Okay, first things first, a bit of a housekeeping update. The video I made for Friday’s analysis of Best Supporting Actor is now live and viewable. With each new filmed entry I’m learning more and more about the rules of YouTube. So when I made that video, I used clips from all five nominees from four films. Of those four films, three of the copyright holders had an automatic claim against the footage (never mind that I downloaded them all FROM YouTube). Of those three, two of them carried a restriction that I couldn’t monetize the video. I can’t do that anyway, as I’m required to have 1,000 followers and 4,000 hours’ worth of public views to even be eligible, so I ain’t making money on this shit for a WHILE (that said, tell your friends to subscribe and play my stuff in the background so I can get there quicker; YouTube is probably going to force you to watch ads anyway, I just want a cut). The third had a claim that blocked the video entirely.
Now, of course I instantly disputed all three claims, as my videos are all some form of commentary, criticism, or parody, all of which are covered under Fair Use guidelines here in the United States. Once I do that, there’s still a bit of confusion as to what happens next, at least from my end. When I filed the disputes, YouTube said that the claimants MUST respond within 30 days. However, when I look at my video status, it says the dispute will expire in 30 days. So, what happens if they decide not to respond? Does my dispute automatically win, or does it expire and the claim remains in place? I don’t know. I’m sure I’ll find out soon.
Anyway, over the weekend, one of the monetization claims was dropped. So yay for that. The Italian firm holding the YouTube rights to that particular clip from CODA aren’t complete dicks. I still have a monetization block against the Power of the Dog footage and a complete block against the Belfast clip.
Or so I thought. As it turns out, there are two timelines at play. For monetization claims, I definitely can’t make any money off of the video until the situation is resolved, but the video can at least still be seen. With block claims, it only results in a 48-hour hold, with the video viewable for the other 28 days of the process. If YouTube rules against me, the video gets pulled, perhaps permanently. But in the meantime, it can still be there, watchable to all, for the next four weeks while NBC Universal twiddles their collective thumbs.
So hooray for learning! The video is live, and you can watch my horribly low production values once again! Enjoy. And with this new information in mind, I’m going to try to upload the planned video for Best Supporting Actress for Friday on Wednesday so that any potential block will be lifted by the time I publish the blog post.
Okay, with that out of the way, onto new business. I may have mentioned this before, but Cinematography is one of the hardest elements of a film for me to judge, mostly because it’s one of the technical elements I know the least about. I learned how to use various cameras in high school and college, but I’d be lying if I said I truly understood anything beyond “point and shoot.” Lighting is a particular issue, because while I could easily follow directions from people who knew better, I can only make a guess as to what is good enough when it comes to an overall lighting scheme. I’m sure if you watch my videos and do know this stuff, you have a TON of notes about my use of a single vlogging ring light standing on a flimsy tripod behind my computer.
Colors are also very difficult for me, as I’m partly colorblind. I can see them just fine, but I can’t distinguish fine hues, and I’m sure the fact that I have diabetic retinopathy in both eyes (just learned that a couple weeks ago, yay?) probably doesn’t help.
So when I talk about our field of candidates in this category, I may not hit the exact right notes. I will hopefully deliver some commentary that’s a little more complex than, “Ooh, pretty!” but if you’re looking for some true expert opinions here, I may fall short of your expectations. Just know that I’m doing my best to try to focus (camera joke!) on the finer stylistic points of each film, as well as moments that best stuck out to me, given my limited education and abilities.
This year’s nominees for Cinematography are…
Dune – Greig Fraser
This is Fraser’s second nomination in this category – the first being 2016’s Lion – and he’s received massive praise for his work on Zero Dark Thirty. Both of those films sort of feed into this one, as there was a particular focus on logistics, a central figure evolving crucial confidence, and landscapes of several different areas and environments of the world.
In Dune his job becomes more difficult by one essential measure, and that’s what I’ve mentioned before, the sheer scale of the film. Denis Villeneuve’s artistic vision mandates that the audience become fully immersed into the world of Arrakis. Those of us watching have to feel like we’re truly a part of this place, whether or not we see the film in a large format. The Visual Effects and Production Design teams largely accomplish that goal by showing us how big the planet is and how detailed its architecture can be. Fraser’s job is to contrast that by directing his lens at the more intimate moments and characters, giving viewers the proverbial “fly on the wall” access to the inner workings of this massive sci-fi machine.
