Oscar History

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The Modern Bias in Best Cinematography.

Jose here. When the New York Film Critics began announcing their awards yesterday the biggest shock, for me, came early on as they decided to award Greig Fraser with Best Cinematography for Zero Dark Thirty. Don't get me wrong. I have absolutely nothing against Mr. Fraser and up to that moment I hadn't even seen the movie (I did later and ZOMG!). Anyway, what surprised me the most is that a contemporary movie had been recognized for an award that usually goes to period or fantasy movies. It's as if awards bodies don't feel that modern life is "pretty" enough to give it a photographic award. 

Yet the fact that people assume that "best" cinematography instantly means "prettiest" cinematography might be the greatest mistake in a category whose winners sometimes defy all logic...

Let's start at the very beginning. After becoming an Oscar obsessive and developing an infatuation with this category, I too was surprised one day when I learned that a cinematographer's work consisted of much more than being friends with the lighting crew and art directors in order to capture gorgeous images. I learned in film school that cinematography was also about movement and knowing precisely when to shoot. Let's not even go that far, etymologically we are told that "cinematography" means precisely "to record movements", yet judging from all the Oscar winners, most of these movies might as well be picture books.

Little attention is ever paid to how - and why - the camera moves, and all the praise is thrown at movies with golden sunsets, stunning use of filters and glorious black and white. Most of these movies happen to be either: period, WWII or fantasy movies. Other than something as adventurous as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, when's the last time a contemporary movie happened to be as bold with its camera? The answer is quite simple: all the time. But we have not been trained to appreciate the dazzling qualities of the camera when we don't have period art direction and costumes to accompany it.

A few weeks ago I saw Killing Them Softly (also shot by Fraser - make sure to check out more of his work) and from the stunning travelling in the opening sequence I noticed that the film was saying much more with its camera than it was with dialogues. I was taken aback by how in just three movies director Andrew Dominik has mastered the use of purely cinematic language in a way some so-called "masters" (I'm looking at you Spielberg and Eastwood) rarely come close to. Dominik's use of his DP's is effective because he knows precisely what he needs them to communicate. In something like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford he knew he had to make old pictures come to life and the movie's almost Lumieresque effect might be the crowning achievement in Roger Deakins' career. Yet for something like Killing Them Softly he had to find a language that communicated the despair in modern life and the financial crisis. Fraser then shoots the movie with little artificial lighting, allowing the actors to look disheveled and ugly. I asked Dominik about his approach to telling this story with images and he said he trusted Fraser's judgment because he knew how to make the cast and crew work around the light and not the other way around (yet another wonderful metaphor for economic unstableness if there ever was one). Yet how many awards - if any - will Fraser receive for this revelatory camera work, when someone like Janusz Kaminski is impressing voters with his pretty frescoes of Lincoln?

Since 1990, only a total of 18 movies with contemporary or modern settings (heck, I'm even throwing Batman Forever in there instead of counting it as fantasy) have received Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography, while just a total of three have won the award:

- American Beauty (which one can arguably say won because of Conrad Hall's revered status; he won again posthumously three years later).
- Slumdog Millionaire (which won because of the sweep effect).
- Inception (which again, could very well fit into sci-fi or fantasy instead...but as a curious note, 2010 was the only modern year in which 3/5 of the Cinematography nominees were contemporary/modern movies).

The much more progressive New York Film Critics haven't been that modern in this category either; since they began awarding Cinematography in 1980 only 10 contemporary/modern movies have won the award.

Doesn't this beg a few questions? Film theorist Siegfried Kracauer was a firm believer that cinema had an obligation to exploit its resources and remind us why it was different than still photography. Why thendoes the work of groundbreaking camera artists like Emmanuel Lubezki, Matthew Libatique, Harris Savides, Lance Acord, Anthony Dod Mantle (pre-Slumdog), Stéphane Fontaine, Jose Luis Alcaine and Newton Thomas Sigel get snubbed in favor of more Daguerreotypean works? Why hasn't Best Cinematography embraced the modernity of the medium? 

