OSCAR GUIDE: Best Cinematography

Posted by · 12:01 pm · March 4th, 2010

Michael Gambon in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood PrinceWelcome to the first of two (and the only two) categories that have me pulling my hair out. The cinematography race is a strange breed this year. There isn’t the usual one or two “pretty” films that turn the Academy on at large, nothing with sweeping vistas and postcard composition, all the stuff that allows voters to stop being analytical and vote for mere aesthetic.

Meanwhile, the precursor circuit has done little to clear things up. The critical favorite is over-rewarded and probably under-seen. Conventional wisdom favors a gritty film that isn’t the membership’s bag in this field, while the tech giant might be too much too soon. Meanwhile, the “prettiest” film is probably the least likely to win.

The nominees are:

“Avatar” (Mauro Fiore)
“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” (Bruno Delbonnel)
“The Hurt Locker” (Barry Ackroyd)
“Inglourious Basterds” (Robert Richardson)
“The White Ribbon” (Christian Berger)

Talk about your uncharacteristic slate. Most have whittled it down to the expected two films, but I really could see this award going any of five ways at the end of the day. But we have to put up or shut up (for now), so let’s look at the field.  (It is entirely possible I could change my final prediction in this category, so check back Saturday for my full list of final predictions.)

The line against “Avatar” in a couple of categories is that the digital, “soft” design work could put voters off. Both in the art direction category and here, the membership has to square itself with the fact that they are fully embracing the future with its vote, something these folks aren’t prone to do. Much of the cinematography of James Cameron’s magnum opus is owed to Joe Letteri and his Weta crew as much as it is to Fiore, but what’s lost in all this second-guessing is the fact that nuts and bolts ought to be rewarded as much as visual aesthetic. And with this film, you have a number of prototype camera advances to consider, 3D technology innovations and the overall sense of the craft going beyond a DP, his light meter, his gaffers and ACs. Is that going to click?

Most likely bringing up the rear is the surprise nominee of the field. With not so much as a guild or a BAFTA nomination for his work, Bruno Delbonnel slipped into the Oscar race for the third time in his career (and the first time for an English language film). Of all the nominees, I’m tempted to say “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” is the “prettiest,” certainly doing the most with atmospheric lighting that almost comes across as mood porn in some instances. Many of his frames look like outright paintings, and if the film were anything other than an installment in this franchise, I’d be willing to give it some serious consideration. But the fact is, it kind of has that going against it. So it’s ultimately ironic that the most contender with the typical stylings of a winner is on the outside looking in.

Most prognosticators seem to think Barry Ackroyd will repeat his BAFTA win and waltz out of the Kodak Theatre with an Oscar for “The Hurt Locker.” I’ve made my feelings known on how the stylistic approach was more aggravating than organic to the sense of tension Kathryn Bigelow and her DP were looking to emulate, but having said that, there are a number of iconic shots in the film. And if voters are locked into auto-pilot, they may just check the film the Best Picture frontrunner here, especially if they aren’t ready to offer a below-the-line sweep for “Avatar.” But I’m skeptical. Gritty photography like this is rarely embraced (see “Children of Men,” “City of God”). And gritty photography in war films like “The Deer Hunter” and “Platoon” went unrewarded as well.

If there’s a dark horse lurking in this category, I’d be inclined to look to Robert Richardson and “Inglourious Basterds.” Richardson has developed a singular, snoot-happy style in his time, and in collaboration with Quentin Tarantino the last decade, he’s brought a new life to his photography. There is a lot of graceful camera movement in the film, not to mention a fair share of aesthetically arresting images. The lighting is generally crisp and has an identity unto itself, and really, this could be the only place for voters to reward the film in the crafts categories (it may have been a sure-thing in Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design had those elements been recognized). But does it have enough juice to push past the frontrunners? It sure is purty.  And if you want to go out on a limb and pick an upset, this would be a decent call, I think.

