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Be Careful What You Wish For: Lubezki's First Oscar?

"Oscar giveth. Oscar taketh away."

I've said it often and each year the phrase reasserts its truthfulness. One might also substitute this with "Be careful what you wish for." Oscar maniacs know this warning well. They beg for a first Oscar for Winslet or a third for Streep, for example, and then those things come true and no one is really satisifed with the way it came to pass. And that's just two recent examples. I don't much believe in "locks" in Oscar races in the way most pundits and Oscar fans do -- especially pre-Christmas locks. Upsets do happen, fates don't align, narratives don't take hold and so on. But if there's one or two Oscars this year that I feel are most probable at this juncture, yea even unto lock-dom, it's not Best Actress Cate Blanchett (though she's in third place for "most likely"), but the visual effects and cinematography of Gravity

Famed DP Emmanuel Lubezki is a true genius not just a "genius" in the overindulgent fandom sense. His work is exquisitely lit and beautifully composed but never in quite the same way, each time his light beautifully enveloping and serving the film at hand.  If you think of it like vocal range he's a Mariah Carey/Cyndi Lauper 4 octave diva while most other DPs, even the really fine ones, are closer to the standard 2 octave pop stars. I've wanted him to win the Oscar so many times and I still consider it insane that he lost for both Children of Men (2006) and The Tree of Life (2011).

Oscar Trivia, Computer Trouble, and more after the jump

Lubezki's longtime friend/collaborator Alfonso Cuarón directing Clooney & Bullock

For a good long while he held quite a unique record that showed how much his peers understood his gift. Cinematography is a category that favors Best Picture nominees but for most of Lubezki's career he was winning nominations for films that did not receive that sort of attention. It wasn't until the Best Picture category began to allow more than five nominees that he managed to be nominated for a film in the running for Best Picture.

His Oscar Beauties

Lubezki's most lauded work... though the other films are beautiful, too

The Little Princess (1995), Sleepy Hollow (1999), The New World (2005), Children of Men (2006), The Tree of Life (2011) and soon... Gravity (2013) 

So I'm thrilled, just thrilled, that he seems certain to win his first golden man for his magnificent work on Gravity. I am not crazy about the film (my take is not meant to be contrarian and I wish so much that it wasn't since I love or like Cuarón, Lubezki, Bullock, Clooney, adult sci-fi, and female-driven narratives on principle if not always in execution) but his work is beyond and the best reason to see the film. 

So Oscar is giving but,  get to the point Nathaniel, what is Oscar taking away?

The Cinematography category is in deep jeopardy. Should Lubezki win his first statue on Oscar night it will yet again reveal the collapse of this category no matter how deserving he is. Should Gravity win this prize in March 2014 it will be the FIFTH CONSECUTIVE YEAR when a film took both the Visual Effects and the Cinematography statues in tandem following Avatar (2009), Inception (2010), Hugo (2011) and Life of Pi (2012). It would also mean that in four out of five years a 3-D picture won. If you ask me none of those previous four were deserving of the win, considering their strong competition, though in all cases the nomination was fully justifiable or at least made a kind of sense. In this way it doesn't matter that Lubezki will probably fully deserve that Oscar in March. What matters is that five consecutive years is no coincidence. It means that Oscar voters no longer appreciate the difference or care to separate the art of cinematography from what happens inside computers. I don't know how to fix this problem but I worry for the craft that it's come to this, that your film has to push the visual effects envelope and you have to be 3D for your DP to be considered Oscar-worthy.

Further Reading:
American Society of Cinematography interviews "Chivo" Lubezki 
Fox News Latino another interview 
Vulture five memorable Lubezki shots
Visual Charts Oscar Predictions 


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Reader Comments (38)

i see him finally winning this year and the odds favor him: the movie is (and will end up being) a box office hit, it's the kind of movie academy might embrace completely (so far i see 8-9 nominations) and lately the Academy is in love with movies with a great use of 3D (Hugo, Life of Pi, Inception)

October 8, 2013 | Unregistered Commentereduardo

I see your point, but I think it's not quite as easily comparmentalised as that because none of these films won JUST because of their visual effects, it sounds guileless but I think it's just a very lucky coincidence, that the AMPAS liked them generally. Especially considering since the immediate predecessor in 08 saw vfx (and superior, I'd argue) BENJAMIN BUTTON losing to SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. They were more in love with SM to fete Miranda at that time, but they liked his film enough in 12 to reward him.

