Cinematography Oscar: Why 'Argo' and 'The Dark Knight Rises' Shot on Film

Digital photography may be the wave of the future, but celluloid was behind two of this year's biggest contenders.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Movies shot on film, as opposed to those shot digitally, face an uncertain future. But don't count film out just yet, because it is conceivable that a majority of this year's best picture and cinematography nominees will have been shot on celluloid. Among those contenders are Django Unchained, The Dark Knight Rises, Les Miserables, Anna Karenina, Lincoln, The Master, Beasts of the Southern Wild and (most of) Argo. And as their cinematographers explain, using film provided them with a whole range of creative options.

"Whether you use digital or film, you still have to tell a story with light and shadows," sums up Steven Spielberg's longtime collaborator Janusz Kaminski. The Oscar winner for Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan prefers film, which he used to photograph Lincoln. He describes lighting a shot of Lincoln standing by a window, waiting for the outcome of the vote to pass the 13th Amendment. "I wanted the audience to know immediately that there would be a positive outcome, so there is this bright light coming through the window. And it is a tender moment. He's holding his son during the most important moment of his political career. It is very optimistic lighting. I didn't want to create too many shadows, so it's almost a silhouette without any shadows, but you could see a little bit of his expression and his kid's expression."

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Quentin Tarantino also stuck with film to make his pre-Civil War tale Django Unchained, his fourth collaboration with cinematographer Robert Richardson -- who has won Oscars for The Aviator, JFK and Hugo. "We are creating opera amid the brutality of a spaghetti Western. Every blood element is one that is placed on an actor or on a wall. They are not effects that are created in post. Quentin creates it on set, old school," Richardson says.

Danny Cohen -- a cinematography Oscar nominee for The King's Speech -- reteamed with Tom Hooper for Les Miserables, for which they re-created 19th century Paris. The finished film uses a single close-up for Anne Hathaway's big solo number, "I Dreamed a Dream."

"You let the audience draw energy from the performance, and you don't let the audience doubt that the actor is actually singing at that moment," Cohen says of that choice. "On lighting, I wanted to make Anne look amazing, but it is a tragic song, so it has a contradictory look. It has a lot of meaning and feeling, but you don't want it to look too beautiful. Otherwise, I think you lose the power of the song."

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Ben Richardson chose Super 16mm to shoot Beasts of the Southern Wild, filmed on location in Louisiana. "Film just felt like the best fit for the organic, low-tech world we were creating," he says. "The driving focus for the visuals was showing the world through Hushpuppy's eyes. She's built up her experience of the world by observing the little things -- the water on the wood in the storm scene, the texture of the mud -- it was about finding the textures and details."

Seamus McGarvey, who earned an Oscar nomination for Joe Wright's Atonement, reteamed with the director on his adaptation of Anna Karenina. The photography includes a Steadicam shot of a dance shared by Anna and Vronsky at a ball. "The camera has almost a merry-go-round feel," McGarvey says. "They 'animate' all the other dancers and then come together in an embrace, and Vronsky lifts Anna and the Steadicam spins around. As the camera moved around them, we had to evacuate 200 people from the auditorium, and when the camera came down again -- in combination with the dimming of the lights -- we were trying to express them being lost in their love. So you are going from a crowded auditorium to them alone in a spotlight."

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Film and digital photography were combined by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain) to make Ben Affleck's Iran hostage-crisis film Argo. "We decided to use different formats to make it somewhat easier for the audience to know where they are in the story, when we cut from one [city] to another," Prieto says, explaining he wanted the Iran footage (shot in L.A. and Istanbul) to resemble a documentary about the era. For scenes set in Hollywood, Prieto shot anamorphic, but during digital color grading, the look was enhanced to emulate reversal film, which was used in that period. "We also emulated the style of shooting in the late '70s or early '80s with the zoom lenses," he says.

Cinematographer Wally Pfister, who won an Oscar for Christopher Nolan's Inception, reteamed with the director on The Dark Knight Rises, which not only was shot on film but includes more than an hour of footage that was shot in the Imax format. The rest was lensed in 35mm with anamorphic lenses -- and Pfister bypassed the digital color-grading step. "All of the color correction was done in the film process," he says. "The Imax material is 100 percent original camera negative to print."

Adds Pfister, a big proponent of film, "Chris and I -- and I'm hoping other filmmakers -- will fight as hard and long as we can to keep it going."