This is the most important technical category in all of film. Without brilliant men and women behind the camera and lighting the scenes, there literally is no movie. Strictly speaking, you don’t need sound, editors, visual effects, or even actors. But with no camera, film cannot happen. Even the most visionary directors and auteurs cannot properly execute their ambition without an expert running the cameras.
The beauty of the category is that there’s no true rule as to what constitutes the best kind of cinematography. Sometimes it’s active camera work that captures unique angles. Sometimes it’s static shots that frame the action in compelling ways. Sometimes it comes down to lighting schemes and color palettes, which can tie in with Production Design. More often than not, I’d wager the best movies are great combinations of all these elements.
Depending on the result this year, we may have some history. We already have some, with the first ever female nominee in the category. Obviously if she wins it’ll be even more momentous. We also have the potential for a more dubious honor, as one of our nominees will break the record for most nominations without a win should he be left hanging one more time.
This year’s nominees for Cinematography are:
Roger Deakins – Blade Runner 2049
Roger Deakins is currently tied for the record for most nominations in this category without a win, with 13 nods over the course of his career. Only three other cinematographers have more nominations overall (the record is 18). Will the 14th time be the charm? I wouldn’t be surprised, because despite the heavy use of visual effects in Blade Runner 2049, Deakins more than leaves his mark with the camera work.
Just about every scene is expertly framed. There are glorious wide shots of Wallace’s headquarters, coupled with tight shots in K’s apartment with Joi to further drive home their artificial intimacy. The lighting design is also impeccable, particularly when it comes to Wallace (Jared Leto). The light angles help to enhance the god complex of the character. And of course, there’s the old note of the original, where you could tell by the light in someone’s eyes if they’re human or replicant. It’s not a glaring element this time around, but if you look, it’s there, a nice little quasi-Easter egg for fans. It’s even juxtaposed with Wallace, who is blind, and thus his eyes always look like the replicant flash, which belies his malevolence.
Bruno Delbonnel – Darkest Hour
I really enjoyed Darkest Hour, but honestly, I thought the cinematography was just a bit lacking. As far as the technical and artistic elements of the film, I thought it was the weakest part. It’s not exactly bad, but there are moments that detract from the overall experience, and that’s down to the camera.
There are three major examples of this. First is Parliament. Whenever Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill is speaking, particularly as Prime Minister, there is a singular spotlight on him from the right, as if coming from the only window in the entire building (which is ludicrous). We know the visual metaphor is that Churchill was the “light” in England’s darkest hour, but it’s a bit too on the nose.
The other two have to do with his war bunker. There are several moments that are very tightly framed. I understand that they were trying to convey a sense of claustrophobia as the walls are figuratively closing in on him from all sides (Parliament, the Crown, the actual siege at Dunkirk, etc.), but from a visual standpoint, it just looks like Churchill’s too fat to navigate a narrow hallway. Similarly, when he takes a lift back to the Downing Street residence, there’s a shot where he gets into the lift and goes up, with the lift being lit with him inside, and everything else in the shot being completely black. It’s not even a centered shot. It just looks odd, and in a darkened theatre, that much darkness on the screen just invites the audience to nod off.
Hoyte van Hoytema – Dunkirk
The key to the camera work on this unique war movie is in use of economy of space in each of the three storylines. There are a ton of wide shots on the beach at Dunkirk, which makes sense. There are 400,000 men stranded there, ships are coming in and out, and planes are dive bombing them on a regular basis. That means there’s a lot of real estate to cover when it comes to pyrotechnics and practical effects, and a lot of opportunities to set up some great shots. There’s a particularly good one when bits of beach explode in a line, with some soldiers diving and others getting launched in the air from the blasts.
When it comes to the air and sea fronts, these are much tighter spaces, but there’s still some amazing camera work to be had. There are cameras mounted on planes for aerial acrobatics. The cameras shake inside the boat sets as if rocking in the waves, but not so much that it could cause motion sickness, and focus never once suffers.
Rachel Morrison – Mudbound
It’s hard to believe that it’s taken 90 years for a woman to be nominated in this category. I mean, just by dumb luck it should have happened by now, right? It’s unbelievable that women literally behind the camera have had to wait this long, but hopefully this is the first step in righting a wrong, another glass ceiling (or in this case lens) broken.
Now, to the actual work. The beauty of her vision here is two-fold. One is the use of a grey tableau. Not only is it a visual metaphor to have every outdoor scene lit in shades of the combined skin tones of the two major families, looking for nuance in race relations, but it’s also a reminder of the ever-present mud that informs the title.
Secondly, given that this film has six narrators (and a seventh “main” character in Johnathan Banks’ “Pappy”), it’s amazing how well Morrison frames the individual lead characters to make them seem as isolated as possible. This is particularly true in scenes involving Mary J. Blige and Carey Mulligan. As the eternally put-upon matriarchs of their family, it’s not lost on the audience how often they’re ignored and left to their own devices, even when they’re in a crowd. Take for example an early scene when Mulligan first meets her eventual husband (Jason Clarke). There are four or five people in the scene at any given time, but it’s an incredibly uncomfortable experience for her, because she’s – gasp! – 30 and unmarried. She’s practically being sold off by her mother and forced to play piano like a child. She’s among a bunch of people, but she’s alone, and it’s down to Rachel Morrison to make us truly feel just how alone she is in the world. Really good stuff here.
Dan Laustsen – The Shape of Water
It’s hard to judge the cinematography in this film, mostly because the camera movements are pretty standard. There are a lot of zooms and static shots, plus some dolly pulls in the hallway of Elisa’s apartment. But for the most part, this is a fly-on-the-wall type of film. The camera is more an impartial observer than an active participant. A good deal of the action unfolds like a stage play being filmed. This was one of the major complaints about Fences last year, but in fairness, that literally was a play being filmed. There’s no excuse here.
The best examples of the camera work here are things like rack focusing, i.e. switching between a focus of something in the foreground to something in the background, and vice versa. This is especially noticeable when Elisa becomes hesitant about reaching out to Michael Shannon’s character, or the way she checks her surroundings before feeding eggs to the Creature. It can help portray her sense of paranoia and curiosity, and to that extent it works. Is that Oscar-worthy? In my eyes, not so much. I would have easily nominated I, Tonya in this category for the way the skating scenes alone were filmed, as well as the documentary filters used for the “interviews.” But that’s just me. On the merits here, there’s not much to recommend, but there are no real flaws either.
2) Blade Runner 2049
4) The Shape of Water
5) Darkest Hour
Next up: Only three categories remain, and tomorrow we look at the last group that we see in front of camera, as we break down Best Actor!
Join the conversation in the comments below! Did you love the wide open spaces of future Los Angeles, or the tight cramped hallways of WWII Britain? Are you sick and tired of me picking Dunkirk for just about every category? Well, too bad, but let me know anyway!