(I'm also in the minority as thinking Richardson's prize for HUGO was greatly deserved, but that's probably another story. )

What makes this issue such a difficult one for me to cast judgement on either way is that by holding fast to non VFX enhanced cinematography suggests a potential attempt to keep the tide from turning, and exclude potentially good work in favour of holding on to tradition which I know is not what you're arguing for. Although, I admit, feeling significantly vexed by the adulation for Miranda's photography last year at the expense of very tradition overlooked work from people like Hoffmeister, Fraiser, Gautier, Tiryaki.)

Why, I'm ultimately, not very worried is I think if you're good enough to be nominated (and you say you think they were all nomination) you should be worthy of consideration for a win. I think the cards have just fallen in an odd way these past five years where director-oriented also-rans sweep the technical awards with cinematography being one of them.

(In a case like this though, I'm already worried for the bad press for the AMPAS whatever happens next year - they'll be damned if they do and then damned if they don't.)

October 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

andrew k -- i appreciate this and no, i'm not arguing that tradition is always better... just that computer effects are not the same thing as cinematography. But i don't think it's coincidence. Not for five consecutive years. I loved AVATAR unabashedly but that was animation. why did it win cinematography? it won because it was a technological breakthrough with computers / 3D. how many times do they need to keep rewarding technology? I was trying to be polite above. I would not have nominated all of those films for cinematography... but i understand the nominations. i get why and they did look good. but wins? over their competition? and ALL of them. that's crazy talk. ;)

my cinematography winners the past 4 years


October 8, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I know many had been criticizing the music branch for their strict and weird rule of which are original and which are not, and how much of the score are not original thus the films are disqualified. But now looking at this cinematography problem, I would say this branch needs the rule more. Maybe they can have some rules saying if your films are xx% CG visual effects then you are disqualified from the race? I'm not a movie making expert so maybe someone can fill in the xx for Gravity for me, but in whatever case I'm sure the xx will be much higher than the standard allowed if there is such a rule.

October 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPJ

Are you unprepared for the digitization of cinema? There's a documentary about the phasing out of film for feature film production: Side by Side. Have you seen it? You should be very aware and not ignore these things because you see things from an antiquated position.

October 8, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

I don't know I fI would totally count Inception in the same category on the others, considering how much Nolan used practical effects on it. But I do totally get the point. As pretty as it looked, and as good the 3D was on Hugo, there's no way The Tree Of Life should have lost that Oscar. That was legendary work.

October 8, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterpaco.

@Nathaniel. I was trying to be diplomatic too, LIFE OF PI or INCEPTION wouldn't make my top 20 of that year, but many people were crazy for both, though, not just AMPAS. (Especially of the former which had me way non-plussed.) And photography is changing.

I thought you were just talking about nominees, though. I mean, BRIGHT STAR of course for 09 but I think AVATAR has been remembered so poorly (not sure why); it was beautifully shot. And I have, on occasion, included animation in my favourite shot films (CORALINE). But to answer the question, it won because it was very loved that year, like LIFE OF PI was last year. (And, as I said I'm a HUGO man through and through.)

Still, GRAVITY may not even win so who knows. Streaks end just as suddenly as they start.

October 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

3rtful -- this has nothing to do with antiquated thinking. it has everything to do with valuing a plurality of experience and aesthetics. which is my governing philosophy when it comes to awardage. any category/awards show that only awards one type of thing is in danger of destroying itself.

film to digital is only a small portion of what I'm talking about. Only visual effects spectaculars are winning cinematography prizes. What it has to do is with genre and people feeling that only technological advances are worthy of prizes when it comes to the ways that images are captured and lit for cameras.

October 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

Am I the only person hoping for a double nomination for Lubezki (with To the Wonder as the other one?)? I agree with Nathaniel that you need to mix up your awardage in order to stay vital to the breadth of the industry. It's like how the Emmys for Reality Competition Show or Variety Series have lost all meaning because they go to the same show every year (well, not this year, but for a decade or so).

And for the record, my favorite cinematography from the past four years:

2009: The White Ribbon
2010: I Am Love
2011: The Tree of Life
2012: Killing Them Softly

October 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

I get what you're saying but Gravity is phenomenal-looking, and Lubezki is hugely owed. For either reason, but especially for both together, this just isn't a year where I'll be persuadable to get agitated on this issue.

