Cinematography Oscar for 'Pi' an 'insult,' says Christopher Doyle

Posted by · 4:28 am · March 15th, 2013

By any measure, Christopher Doyle is one of the greatest cinematographers in the business, a painter of light whose career will always be defined by his woozily gorgeous collaborations with Wong Kar-wai (“In the Mood for Love,” “2046”), but who has also done remarkable work for such auteurs as Zhang Yimou (“Hero”), Gus van Sant (“Paranoid Park”) and Jim Jarmusch (“The Limits of Control”).

But while the Australian-born artist has been showered awards by everyone from US critics’ groups to the Cannes Film Festival, he has never been nominated by the Academy’s cinematographers’ branch. And that looks unlikely to change after Doyle’s candid, foul-mouthed tirade against the Academy in a recent interview, in which he makes no bones about what he thinks of Claudia Miranda’s recent Oscar win for “Life of Pi”: “It’s a f–king insult to cinematography.”

Doyle is far from the first person to suggest that Miranda’s digitally enhanced work on Ang Lee’s waterborne fantasy is arguably more a triumph of visual effects than of cinematography: the same complaints surrounded Mauro Fiore’s Oscar win for “Avatar” three years ago. But nobody in the industry has expressed an opinion on the matter quite as emphatically as Doyle, in this interview with Asian arts site Blouin:

“Since 97 per cent of the film is not under his control, what the f–k are you talking about cinematography … What it says to the real world is it”s all about us, we have the money, we put the money in, and we control the image … Are you f–king kidding? That”s not cinematography. That”s control of the image by the powers that be, by the people that want to control the whole system because they”re all accounts. You”ve lost cinema.

Of course [AMPAS] have no f–king idea what cinematography is. The lunatics have taken over the asylum … The award is given to the technicians, to the producers, it”s not to the cinematographer … If somebody manipulated my image that much, I wouldn”t even turn up. Because sorry, cinematography? Really?”

It’s an extreme stance, weakened by Doyle’s admission that he hasn’t actually seen “Life of Pi” in full, and obviously an over-simplified one: for all the digital input, the film’s framing, palette and camera movement plainly didn’t come about by accident, and I’m not going to presume to know Miranda’s exact degree of complicity in a sophisticated technical process. (I wouldn’t have nominated “Life of Pi” either, but less because the film doesn’t meet my definition of cinematography than because I didn’t find the final result all that aesthetically attractive.)

Still, it’s interesting that an expert peer like Doyle should take something of a layman’s view on his own craft, though he’s far from the only cinematographer to do so. (It’s worth noting, after all, that while the Academy has opted for such FX-integrating 3D achievements as “Avatar,” “Hugo” and “Pi” in recent years, the American Society of Cinematographers has chosen differently — and somewhat more traditionally — in each case, preferring “The White Ribbon,” “The Tree of Life” and “Skyfall,” respectively.)

Cinematography is an evolving art form, obviously, and it just be that it’s splintering into multiple, very distinct disciplines: in terms of technical process, there’s obviously a vast difference between the painstaking, hand-induced light play performed by Doyle on, say, “In the Mood for Love” and Miranda’s more synthetically constructed imagery — or, indeed, Roger Deakins’ deceptively traditional-looking digital lensing on “Skyfall.”

That “Pi” and “Skyfall” were nominated for the Oscar alongside three 35mm achievements shows just what a state of flux the cinematography world is currently in. Could it be that one cinematography award simply isn’t enough to represent the form any more? After all, from 1939 to 1966, the Academy had separate Oscars for black-and-white and color cinematography: It’s not inconceivable that we might one day see separate awards for films with differing degrees of digital manipulation. If so, where might the line be drawn?

Do you agree with Doyle, or is he speaking out of turn? Would you have given the Oscar to “Life of Pi?” Tell us in the comments.

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