Finally there’s the surprising guild winner “The White Ribbon,” with Christian Berger behind the lens. The film was rewarded throughout the precursor circuit by critics groups that saw some sort of aesthetic and thematic beauty in the black and white imagery, which I’d have happily explained away as ignorance of the craft if the professionals themselves hadn’t sprung for it. Now you can count me at a loss, because…well, I’ve had my say on it. The question is, how many people saw the film? This isn’t “Cries and Whispers,” “Fanny & Alexander,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or “Pan’s Labyrinth,” the only foreign films to win this prize and all of them with at least five nomination each. If the film had shown up in a few other categories, I might be inclined to take it more seriously here.

Will win: “Avatar”
Could win: “Inglourious Basterds”
Should win: “Avatar”

Should have been here: “Antichrist”

Avatar

What do you think deserves to win this year’s Oscar for Best Cinematography? Have your say in the sidebar poll!




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40 responses so far

  • 1 3-04-2010 at 12:21 pm

    Paul Outlaw said...

    Hmm….3D super-color futuristic science fiction American popcorn vs. black-and-white historical European art…stylized, gritty Iraq war photography vs. stylized, glamourous WWII photography…and then the wizards flick.

  • 2 3-04-2010 at 12:24 pm

    Bill said...

    I remember leaving Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and hoping it would be nominated for Best Cinematography.

    I doubted it’d receive a bid for Jim Broadbent’s supporting turn but that would have been richly deserved as well.

  • 3 3-04-2010 at 12:33 pm

    Speaking English said...

    “Bright Star,” easily.

    Oh, that’s right… this lineup is useless.

  • 4 3-04-2010 at 12:34 pm

    Megan said...

    Yeah I think the thing about this year’s set is that there really wasn’t a single film that entirely commanded our attention in this category.

    Instead, each film had one or several shots that were memorable or beautiful in some way.

    That Ten Shots article Kris did the other week kind of brought me to that conclusion.

    So I’d surmise that just about anything could happen here and it wouldn’t be a complete upset. However, I can see this one easily going to Hurt Locker.

    Avatar just seems too obvious and pedestrian of a choice to me. The technical achievements of this film don’t necessarily mean that the film had the best cinematography to me.

  • 5 3-04-2010 at 12:36 pm

    Bryan said...

    Should have been here: Where the Wild Things Are

  • 6 3-04-2010 at 12:36 pm

    Alex in Movieland said...

    Will Win: The Hurt Locker

    Could Win: Avatar

    Should Win: The White Ribbon (!)

    Should’ve been there: BRIGHT STAR!!!!!!!
    (even though I didn’t like the film)

    It IS the closest race. As I imagine a Hurt Locker wave (also getting Editing and Sound Mixing), it should also have this on auto-pilot voting.

  • 7 3-04-2010 at 12:37 pm

    Craig said...

    I think my favorite is actually Harry Potter. The underwater shot in the cave with the fire exploding above struck me more than any this year. I’m predicting Avatar though.

  • 8 3-04-2010 at 12:48 pm

    Wha said...

    Can Bright Star still win if we all write it in? lol.

    That was one of the worst snubs of the year!

    I think THL wins this just by virtue of the sweep, and the opening sequence.

  • 9 3-04-2010 at 12:57 pm

    Adam Smith said...

    Will win: The Hurt Locker
    Could win: Inglourious Basterds
    Should win: Inglourious Basterds

    Should have been here: Thirst

  • 10 3-04-2010 at 12:59 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    In this field? “The White Ribbon,” I think.

    But without “Bright Star,” “Antichrist” or “Where the Wild Things Are,” I have a very hard time getting worked up about this category.

  • 11 3-04-2010 at 1:00 pm

    aspect ratio said...

    Yeah, this is probably the toughest category and one of three I’ve yet to make a final decision on. Kind of depends on how stupid I want to assume the Academy is, i.e. will they go for the “ooh pretty” visual effects of Avatar, or will they actually prove to be a bit above that and pick an actual cinematographic achievement.