October 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

Lubezki is so overdue and is widely considered to be fully deserving of a win this year (I can't chime in since I won't see the movie until next week) that I almost have a strange feeling that this will be the year that people start turning the Cinematography/Visual Effects thing into a media controversy, and Lubezki's Oscar will be in jeopardy. Realistically, the signs all point to him winning, but just I wouldn't be all that surprised if more and more article kept popping up bemoaning the current state of the Cinematography category, and as much as everyone thinks Lubezki could win, I wonder if it could cost him some votes just based on voters not wanting to reward another 3D/visual effects-laden film.

I know that's all a huge stretch and is unlikely to prevent El Chivo from finally winning an Oscar, but it's literally the only thing I can think of that would cause him to lose.

It's sad that Roger Deakins will probably have to do a 3D movie before he can win his Oscar too.

Just to join in the fun, here are my picks for Best Cinematography over the past 4 years:

2012- The Master
2011- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
2010- Shutter Island
2009- Where the Wild Things Are

October 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEdwin

Nat: I kind of agree. Hugo's the only one of those four that really makes ANY sense as a win, having enough footage that was clearly shot live to justify a cinematography prize and the imagery beautiful, crisp and interesting to net the win. Avatar and Life of Pi were pretty much ALL computers, but still good enough on the aesthetic level to semi justify the nom, but still not the win. Inception, though? Aside from the blatant VFX shots, it's ugly/generic workman stuff that should have been left on the cutting room floor, especially if they're supposed to be the five that manage to get the #1 votes.

October 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Edwin: Where the Wild Things Are is probably my cinematography pick for 2009 as well. As for this controversy, it's going to pop up, HUGE, the night after Oscar with the tone generally being "we're glad Lubezki finally won the Oscar, BUT...that film had barely anything to do with the ACTUAL discipline, not even MIXING VFX with the discipline of cinematography like Hugo, The Avengers or Jurassic Park."

October 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

It seems to me like an extension of the problem that's always affected this category, where prettiness or the most look-at-me! imagery gets awarded over those where the cinematography is really enhancing the film from innovative and effective ways. It's just that now, the bombast comes from films where effects can add to all the visual noise. It's the same problem as Best Costume Design, right? Best in the minds of the broader Academy = MOST.

October 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAlice

Argh, so many typos. Sorry!

I also think that the VFX/cinematography divide is really blurred for those of us who don't understand the technical behind-the-scenes side of filmmaking. How much input does the cinematographer get in how each frame turns out? How much interaction is there between them and the fx teams? There are heaps of fx-driven movies where the resulting look is mediocre, so clearly in the case of Gravity, Lubezki's input had a huge impact on what the aesthetics, the sequencing, the dynamism of each shot. I understand your frustration that one kind of genre is winning in this category (although as I outlined above, I just think this genre is an extension of an existing trend) but it's too hard IMO to clearly demarcate when a film's cinematography shouldn't be lauded because the majority of what's visually striking about it is the VFX.

October 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAlice

Good discussion, Nathaniel. This is kind of thing IS baffling. Not to take it off-topic, but I feel similarly about the Costume Design branch utterly refusing to nominate or reward contemporary and/or low-budget films. Anything with corsets and epaulets is automatically passed forward. I respect and appreciate the amount of work it takes to design and construct dozens of gowns and similar outfits for a movie about royalty, but come ON already.

I will give them credit for nominating foreign language films occasionally. There was an Italian film with La Tilda a few years ago nominated, but it's the ONLY ONE since "Priscilla" 20 years ago that could be called contemporary.

October 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterFilmTurtle

They're are few times I've been upset by the Oscars and Lubezki not getting jack for Tree of Life was one of those moments. Were people just supportive of Hugo as some special, warm ode to film history? Even if you were not Tree of Life, at least respect how immersive and intricate the cinematography was to the storytelling. There's not a gesture or frame I would change from that shot selection. Hugo's a different beast but I was just ambivalent toward the movie in a number of ways.

And the mentions of Killing Them Softly and Zero Dark Thirty cinematography snubs is a good reminder that Mr. Greig Fraser better not be in this same kind of situation years down the road.

October 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

It means that the people who complain about the Oscars won. It means the Academy are no longer honoring "the prettiest vistas" or whatever they'd complain about because stuffy period pieces would win, but now the ones with the computers are winning and it's exactly what they want.

2009: Bright Star
2010: I Am Love
2011: Meek's Cutoff
2012: Wuthering Heights
2013 (so far): Spring Breakers

Basically, give me a movie with isolated women and it's apparently got great cinematography,

October 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

The best way to fix this is to only allow voters to vote only in their respective categories. Only Best Picture and Best Director should be allowed to be voted by all.