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Reader Comments (21)

It's a shame. Like Dion Beebe winning for Memoirs of a Geisha and not even getting nominations for Oscar-worthy jobs like Collateral and Miami Vice.

December 6, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Amen to all that.

You know what modern day film had gorgeous cinematography that I have not heard anyone mention yet? Perks of Being a Wallflower.

December 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMIchael C.

Another conceited, too-cool-for-school article bashing popular artists like Spielberg and Kaminski because... Because of what, exactly? Of course, because populism for snobs is somehow valid to fool fools.

Perhaps you were too young when Kaminski and Spielberg draw attention from critics and award bodies alike in influential, audacious works like Saving Private Ryan and Minority Report.

Why limit oneself to Kaminski, though? Spielberg "rarely" works through "purely cinematic images". Yeah, because Spielberg's emphasis on highly communicative and evocative visuals is not well-recognized. Try watching his collaborations with Vilmos Zsigmond, Douglas Slocombe and Allen Daviau before condescending.

A new kid on the block, like Andrew Dominik, and his rising DP star Greg Frasier are, of course, so much better than the "so-called masters who are actually overrated"...

Just a question: how many Cinematography awards has LINCOLN actually won so far? Yep, that's right. None. Not yet. Keep reaching to straw man fallacies to impress Nathaniel's readers, who are not clueless, I hope.

December 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGustavo

this is a really fascinating question. You'd think that since DPs themselves choose the nominees, that we wouldn't have this problem. But it's very muchlike costume design. For whatever reason it's considered more noteworthy to work in period.

December 6, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Beebe is a great example Cal. He seems to have gotten nominated for his least work. If I was making a top five of his films, his two nominated movies wouldn't make the cut.

December 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

Have you seen Kaminski's work for LINCOLN? It's masterful. I don't think it's fair to bash on Spielberg here, especially because the work for LINCOLN is extraordinarily simple and beautiful and so true to the era of that time. It's like looking at a painting from that time period.

December 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJordan

Jordan - No one's bashing anyone here. I have seen "Lincoln" and this is precisely why I mentioned it. In fact, your whole "it's like looking at a painting from that time period" proves the point of this article - which isn't about Kaminski and Spielberg - but about the fact that "pretty" still pictures overcome adventurous camerawork at the Oscars/award shows.

I think Kaminski's work in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is among the greatest achievements of recent years because it dared to go beyond the limitations of classicism. Again, there is nothing wrong with classic, but one would hope that as time moves forward so would the way in which we see movies. For example Maryse Aberti's work in "The Wrestler" spoke more to me in terms of cinema than any of the Cinematography nominees of that year. My point is that the camera is practically a "god's eye", it can travel to places and do things the human eye will never be able to do, so why limit it to capturing recreations of paintings?

Gustavo - I have seen every single movie Spielberg has made - otherwise I wouldn't discuss his work - and I agree that his previous work was more exciting in terms of visual language ;-)

December 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJose

this is a really fascinating question. You'd think that since DPs themselves choose the nominees, that we wouldn't have this problem. But it's very much like costume design. For whatever reason it's considered more noteworthy to work in period.

You know in every category "visibility of the process" is the governing rule for the majorities. Why complain about this? In fact why complain. I'll stop bitching if the rest of you quit it.

December 6, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Greig Fraser is quickly becoming a favorite DP of mine. "Bright Star" may well be picture book pretty, but he marries images and movement to the poetry of Keats. I just love that film!

December 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRaul

Film Crit Hulk had an interesting theory, that if you replace "Best" with "Most" in Oscar winner cateogories, they'd make just as much sense.

MOST acting: big, flashy, showy, melodramatic, I AM ACTING HERE. DRAAAAINAGE, ELI.

MOST writing: Films with the most/funniest/wittiest dialog, Juno and Little Miss Sunshine and the works of Aaron Sorkin. Is there any way Tony Kushner loses this year?

MOST editing: You think'd the best editing would be the kind you barely even notice, not the kind that's constant and everywhere and readily apparent. Cloud Atlas has this one all wrapped up.