    I’m sure Avatar will win it. There’s always some highly undeserving winner every year, and considering most of the other categories look to provide deserving winners, this’ll be it. Adding insult to the injury will be the apparent fact that Fiore wasn’t even DP for 70% of the film.

  • 12 3-04-2010 at 1:00 pm

    Hans said...

    You may be on to something with your prediction of Avatar, Kris. I turned in my dorm Oscar picks before spring break and ticked off the Hurt Locker in this category since it was fresh off its BAFTA win, so I was predicting a Slumdogesque sweep. Then Emailgate happened.

    If Steve Pond is correct, and 500 votes were turned at the last moment on Tuesday, then assuming this race was already really close, emailgate may have tipped the scales in Avatar’s favor.

    A Harry Potter victory would be so welcome and well-deserved.

  • 13 3-04-2010 at 1:09 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    aspect: How silly. Avatar is absolutely a “cinematic achievement.” Again, it’s not just framing and aesthetic that should be considered here. The nuts and bolts of technology that went into filming that movie are important and are being dismissed by detractors and people stuck in a traditionalist mindset.

    That having been said, I agree that Fiore doesn’t deserve the lion’s share of credit here.

    Hans: That stat has been erroneously spread. Pond never said 500 ballots showed up at the last minute THIS year. Apparently a few journalists picked that stat up without reading what Pond wrote, which is that there was ONE year when someone was at PwC and counted 500 ballots on the last day of voting coming in the door. So there is no hard and fast stat on how many came in on the last day this year. No one counted.

  • 14 3-04-2010 at 1:17 pm

    Hans said...

    Ah, thank you for that Kris. I should have done my own research on the matter before coming to any conclusions. That said, I think my conjecture might still stand, although this all comes back to how absurd it is in the first place for voters to be taking into account outside politics when determining what film has the best cinemetography, etc.

  • 15 3-04-2010 at 1:21 pm

    red_wine said...

    Avatar’s win will set a very bad precedent in the industry and visual effects or visually enhanced cinematography will start encroaching upon the true lensers’ art.

    As the cinematographers asserted at their dinner, film is still the best. In the directors panel, Tarantino said that he would stop making movies when film would be stopped being projected in cinemas. Cameron smugly patted him facetiously and told him “didn’t someone tell you (about the demise of film)”.

    I would never reward animation for cinematography and I think more times than not, digital looks cheap.

    Will win: “Avatar”
    Could win: “The Hurt Locker”
    Should win: “The Hurt Locker”
    Should have been here: “Tetro”, “Antichrist”, “Broken Embraces”, “Bright Star”, “Where The Wild Things Are” and perhaps “District 9”.

  • 16 3-04-2010 at 1:23 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    red: That may be true. And speaking of which, it reminds me of a conversation I had with Greig Fraser about how it would be apt, I think, to split the category between film and digital.

  • 17 3-04-2010 at 1:33 pm

    Ali E. said...

    This category is really impossible to predict. Anyway, let’s look at things from another perspective… In the last 15 years, all but 3 Cinematography winners also had Art Direction nods. The exceptions were Brave Heart, American Beauty and most recently, Slumdog Millionaire. Is it just a coincidence or an adventage for Avatar?

    Right now, I’m predicting The Hurt Locker to win. With no clear favorite, I guess being the Best Picture frontrunner will help it. But I can change it to Avatar or IB any minute… :)

  • 18 3-04-2010 at 1:42 pm

    red_wine said...

    But Avatar is not even digital, its virtual. Public Enemies, Tetro are digital.

    The only two works of digital cinematography that I whole-heartedly loved are Tetro and Zodiac. Even the celebrated lensing of Russian Arc I thought looked cheap in places, it is just so distracting to notice that something is shot on video. Inland Empire had a distinct video look but it was all part of the experimentation and worked within the mold of that movie. But I would much rather that Lynch shoot on film too.

    I don’t think there should be a split between film and digital because so few digitally shot films get nominated anyways but rather between actual and virtual/enhanced.