October 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterThe Infamous

This is the 3-D world we live in now - like it or not. Lubezki deserves to win and so far this year, I will be rooting for him (can't imagine that any coming film will change my mind). Every scene in Gravity that wasn't a special effect, but driven by the actual camera work was perfect. I understand your point and agree with it completely, but I think you need to go one more year with this trend before demanding change from the voters. I think I could make a case for Hugo and Life Of Pi, but I think Avatar and Inception didn't deserve the wins. However, this one does. I walked out of Gravity thinking that if this film doesn't win Best Cinematography and Special Effects at The Oscars, then I will never pay attention to them again (that won't really happen though). He deserves this for the work in this film as well as all the amazing work he's done before.

October 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTallsonofagun

tallsonofagun & nick -- but this is EXACTLY what i'm tlaking about. oscar giveth. oscar taketh away. I also think this work is very deserving and exquisit and Lubezki is clearly one of the best DPs that ever lived and has deserved to win multiple times.

But really. Does this mean that Deakins, Prieto, Young, Frasier and all the other talented DPs who can't manage a win or a nomination are going to have to make a 3d visual fx extravaganza to pass muster? That's disgusting to me!

Film Turtle -- this is not actually true, though yes it is rare. There's always Devil Wears Prada and The Queen! The weird thing is i interview costume designers and they always complain about the lack of nominations for contemporary pieces but they're the ones that are voting so isn't it their own problem? Maybe we'll see a change now that costume designers have their own branch.

October 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

"If you think of it like vocal range he's a Mariah Carey/Cyndi Lauper 4 octave diva"

We all love Cyndi, Nathaniel, but come on...adjectivizing her jointly with Mariah Carey just doesn't work on ANY level.

October 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHayden W

I don't get this category. They ignore some of the best cinematographers ever: Deakins, Lubezki, Deschanel. Sometimes they know the guy is a genius, but reward him for the wrong movies (like Richardson not winning for Snow Falling on Cedars or Shutter Island, or Dion Beebe being ignored for his work with Michael Mann). Sometimes they simply fall in love with overrated DPs, like Pfister. It's like everything is wrong!

I hate that they don't usually go for contemporary work, like, for example, can you believe Lost in Translation wasn't even nominated? And I hate when they have the perfect chance to reard a genius for the right movie and they pass, like The Tree of Life, Jesse James, The Passion of the Christ,Girl with a Pearl Earring...

October 9, 2013 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Nathaniel -- but you make your point about "Oscar giveth. Oscar taketh away" first by dishing out the examples of Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep. By contrast this isn't the kind of situation where people feel Lubezki is finally winning for something that isn't his best. The camerawork, compositions AND lighting in Gravity are groundbreaking. In fact Lubezki's work suggests how much a gifted DP can offer to a digital feature without losing what's vital to his craft.

October 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterColin

Read this article on the VFX of "Gravity": But let me post here for emphasis the cinematography part:

For most of the sequences the team needed to completely previs everything before they started or else they would not know where the light needed to come from or have images they could use. “We spent quite a lot of time on the previs and then Chivo (DOP Emmanuel Lubezki) became involved and we did a pre-light,” explains Webber. “It became the blurring of the line between visual effects and cinematography. There was a great cross-over and there was no firm line. He got much more involved in visual effects than cinematographers ever get. And I got much more involved in the cinematography than visual effects supervisors ever get. Because in a movie like this there is no clarity between those two.”

‘Chivo’ was involved from fairly early on, he went to the UK and did previs and pre-lighting with the Framestore team for weeks. “We were very lucky that Chivo was the cinematographer,” states Webber, “not just because he is a brilliant cinematographer, but because he was also very willing and able to get his head around working through a different methodology to one he normally works in. We went to a lot of trouble to make it as lighting like in the real world as possible.”

October 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterIrvin

I agree with those who are faulting voter ignorance. VFx films can have amazing cinematography-- the lighting in Hugo (though I wouldn't have voted for it) is absolutely beautiful. Who cares if it was done digitally? Other times, it seems that the action was more a cause for the win than the actual photography. That's the real problem to me.

October 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

@Nathaniel -- AGH, naturally I missed two more obvious examples of contemporary nominees. But, still, that's only four examples in 20 years? You're right that things might change now that costumers have their own branch.

October 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterFilmTurtle

Irvin: But is that cinematography or should his name also be engraved on the Special Effects Trophy if he's that involved?