He does this in two major ways. The first is by keeping the frame extremely tight on the main characters during moments of development and exposition. We see Paul’s dreams of Chani in extreme close-up. Intense conversations and negotiations involving Duke Leto, Lady Jessica, Gurney, Duncan, or any number of others are literally “in your face” to a degree that one almost could imagine the actors’ breath fogging up the lens to make sure we’re close enough to hear their whispered voices. Even in grander scenes, like the spice harvester rescue, there’s an emphasis on an almost claustrophobic level of discomfort by cramming several people into the relatively small space of the flyer’s cockpit, demonstrating the impracticality and cumbersome nature of the technology needed to make the spice trade possible.
The second is in the fight choreography. A disease that’s plagued action scenes and films in recent years has been an over-reliance on jump-cut editing and CGI rather than crisp blocking and fluid camera movements. You see this a lot in Marvel films, with the scene jumping from shot to shot, person to person, CGI monster to CGI monster, all with split-second looks to confuse the viewer into thinking that anything has been established. And on the rare occasion that the cameras stay on any one point for more than a second, you’ll still get multiple unjustified cuts in the simplest moments. If you need up to five shot changes for a single punch, you’re doing it wrong. While he’s not perfect, Fraser for the most part eschews this creative crutch, keeping the cuts minimal while conveying the complexity of the combat. He doesn’t go for exceptionally long tracking shots, but he keeps enough intimate focus so that the viewer can understand what’s going on at all times. No better is this illustrated than towards the end when Duncan fights the Sardaukar soldiers so Paul can escape, and when Paul himself duels with the Fremen warrior Jamis.
It’s like when you’re a kid at an amusement park riding one of those sky trams. Invariably you’ll hear the phrase, “They all look like ants down there!” That’s how the visual task in Dune is divided. The VFX/Design side of the equation in making Arrakis come to life is to show the perspective from the tram. The cinematography side is responsible for giving life and dimension to the “ants” in a way that’s engaging and believable. From what I could see, Fraser succeeded in droves.
Nightmare Alley – Dan Laustsen
Dan Laustsen was already an accomplished photographer before he became known to American audiences, having won five Robert Awards in his native Denmark for his work since the mid-80s. But since he started getting work stateside, he’s made two high-profile marks on the industry. The first is with the John Wick series, where he’s been the lead cinematographer for all but the original entry – remember what I just said about great fight choreography and filming – and his collaborations with Guillermo del Toro. It stared with Mimic in 1997, and has since progressed to Crimson Peak, his first Oscar nomination for The Shape of Water, and now his second nod with Nightmare Alley.
In one of the odder coincidences of this year’s Academy Awards, the nominee slate for this category and Production Design are identical, an acknowledgement of how intertwined these two elements can be at times. We often had common nominees in Sound when it was still two separate categories, but this is rather unique.
And in that respect, I feel it’s only fair to note that when it comes to Nightmare Alley, I think a lot of the visual spectacle comes from the other category rather than this one. Don’t get me wrong, Laustsen does a really good job, especially when Bradley Cooper is performing his mentalist trick. Really all of the carnival performers get tremendous framing, which makes sense, as we’re focusing on theatricality in these moments. But beyond that, the mood and atmosphere leans more heavily on the set design and more artistic decisions than the actual camera work. At least, that’s what stuck out more to me. I noticed a lot more emphasis on the design elements in the crucial moments as opposed to how the camera moved or how the scene was lit. There’s a rich color palette throughout, but I can’t tell if that is more due to how the individual shots were filmed, or whether that was an intentional alteration during the edit process.
Maybe I’m selling the film short here. I honestly don’t know. But like I said, given that all five of these films are up for both Cinematography and Production Design, I’m much more inclined to give Nightmare Alley higher marks for the latter than the former.
The Power of the Dog – Ari Wegner
This is Wegner’s first Oscar nomination, though she’s also up for an Independent Spirit Award for her work on her other 2021 film, Zola. She can also make some history here, as no woman has ever won this award. In fact, Wegner is only the second woman to ever be nominated (the first being Rachel Morrison for Mudbound three years ago).
She has a powerful case to make, because as Andrew Lesnie did before her when he won for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Wegner makes tremendous use of New Zealand’s natural beauty for the landscape and vista shots, transforming it seamlessly into the wilds of Montana. Seriously, if I ever leave America, the only two countries I could ever live in are Ireland or New Zealand. How can any country be allowed to be so gorgeous?
