Tech Support: Can anything beat 'Gravity' for Best Cinematography?

Posted by · 10:33 am · October 10th, 2013

“Lights. Camera. Action.” This phrase is admittedly somewhat of a cliché, but it is iconic because it captures the feel of making a movie. Interesting that two of the three commands are directed to a film”s camera department. Without a camera, there is no cinema. Cinematography is essential, and when done well, from lighting to camera placement and movement to capturing the mood, there is no purer way to bring the director”s vision to screen.

Cinematography is awarded by every major critics” group, and has, by the standards of the crafts categories, a reasonable degree of public acknowledgment. The Academy”s cinematographers” branch cites five talented directors of photography (DPs) every year before the whole Academy gets to vote on the winner.

“Pretty films” and films of some visual scope, often with luscious and memorable landscapes, tend to do quite well here. Black-and-white titles do disproportionately well in landing nominations, but have difficulty winning. In recent years, there has also been an embrace of digital photography and 3D work. And it shouldn’t be surprising that Best Picture nominees also make up a good chunk of the nominees every year.

The branch is reasonably open to newbies; there are, after all, only two working cinematographers with more than five career nominations. Last year was actually the first time that there were no first-time nominees since 1978! That said, there are many DPs with between two and five career nominations and veterans tend to make up the better part of the branch”s nominees most years.

Emmanuel Lubezki has been robbed of wins in the eyes of some observers for his last two nominations, “The Tree of Life” and “Children of Men.” He has also been nominated for “A Little Princess,” “Sleepy Hollow” and “The New World.” Four of those nominations came from collaborating with two directors: Terrence Malick and Alfonso Cuarón. Malick”s “To the Wonder” already seems forgotten so it”s likely safe to say that Cuarón’s “Gravity” is Lubezki’s ticket to the big show this year. Despite the heavy use of non-traditional photography methods, the absolutely breathtaking nature of the work, as well as the trend in recent winners, makes one wonder if Lubezki will finally get his due this year.

Lubezki is not the only contender with two films in the running (one of them starring George Clooney). Phedon Papamichael has been doing quality work on Oscar contenders for years (“Sideways,” “Walk the Line,” “3:10 to Yuma”). His best chance this year is likely Clooney”s “The Monuments Men.” This category loves a war film and Papamichael will have the chance to show a unique perspective of the World War II battlefield in the film. However, Papamichael also has Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska,” and as noted above, black-and-white films draw the eye of this branch. Landscapes of Americana can”t hurt either. While it”s clear what Lubezki”s major horse is this year, it”s more uncertain with Papamichael. I”m inclined to lean towards “The Monuments Men,” though we”ll have to wait and see.

Perhaps the safer bet for a first time nomination is Sean Bobbitt for “12 Years a Slave.” Steve McQueen”s latest is a crafts category behemoth. Bobbitt has lensed a variety of memorable interiors and exteriors in the American South – the use of lighting and landscape is just what this category tends to embrace. With the massive nomination haul I”m expecting for this film, I”d be quite surprised if it didn’t show up here.

Frank G. DeMarco”s work on J.C. Chandor”s “All is Lost” looks set for great acclaim. I waiver in my mind about the extent to which this film will catch on with the Academy, but if gets major traction outside its lead performance, I”d expect to see this among the first potential categories – it is, after all, a film whose crafts will be key to its success, given that it only has one performance and almost no dialogue (and thus is about as far away from Chandor”s wordy ensemble debut as one could imagine).

Bruno Delbonnel has managed nominations for “Amélie,” “A Very Long Engagement” and “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” Each of these films had a great look and the fact that he”s earned the nominations demonstrates branch respect, because these were very singular nominations for films that weren’t embraced throughout the Academy. This year, Delbonnel has lensed the Coen brothers” acclaimed “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Given the popularity of this film, Delbonnel”s history and the acclaimed look of the film, I”d say he has an excellent shot at a nod.

The Coens’ typical DP of choice is Roger Deakins, and he would likely have shot “Inside Llewlyn Davis” were it not being filmed at the same time as last year’s “Skyfall.” This year he has Denis Villeneuve”s “Prisoners.” Deakins’ photography captured the mood exquisitely in this film – the lighting and use of windshields and rain show that he never misses an opportunity to make images pop, but not distractingly. The film”s somewhat surprising box office success, as well as its respected status with critics, mean that Deakins must be considered a threat.

An additional late September release with a very memorable look (albeit glossy rather than dark) would be Ron Howard”s “Rush,” lensed by Anthony Dod Mantle (winner for “Slumdog Millionaire,” which also remains his only Oscar nomination to date). Capturing these car races was no easy task, and the look of the film as a whole is sleek, memorable and professional. But will lackluster box office ultimately hurt it here? It”s hard to say but it can”t help.

Another film without “look at me” cinematography per se but with a tremendously memorable look would be Paul Greengrass”s “Captain Phillips.” Barry Ackroyd”s neo-realistic photography was finally recognized by the Academy with a nod for “The Hurt Locker.” I fully expect “Captain Phillips” to grab a good handful of Oscar nominations. Ackroyd, whose handheld camera captured the tension on the sea, has a good shot at being one of them.

Ackroyd is not the only DP in the hunt for nod #2 with a Tom Hanks movie. Also in that boat would be John Schwatzman, a former nominee for “Seabiscuit.” It is unclear how well “Saving Mr. Banks” will be received, though Hollywood treating itself usually goes over well. But live action Disney movies? Hit-and-miss (usually miss) with Oscar. Also, it isn’t clear if the cinematography will be the highlight. But if it does hit it off big, it”ll have to be considered a contender down the line in the crafts categories.

Another title in the “to be seen” category is David O. Russell”s “American Hustle.” Will this continue the director’s amazing run from recent years? If it does, Linus Sandgren”s retro photography could score big. But then again, Russell”s recent contenders haven”t really been a factor in this category.

There must be some reason that “The Book Thief” was brought forward to 2013. It”s a cliché but films about the Holocaust do tend to find favor with the Academy. In the midst of so many contenders with higher profile actors, writers, directors and crew, I cannot help but wonder if this one will get lost in the shuffle. But if not, then Florian Ballhaus” camerawork could find itself in contention. Ballhaus” father is three-time nominee Michael Ballhaus.

Finally, I don”t want to entirely rule out Simon Duggan”s lensing of Baz Lurhmann”s “The Great Gatsby.” Lurhmann”s film was typical of the director: divisive but absolutely gorgeous. I think it will likely survive in the production design and costume design categories, and maybe it”s just a hunch, but I don”t want to rule it out here yet either.

I suspect the nominees will come from these 14 contenders. But I could have missed something. Do you think I did? And who do you see making the cut here? Who are you rooting for? Tell us in the comments section and pick and rank your personal predictions with our new HitFix Oscar Picks feature.

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