October 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Hayden -- i dont get why? people never shut up about Mariah's vocal range and people used to never shut up about Cyndi's so depending on your age range that's what 4 octaves symbolizes ;)

Colin -- perhaps those were bad examples. but i couldn't think of example this specific as in "even though the win will be hugely deserved it points to / underlines a terrible problem anyway"

October 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

This topic reminds me of years ago when the disaster movie The Towering Inferno stirred the flames of controversy when it won an Oscar for its cinematography (also for editing). A different kinds of effects film--back at the dawn of time when filmmakers used models, mattes, and real fire and water--beat out The Godfather Part II and Chinatown for the statue. I am a staunch defender of Fred Koenekamp's win, as I think his work is one of the finest examples of pure old-style Hollywood craftsmanship in service of a true blockbuster, one that has heart and not a deposit box. And in this case, his work seamlessly flowed through the action setpieces, creating balance as well as dramatic impact.

Nathan, your points are well-taken about CGI and digital advances muddying the waters when it comes to enjoying and evaluating today's cinematography. I'm afraid the tail is starting to wag the dog.

October 9, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

PS. Nathan, that pic of yours at the top really scares me!

October 9, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Eh, I think it's just a matter of education. Right now it seems as though the voters are defaulting to the "most flashy" category. It reminds me of Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing. I mean for years that seemed to just be "most noisy," but last year the voters seemed to understand that one category was for sound on the day of filming, and the other was for sound added in later. Hence, Les Mis won for the former just for getting that "new" technique of live singing done correctly.

It will probably take a few articles/years of education to help people understand one is for the photography on the day of, and the other is for the stuff added in? At least that's how I think of it.

October 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

Are we going to have the same conversation next year when Noah comes out and Matthew Libatique is up for his deserved Oscar. It seems like that movie is going to have quite a bit of VFX too.

October 9, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterpaco.

NR-isn't the deglam angle a more apt analogy? One would argue that, say, Theron deserved her Oscar but the fact that for the third year in a row (and there'd be one more after that) a beautiful woman won her Oscar for daring to be ugly is similar to this situation.

October 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

I've been having fits about this all week. I've complained a lot, in a lot of places, about the Avatar cinemtaography win especially., but none of the three CGI-gasm wins have made me terrifically happy (Inception doesn't make me happy either, but for other reasons entirely).

But on the other hand, cinematography isn't just about putting up lights and capturing whatever is in front of the camera. Focus, lens width, camera movement, framing - all decisions either completely or mostly up to the DP, depending on the obnoxiousness of the director. And the choices Lubezki made are still about the end result of those things, even though they were manipulated by keystrokes and not an AC fiddling with a ring on the camera, and they are still BRILLIANT choices. The VFX is about the execution of his choices in the most photorealistic way possible. (I'm reminded of the boring nerd conversations I had in 2008 about WALL-E having some of the year's best cinematography, regardless of how it got that way).

Still, the AMPAS general membership is almost certainly not thinking about any of this; they're thinking "ooh, that looks pretty and shiny!" It's the 21st Century equivalent to how Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography always went together (and let's be fair, Avatar and Life of Pi won VFX for the production design, anyway), and when it gets things right by accident, it's still not where I want this category to be.

That all being said, I don't care what Lubezki wins for at this point, as long as he has a f***ing Oscar. I am totally a fanboy, and proud of it.

October 9, 2013 | Registered CommenterTim Brayton

Great post. My winners going back to when Lubezki should have won (only from other noms):

2006 - Children of Men
2007 - There Will Be Blood
2008 - The Dark Knight
2009 - The White Ribbon
2010 - I buy arguments for Social Network/True Grit/Black Swan
2011 - Tree of Life
2012 - Skyfall

October 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul

I agree with every word you've written.

That Avatar win in particular was ludicrous (and still stings). If they wanted to award it for its technological breakthrough, that's an honorary Oscar, not a cinematography Oscar.

I haven't seen Gravity yet and I wouldn't be shocked to find that Lubezki has indeed delivered this year's best cinematography. And I'm certainly not averse to 3D blockbusters getting awards for their lighting/composition/etc.

But things like Hugo beating Tree of Life (in any category, for that matter) or Avatar beating Bright Star and The White Ribbon just aren't justifiable, any way you look at it.

October 10, 2013 | Unregistered Commentergoran

Yeah, it's not that GRAVITY or PI or HUGO aren't necessarily not worthy of the win, but do we really think Academy members are taking into consideration how the DPs worked alongside the VFX crews? Justify the great cinematography all you like, but it seems foolish to think the voters are paying attention to the actual ins and outs of it.

October 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

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