But where Wegner really makes her bones, surprisingly enough, is in the interior photography. Many of the buildings used in The Power of the Dog aren’t all that big, but through the clever use of her lenses, Wegner makes them feel huge and expansive while also framing the characters in a way that makes the space appear even smaller, which I think qualifies as witchcraft. She accomplishes this by using the camera to create a false perspective relative to the countenance of the people involved in the scene. Everyone knows what Benedict Cumberbatch looks like. He’s somewhat tall, but lanky, which can also be said for Kodi Smit-McPhee. However, depending on the needs of the scene, Wegner can make Cumberbatch look like a hulky, imposing presence using a bottom-up positioning while filming Smit-McPhee from a top-down angle to make him appear even more waifish than he already is.
Over the course of the final act, as Peter begins to gain Phil’s trust, Wegner reflects that thematic equalizing by leveling both actors’ share of the frame relative to one another. This subtly establishes the dominant character at all times, even when it starts shifting, and at the same time allows them all to command a presence within a smaller setting to make the environment feel as large as the wide open spaces waiting just out of doors.
The Tragedy of Macbeth – Bruno Delbonnel
More than anyone else on this list, Bruno Delbonnel is an expert at getting inside a main character through framing so tight, the point of view barely passes for third person. This is his sixth nomination, and all five of his previous nods are examples of how great he is at this technique. Whether it’s Darkest Hour, Inside Llewyn Davis, or even Harry Potter 6, there may be no better photographer when it comes to bringing the figurative idea of “getting into a character’s head” as close to literal as possible.
That trend continues with The Tragedy of Macbeth, which already starts at an advantage in this area because of the fact that it’s filmed in a 4:3 aspect ratio, intentionally limiting the space with which the actors have to work, especially Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. The paranoia of their precarious positions as petulant perfidious patriots is propagated on perceiving them in a prefabricated prison of their own personal plotting. Geez, what is it about this movie that makes me go overboard with the wordplay? What I mean to say is that the super tight framing of the characters already thematically stymied by the smaller space is a doubly good effect when it comes to delving into their collective psyche. Also adding to the symbolism is the fact that the film is shot in black-and-white, giving us a visual representation of the binary logic of Macbeth’s actions, and the rather sparse set designs (superficially the opposite issue to what Nightmare Alley faces in the two mirrored categories) gives the proceedings an inescapable dreamlike quality.
No better is this whole idea encapsulated than in the depiction of Act IV, Scene I, when the Weird Sisters give Macbeth his ironically fatal prophecy that no man born of woman may harm him. Throughout the film, the witches have been depicted as a singular entity, played by Kathryn Hunter (a fun coincidence that Delbonnel was nominated for a Harry Potter movie, and in this one he films three actors from that franchise – Hunter, Brendan Gleeson, and Harry Melling – that he didn’t get to work with on that particular project), though a couple of scenes do show other shadowy figures near her without faces. Here, however, the one becomes three, all played by the same actress, representing a triad voice with the same message.
The scene is shot from a position where Macbeth is furthest from a position of power. In the play, the scene is set in a cavern with the witches surrounding their cauldron. Here, for all intents and purposes, Macbeth is in the cauldron, as his magical nightmare floods the room he’s sitting in with the blackest of water, forcing him to look up to the rafters, where the witches squat on wooden rods looking down on him, crones perched as crows, ominously circling overhead. It’s a scene where Washington, as Macbeth, is completely without agency and at the mercy of those who facilitated his usurpation of the throne, and unbeknownst to him, his downfall from it. It’s the one time where he has to face a visual representation of just how little control he has over his fate, as the witches’ position can easily be interpreted as that of puppeteers toying with their regal marionette.
Arguably, this is the one major moment of the film that doesn’t feel claustrophobic, but in giving it a slightly wider frame, Delbonnel lets in so much uncertainty and doubt that it winds up being even more terrifying for its lead, and the Director of Photography makes damn sure to get in close with Washington whenever necessary to show us the thematic weight that this moment has on him, as he both acquiesces to his destiny while also fooling himself into thinking he’s taken charge. This is ironic camera work at its finest!
West Side Story – Janusz Kamiński
Janusz Kamiński is easily the most accomplished cinematographer in this bunch, having received seven nominations in this category over the years, including two wins, for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. In fact, his work on 2007’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is his only Oscar nomination for a movie NOT directed by Steven Spielberg. As such, this is something of a double-edged sword for Kamiński. On the one hand, he knows probably better than anyone how to execute Spielberg’s creative vision, as he’s helmed the camera for 18 of Spielberg’s films so far (with a 19th, The Fabelmans, coming later this year). On the other hand, it also means he arguably has no independent vision of his own, and he’s indirectly responsible for some of Spielberg’s worst directorial habits. At minimum, he doesn’t do nearly enough to stop them.
