Oscar Gold 2021 – Cinematography

I say this a lot, but it’s absolutely true. I am in awe of people who do the things I can’t. Some of these folks have innate talent that gets applied perfectly to a trade or activity. Others choose something and passionately apply themselves to it until they’re the absolute best. I love these people, because they’ve found their “thing,” for lack of a better term, and I’m a guy who knows his limitations, so I do my best at what I’m good at and love, and then sit back and applaud those who excel in areas where I would be lost.

In the film industry, there are tons of people who do things I simply never could, and for that they get my admiration. I love animation, but I can’t draw to save my life. It’s just a skill I never developed, no matter how many art classes I took. I enjoyed myself painting and molding clay, but I absolutely never did anything worth a damn (except perhaps for a parody movie poster for Columbus Day that I modeled after the Independence Day poster back in high school). I love music, but I can’t write music or compose anything. I can sing alright, and I know the basic mechanics of playing piano and guitar, but I could never make up a film score. Costume design, hair & makeup, set design and construction, all of these things are beyond my capabilities, which is why I get so into analyzing them when we get to the Oscars, because even though I can’t do these things, I can certainly appreciate them.

That brings us to tonight’s category, Cinematography. I’ve worked in media in one form or another since I was 16. I can handle a camera just fine, usually because there’s a nice instruction manual for me to follow. I can hold it, balance it on a tripod, zoom, shoot, all that basic stuff. But the art of cinematography is so much more. It’s knowing which lighting scheme to use, something I could never grasp. I’ve worked on tons of shoots, but apart from noticing when a particular shot is “too hot,” I got nothing, and I certainly can’t plan out lighting positions. I did my best trying to learn from my teachers and employers, but it just never stuck. I could put the lights wherever they told me and carry enough sandbags to hold back a flooding river, but I never could get a handle on how to properly light a scene. I know what proper lighting looks like, but I can’t reproduce it myself. Same goes for lenses. That’s just a complete blind spot, as every camera I’ve ever used has had built-in zoom. In one of his speaking tour specials, Kevin Smith even admitted he doesn’t know his lenses, instead gesturing to his Director of Photography about what kind of shot he’s looking for, and the DP fills in the rest. Bruce Willis has openly made fun of him for this. When it comes to the color palette, I’m at a physical disadvantage because I’m partially colorblind. I can see colors just fine, but I can’t distinguish fine hues and shades from one to the next, and I fail about half of the Ishihara-style color tests. Even when I work as an editor, I am reliant on the scopes and color meters to make sure the clips I’m working on are colored properly, because what I see and what’s actually on the screen may not be exactly the same.

So yeah, cinematographers are another grouping in this industry that always impresses me. Unless there’s a silly error like the boom mic being in the shot, or a scene that’s so dark you can’t make anything out (i.e. Godzilla, King of the Monsters), I’m eternally fascinated by a DP’s ability to frame a shot and translate the Director’s vision through the actual lens. It’s a tremendous skill, and to do it to the level of Academy recognition is something to be celebrated, no matter who wins (though Roger Deakins had to wait WAY too long for his due). If I criticize something, it’s done with love, because I know these are talented artists and professionals, even if the finished product ends up sucking. I can still appreciate that they know way more about their craft than I do while still judging it from an aesthetic standpoint.

This year’s nominees for Cinematography are:

Judas and the Black Messiah – Sean Bobbitt

This is Bobbitt’s first nomination from the Academy, but he got a slew of prestige and nominations from other bodies for his work on 12 Years a Slave, and some of the methods he used in that film are on display here. Just like in that Best Picture winner, Bobbitt employs several shots of crowds, and frames them in a way that shows their size but keeps the affair intimate, particularly in scenes where Daniel Kaluuya is giving a speech as Fred Hampton. He also uses a few tracking shots rotating around a certain focal character – usually Hampton – that’s reminiscent of Lupita Nyong’o’s ordeal on the whipping post.

Sometimes the flow of a scene can be a feel a bit confused. In particular I’m thinking of the opening fight scene at the billiard house and the raid/shootout at Black Panther headquarters. It’s hard to tell who’s where at times, but I don’t mind it all that much, as I think that was sort of the point. These are very chaotic, violent scenes, some of which include literal smoke bombs to give us a figurative fog of war. It’s still a touch slapdash, but at least there’s method to the madness.

Mank – Erik Messerschmidt

Talk about an up-and-comer! Mank is the first solo DP credit for Messerschmidt on a film, after helming several episodes of Mindhunter and working his way up from being a gaffer. David Fincher has acted as a sort of mentor for his career, and that trust is on display here, as Messerschmidt is given the monumental task of paying homage to the greatest film of all time while simultaneously putting his own spin on the film’s more unique moments.

