschitzky's breathtakingly sharp focus offered a visual correlative to Christopher Hampton's precise dialogue and to the extraordinary minds of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud in David Cronenberg's period drama.

Among other visual highlights of the year: The way Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski shot War Horse, especially the first English section, approximates the style of British Technicolor films of the 1950s; Adriano Goldman, by contrast, achieving a bracingly gritty, anti-romantic look on similarly wild terrain in Jane Eyre; the richly modulated images Chris Menges produced in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close; Sean Bobbitt's utterly different, roughly elegant views of New York in Shame; Masanobu Takayanagi's evocation of working class America in Warrior; and Melancholia's Manuel Alberto Claro's resplendent imaginings of the eve of the end of the world.