    The latter category would allow something like Avatar to compete against something like Up. But lets not jump squares, it still remains to be seen if Avatar was a one-shot, a nomination carried on the back of its juggernaut status and gargantuan box office or the cinematographers are actually ready to allow partly animated/virtually lit movies into the mix.

    I’m still not convinced that the latter is the case and will wait for another such hybrid live-action/animated film to come around. And no Avatar 2 doesn’t count, something apart from that.

  • 19 3-04-2010 at 1:47 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Russian Ark got a pass by virtue of the novelty. So I don’t get its celebration at all.

  • 20 3-04-2010 at 2:08 pm

    Patryk said...

    “A Serious Man” should have been here, but since it isn’t, I’d have to go with “Inglourious Basterds.”

  • 21 3-04-2010 at 2:14 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    Got tell you, I think “The Road” should be here — the cinematography in that film did wonders to plunge us into that world, one image spoke volumes — then again, I think “The Road” was snubbed in several categories and should be there.

  • 22 3-04-2010 at 2:40 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    I like the idea of splitting the category into film and digital. Although it’s murky territory at the moment since many films use both

  • 23 3-04-2010 at 2:49 pm

    Artorious said...

    Having just watched it last week, I completely agree that “Antichrist” should be here. It was a beautifully shot film, and I just can’t stop thinking about it.

  • 24 3-04-2010 at 3:05 pm

    TJK said...

    This is the one Category where THL absolutly doesn’t even deserve to be nominated for.

    If THL wins here it would be total farce.

  • 25 3-04-2010 at 3:40 pm

    half empty said...

    Wouldn’t there still be sniping about Avatar even if the category was split into film and digital? Like red already mentioned, it’s the enhancement that’s really the issue.

  • 26 3-04-2010 at 3:53 pm

    Will said...

    Star Trek Should have been there

  • 27 3-04-2010 at 4:08 pm

    Brian said...

    I’m still unclear how I feel about Avatar’s cinematography, or what elements really count for what.

    I wish District 9 had been here.

  • 28 3-04-2010 at 4:33 pm

    Dea said...

    Does anybody else have trouble distinguishing in their mind the difference between cinematography, visual effects, and art direction in Avatar?

  • 29 3-04-2010 at 4:44 pm

    Rick said...

    red wine, Tarantino said he will keep making movies as long as he can still shoot in 35mm. Cameron facetiously said “Oh, they didn’t tell you…” referring to the conversion to digital cinema across the nation. In the last year digital screens have almost doubled.

    Your argument essentially says that film has been done this way for years therefore it must continue to be done the way it has. Since the invention of film the process of film making as changed. Filmmakers adapt. Not every filmmaker will have the money to utilize digital cinematography and not all filmmakers will want to. But we should not exclude filmmakers who choose to utilize one method over another. Cinematography is the use of light and camera, regardless of method.

    Even The White Ribbon was shot in color before it was converted into black and white, they could of shot in black and white originally. Should we exclude them from consideration because black and white was done in post? No.

  • 30 3-04-2010 at 5:01 pm

    aspect ratio said...

    That’s a good differentiation by red_wine. Virtual cinematography, instead of bunching it together with digital (camera) cinematography. Got nothing against using digital cameras, I just don’t care for placing an aspect of visual effects/animation in the cinematography category. Virtual cinematography, that’s a good one to differentiate a film like Avatar vs. “traditional” digital cinematography, a la Zodiac et al. Gonna remember that for the future.

    Kris, I’m not saying Avatar doesn’t have cinematography. Anything pointing a camera at anything else that comes out a visual image is cinematography, I just don’t care for bunching together virtual cinematography with real cinematography, they feel like two completely different crafts with very different approaches even if they obviously share many things.

    Anyway, I’m mostly against Avatar because it simply isn’t that amazing cinematography-wise, nor does Fiore deserve to win an Oscar for shooting 30% of a film. I read that he didn’t even start working on Avatar until AFTER they’d shot all the motion capture stuff! It’s like when Santaolalla won for original score for Brokeback Mountain when there was like 10 minutes of score total.