There are quite a few scenes in Mank meant to be a direct analog to Citizen Kane, and Messerschmidt pulls them off admirably. When Orson Welles loses his temper in Mank’s cabin, Messerschmidt frames and lights it in the exact same way that Welles did when Kane began to lose his composure towards the end of the film. In a confrontation with William Randolph Hearst, Charles Dance stands before his massive fireplace the same way Kane did at Xanadu. When Mank has a heart-to-heart with his brother on the porch, it’s filmed almost exactly like the interviews with Jedediah Leland at his retirement home. A lot of the charm of Mank comes down to its grand tribute to Citizen Kane, and Messerschmidt is quite up to the task of recreating the film’s style.

But what’s really impressive are the moments that are truly his, but they feel like they would be a part of that classic. The best example of that is the scene where Mank walks around outside with Marion Davies during a party. She shows him around Hearst Castle’s grounds, including a fountain and a zoo. The scene is clearly shot day-for-night, and because of that, when they gaze at the sky, the color palette is completely washed out, just like it would have done using a film camera in 1940. Also, while the film is shot in widescreen, Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman are kept very close together near center frame, letting you know the film could be presented in 4:3 and still have the same feel to it. That’s no small feat, especially for a first-time DP.

News of the World – Dariusz Wolski

Wolski is another first-time nominee who’s had some recognition in the past, earning minor nominations for his work on Crimson Tide, Sweeney Todd, and The Martian. He’s a frequent collaborator with Ridley Scott and Gore Verbinski, serving as DP on four of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

Arguably, News of the World might be his simplest work, as the film fits very neatly into the Western motif of bright sun, deserts, and mountainous landscapes. When Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel are on their journey, there’s a healthy mix of wide shots and close-ups, giving the viewer a comfortable context to enjoy the film. I get the feeling that he’s recycled a lot of the techniques he used in The Martian, but that required a much less traditional color scheme for the Red Planet.

Where the camera work comes up short is in the more intimate and dark settings. When Hanks is giving his news readings, the lighting scheme isn’t exactly believable, as most of them take place at night, and he’s somehow able to read articles with little more than magnifying spectacles and a single lantern or candle. When the action takes place outside at night, or in the rain, it’s almost impossible to see. I remember watching this from home and having to restart several times because of lag. Anytime there was a buffering pause and the video quality slipped below true HD, I couldn’t make out a single image in the dark. You might as well have just turned the whole screen black. That’s how dark the actual light design is on those scenes.

Nomadland – Joshua James Richards

The exterior cinematography for Nomadland is similar in design to that of News of the World, but from where I sit, the execution is so much better because the grand vistas and scenery are all done in service of Frances McDormand’s Fern as the point-of-view character. It’s one thing to show the mountains and rivers and desert hiking trails. It’s quite another to frame the central character in such a way that it makes clear that we’re experiencing the view along with her. It’s not just, “Hey, here’s some snow.” It’s “Hey, look at this person running in the snow, feeling the snow, interacting with the snow.” That’s what sets Richards apart from Wolski when it comes to landscapes. The use of natural lighting whenever possible is nice selling point as well.

On the interior side of things, I admire this film for the same reason I admired Greyhound, which is sadly only up for Best Sound. Fern’s life as a nomad is in her van, and with few exceptions, whenever she’s not in nature, she’s in that van. There’s a very tight economy of space here, but Richards is able to work all the possible angles to make such a small area feel like a domicile. There’s an entire world inside a space no larger than a walk-in closet, and Richards’ camera work amazingly gives the whole thing a homey feel.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Phedon Papamichael

This is our only nominee in the group who has previous Oscar clout. In addition to several critics association nominations for his work last year on Ford v. Ferrari, Papamichael was nominated in this category a few years ago for Nebraska. Unlike those previous two outings, which featured a lot of exterior work, Papamichael’s work here is almost entirely interior and set-based, as The Trial of the Chicago 7 is presented very much like a stage play.

This makes sense, as I mentioned while covering Original Screenplay, because writer/director Aaron Sorkin is a Broadway aficionado. As such, this film is filmed and blocked almost like a prequel to 12 Angry Men, where the parameters of the courtroom control the action of the camera and the characters. The layout of the benches and tables are at somewhat skewed angles as if projecting to an audience just off screen. It’s Papamichael’s job to still lend a degree of intimacy to that intentional contrivance, and for the most part he succeeds.

Even on those rare occasions where the action takes place outside the courtroom, the staging and lighting is similar. At the defendants’ headquarters, tables, chairs, and actors are again angled diagonally relative to the fourth wall as if speaking to a crowd. During footage of the actual protests and violence, large parties of people come from opposite ends of the frame, converging on a single spot, like groups of actors coming in from stage left and right. It all serves the general conceit of turning a courtroom drama into a simulation of dramatic presentation in a theatre, and in that vein, it works.

***

My Rankings:
1) Mank
2) Nomadland
3) The Trial of the Chicago 7
4) Judas and the Black Messiah
5) News of the World

Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!

Next up, I hear a symphony, and a pops, and a philharmonic. It’s Original Score!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Which film had the best camerawork? Are you a wiz with lighting? Do you mouth “Ooh” when you see a good landscape? Let me know!

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