The West Side Story remake is no exception. While the production design is fairly strong throughout the film, echoing and homaging the original movie while also expanding on it, the camera work is largely just a reproduction of what Daniel L. Fapp did 60 years ago. A huge case in point is the community dance scene, which begins promisingly enough with the Jets, Sharks, and their respective girlfriends dancing in rigid lines that only meet in the middle for what looks like a prelude to the Rumble, whereas the original made more of a use of interconnecting circles. But just as things start to get interesting, Tony and Maria notice each other, and the scene becomes a straight-up ripoff of the original, only less well-executed. They spy each other from across the room, but that room is now so filled with extras dancing that it’s physically impossible for the pair not to get trampled as they make their way towards each other. Then, after they sneak away behind the bleachers, Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort do the exact same arms out, wing touch dance that Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer did in the original, only hornier, as Zegler goes for second base rather quickly. This is why I rage when people try to claim this movie isn’t a remake, but a “re-adaptation.” If it was actually that silly buzzword, we wouldn’t be recreating these exact same shots.
When the movie does venture into semi-original territory, that’s when it’s at its best. While superfluous, the “Gee Officer Krupke” scene is expertly staged, making inspired use of the set pieces and environment, and Kamiński’s almost manic camera work is superb. The same goes for the repurposed version of “Cool,” where Tony and Riff (it is a CRIME that Mike Faist wasn’t nominated for Supporting Actor) play a game of “Keep Away” with a gun on a collapsed bridge. The entire sequence is spellbinding, and a textbook example of why this film’s existence is so frustrating for me, because it’s concrete proof that Spielberg could have made something truly extraordinary and make this story feel new again, thereby justifying its creation. Instead, the scene serves as a cruel example of what might have been, as most of the rest of the proceedings are just tired, preachy recreations of what the Academy already honored, and which Spielberg and his defenders merely insist is new.
And sadly, for Kamiński’s part, the most memorable piece of the cinematography is also one of the film’s biggest flaws. For the most part he does competent work, and as I said when the film truly attempts something different than the original, it really shines. But in the majority of the film, where we’re just going over the same old ground, we get a magnification of one of the worst trends of Steven Spielberg’s otherwise stellar career: the motherfucking spotlight fetish. Nearly every nighttime and/or interior scene is bathed in unnecessary and illogical spotlight placements, and for every time it looks cool (the shadows cast by the Jets and Sharks from opposite sides of the salt warehouse as they enter for the Rumble), there are 20 scenes where it doesn’t, like Maria at the dance standing in front of a row of floodlights on the gymnasium floor that saturate the screen and blind the viewer. I mean, think about it, what are those lights illuminating? The ceiling? The opposite wall? What would be the point in that? They can’t be shining on the dancers because such huge lights would seriously hinder their peripheral vision and cause several people to collide on the floor. So why are they there? It’s to create this weird aura/halo effect on Rachel Zegler that no one needed because she already stands out in her bright, white dress.
I’ve harped on this before (and I’m pretty sure more popular online voices like Doug Walker, aka “Nostalgia Critic,” coined the term “spotlight fetish” long before me, so credit where it’s due), but once you notice the overpowering lighting scheme in a Spielberg film, you can never NOT notice it going forward. Sometimes it works, but most of the time it’s gratuitous and pulls you right out of the picture because you realize all those lights have no business being there. And as the DP, it’s sort of Kamiński’s job to keep that shit in check. I know you can only push back against your boss so much, but if he did, and this was a compromise, then you have to question why he gets a nomination for such a bad look. And if he just did what he was told, then why doesn’t Spielberg just film this himself and take the credit anyway?
This aspect of the movie is a microcosm with my overall confused rage with the entire endeavor. When it’s good, it’s super duper hella mega good. When it’s bad, it’s so terrible that every negative aspect gets magnified tenfold. That’s Kamiński’s cinematography profile here. When we try something new, he gets to show off his skills and remind us why he’s already won two Oscars. When he and Spielberg are just re-hitting the old beats, they only succeed in shining a spotlight on why this movie should have never been made.
1) The Tragedy of Macbeth
2) The Power of the Dog
4) West Side Story
5) Nightmare Alley
Who do you think should win? Vote now in the poll below!
Up next, it’s the category that, if trends continue, will probably be swallowed up by Visual Effects. It’s Best Animated Feature!
Join the conversation in the comments below! What aspects of camera work stick out most for you? Do you know how to light a scene? Got any tips to improve my own filming, you know, other than hiring someone more handsome and talented to be on screen? Let me know!