MOST costume design: Look at all those period-specific outfits! Hundreds of extras, give them an award!

MOST art direction: It's never the subtle art direction that get's recognized, never the subdued 1960s recreation in Zodiac for instance. It's always the flashy stuff, the Burton films, the musicals, big fantasy stuff.

Cinematography is similar, according to this article.

December 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeremy

It truly must be National Irony Day if 3rtful is telling someone else to stop complaining.

December 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLiz N.

@Raul. Oh, Bright Star. Cinematography that made me feel like i was unraveling inside (in a good way).

December 6, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercaroline

Fred Koenekamp's Oscar victory in 1974 for lensing The Towering Inferno fits all your criteria: contemporary setting, exhilarating motion, stimulating communication of the film's themes. Yet his work has been called undeserving of an Academy Award next to the cinematography for Chinatown and The Godfather Part II because he worked on a populist disaster movie. TTI, with its thrilling 70mm Panavision camerawork and multileveled (pardon the pun) visuals, featured the most elegant, stunning photography that year. That it was about a burning skyscraper made the challenges loom that much higher (sorry again).

December 6, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

brookesboy: Okay. I'd probably agree with most that The Towering Inferno as a mistake, but that's more "is it visually effective because of the cinematographer or is the VFX team more responsible". Here's suggestions for a few times they could have more easily justified "going modern", just plucking from nominees.

Roger Deakins, Fargo, 1996
Bruno Delbonnell, Amelie, 2001
Owen Roizman, Network, 1976 (especially considering he wasn't up against the harsh tones of Taxi Driver or the hazy, lost and confused camerawork of Carrie and that HASKELL WEXLER ALREADY HAD ONE.)

December 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Jeremy, please don't credit something as inane as Film Crit Hulk with that train of thought. It's right in many cases (specifically costume design and visual effects, I'd say), but people have been saying it for years.

I really liked this piece. Nicely intellectual. Criticising somebody such as Spielberg whilst praising someone who, to many, is still only wading his feet in the filmmaking waters will never win you any friends.

As for the topic at hand, I guess they go with period because making a film in a period setting inherently implies something recreated. As in, people can watch it and KNOW that you had to do something special to film it that way. Something set in the modern world doesn't necessarily come with that. People think you're just filming what's around you when that's not the case at all. Period (and fantasy) films imply a filmmaker having to recreate a world and that, I suppose, wins you votes. Plus, period films are more likely to ALLOW a filmmaker to delve into a different world, you know? A film set in the 1950s can utilise film-noir aesthetic and nobody questions it, or a film in the '70s may adopt what used to be a very modern palate, but now screams retro. Pre-1900 means lavishness that people figure takes a lot of effort to create.

December 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Volvagia, I'm almost positive that the FX team only handled static shots of the building model, but I'd have to do more research. Koenekamp does a super job of keeping this epic, with all of its degrees of human drama and cumulative terrors, moving at a satisfying pace. I've always loved Roizman, who has moved effortlessly from The Exorcist to Network and Tootsie, of all things. He's very underrated. And he did a terrific job of creating a palpable excitement from the physically and emotionally claustrophobic sets of Network.

December 6, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

For films set in the present day, I would love to see some recognition for "Take This Waltz"'s cinematography. I had issues (actually major issues) with the movie, but its warm, colorful palette was flawless..

December 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLiz N.

When are you posting the Kidman interview????

December 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRM

I love Cloud Atlas' cinematography ok bye lol

December 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRa

JOSE, was always a fan of your contributions .. but I totally disagree with downgrading Spielberg. He's a cinematic master, no arguments there. JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, E.T., EMPIRE OF THE SUN, THE COLOR PURPLE, INDIANA JONES, SCHINDLER'S LIST, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, MINORITY REPORT, AND A.I. were not just movies that were "pretty" to look at, every shot, every image, every movement of the camera meant something. U act like he directed Avengers or Transformers. Give the guy a break. What else does Spielberg have to prove? Cinematic language at its best by a pure genius.

December 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMiguel

Very well written.

December 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

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