  • 31 3-04-2010 at 5:07 pm

    aspect ratio said...

    I should add though that I won’t be heartbroken even if Avatar wins it. Lackluster year, lackluster nominees. If 2007 was the orgasm year of cinematography at the Oscars, this is the dry hump.

  • 32 3-04-2010 at 5:19 pm

    Fei said...

    Dea: No trouble at all distinguishing between the three categories.

    1) Art direction is about design
    2) Visual effects are about realizing the designs as convincingly as possible (VFX artists are not designers in the same way)
    3) Cinematography, at least as far as Fiore is concerned, is about the physical camera work and lighting

  • 33 3-04-2010 at 5:21 pm

    Fei said...

    red_wine: How did you feel about the cinematography in Antichrist and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead?

  • 34 3-04-2010 at 5:22 pm

    Rob Cameron said...

    Y’know, in terms of pure cinematography this really should go to Avatar. What made that film what it is was the gloriously wonderful colors and the way that he lit it also helped the visual effects look all the more infused with what was real. To deny the achievement there would be… ridiculous. And The White Ribbon’s cinematography was pretty good, but honestly I don’t see what was so spectacular there. Some shots were defiantly dull looking, and if there is a visual triumph in the film I’d say it was Haneke’s choices. Basterds would be deserving; the lighting in that film is mind-blowing when you think about it and it gave a classical reality to what could have been cartoony. But honestly, Bright Star & A Single Man should be here. Awful snubs.

  • 35 3-04-2010 at 5:35 pm

    Me. said...

    Hard category. It’s either “Avatar”, “The Hurt Locker” or “The White Ribbon”. I have no clue which one to predict so I’ll just randomly say who will win.

    Will Win: The Hurt Locker
    Should Win: The White Ribbon
    Should Have Been Nominated: BRIGHT STAR!

  • 36 3-04-2010 at 5:37 pm

    Me. said...

    Oh and, am I the only person who absolutely loved “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” with all of its magic and heartfelt characters? I love films that revive my childhood and remind me why I wanted to become a filmmaker back then. :)

  • 37 3-04-2010 at 7:59 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    The problem with this category is there’s clearing no deserving winner.

  • 38 3-04-2010 at 8:35 pm

    Leighton said...

    Agree with your sentiments on The White Ribbon. Overpraised in this field. I kinda have to agree that Harry Potter’s cinematography is some of the nicest of the five and if it weren’t an installment in a series, it’d have a great chance. The two I was unhappy to see go unnoticed were Bright Star and Anitchrist. Antichrist featured last year’s Oscar winner Anthony Dod Mantle giving the best cinematography of 2009, as well.

    My prediction is actually The White Ribbon, though. Avatar and The Hurt Locker both require acceptance of the types of the cinematography they are and I don’t think the Academy are necessarily are gonna go for either. TWR won the guild award and I think that pushes it over the top. Still, if one of the two biggies is in sweep mode, I think they’ll take it. Would be nice to see not one of those three win, actually.

  • 39 3-05-2010 at 12:39 pm

    MovieMan said...

    Will win: “The Hurt Locker”
    Could win: “Avatar”
    Should win: “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”
    Should have been here: “Where the Wild Things Are”
    Commentary: I haven’t seen “The White Ribbon,” so no comment either way. The cinematography in “Avatar” was completely indistinguishable from the other tech aspects; that it made it and “Where the Wild Things Are” did not is a travesty. The work on both “The Hurt Locker” and “Inglourious Basterds” is highly impressive, but it was Bruno Delbonnel’s achievement in the sixth “Harry Potter” installment that stuck with me the most.

  • 40 3-05-2010 at 2:41 pm

    matsunaga said...

    Bruno Delbonnel for the win.. It’s a perfect way to reward Harry potter and a Half-Blood Prince!!!!