Oscar History

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Entries in WALL•E (5)



Dancin' Dan here to continue TFE's Artificial Intelligence Week with a little something on my favorite dancing robots.

If there’s a common thread in stories of artificial intelligence, it’s that we can think that we, the programmers/creators, can control it all we like, but if we’re truly successful - if we succeed in creating actual artificial intelligence - we can’t do a damn thing to control it. It will grow and learn and eventually decide things for itself.

In Pixar’s masterpiece WALL•E, we don’t know exactly how our hero gained what for lack of a better word we have to call a “personality,” but we can imagine. Human ingenuity can do a lot of things, but one thing it is notoriously terrible at, on the whole, is predicting the future correctly. Which, coincidentally, is one of the ideas at the heart of Pixar’s masterpiece. [More...]

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Curio: Cinemadoodles

Alexa here. I'm a big fan of the doodle as an art form. In school I was often drawing in the margins of my notebooks, dreaming of a movie that helped me mentally escape class (Tony Manero was a favorite fantasy).  I also love Nathaniel's sketches, doodled in the dark while watching a movie (his Drive sketches were especially evocative). So I've had fun flipping through The Striking Viking's etsy shop. Shop owner Nick sketches movie scenes and celebrities with his left hand, and they are alternately hilarious and striking.  Makes you wish more film critics would publish their notebooks, no?

Wall-EKristen Stewart

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Distant Relatives: Modern Times and WALL•E

Robert here with my series Distant Relatives, which explores the connections between one classic and one contemporary film. This week we jump into the admittedly pointless but always fun Chaplin vs. Keaton debate and contrast it with the Pixar vs Dreamworks animation debate. The important thing is to remember that you can love all of these films and it's not a competition.

But if it were a competition (and it's not), we start with Chaplin and Pixar because they're the obvious frontrunners. By that I don't mean that they're better, but they have the name recognition, the marketing, the cultural branding. Chaplin built for himself an image that now almost a century after his first shorts, is still recognizable. Pixar meanwhile, in just over fifteen years in the feature business has introduced a slew of films and characters that have become iconic. While quality is mostly the cause, it doesn't hurt to have most of your films named after their title characters (why Nemo will always be more recognizable than Carl Fredricksberg). So, Chaplin and Pixar are both heavyweights. They share that. They also share a sense of style and innovation, a desire to elevate their genre beyond it's conventional expectations, a love of traditional arcs, and a soft spot for over-sentimentalization.

Lovelorn tramps in the future

Among the Pixar canon, the best film for our Chaplin comparison is WALLE because, well a fair portion of its marketing to the online film geek world involved the constant reminder that animators took much inspiration from Charlie Chaplin, although the connections were already pretty evident. To put it another way: you didn't have to read an article on the Chaplin/WALLE inspiration to see it, but you probably did. WALLE follows a hapless, lonely, poor protagonist who falls in love and must suddenly achieve something great to get the girl while simultaneously getting the girl to achieve something great. It's one of the few Pixar films that places a strong emphasis on its romantic plot, and WALL•E himself, the nearly silent, occationally prat-falling protagonist is the perfect Chaplin descendent. So WALLE is an easy choice, but why Modern Times?

Modern Times
is unique among Chaplin's films in that a unusually strong focus is placed on the source of The Tramp's discontent. In most other films, The Tramp is a generic vagrant, downtrodden for many unnamed reasons. In Modern Times, he's not a vagabond, he's a worker. His oppressor isn't whatever bully or police brute or aristocrat might be antagonizing him that scene, it's the whole out-of-control industrial complex. It's the giant face of the uncaring corporate class. Yes, it's undeniably political. And so is WALLE. As much as Pixar attempted to quell controversy, insisting that any politics present were simply there to serve the story, there's no escaping the fact that WALL•E's oppressor is also a giant corporation that cares far less for its workers (in WALLE's case robots) than for its image and its profits.

Romance and politics and a happy ending.

For both films controversy was unavoidable, and in both cases the filmmaker's weren't shy about subtley commenting on what they were stirring up. A scene in Modern Times where The Tramp inadvertantly leads a communist parade and ends up cast out from society was prescient in regard to Chaplin's eventual career. As for WALLE, it's hard not to see a sly wink to that year's upcoming US presidential election in a scene where the whole of humanity decides that "blue is the new red." Yet, overtly political as they are, both films do a good job of avoiding platitudes and focusing their attention on their little man main characters whose humanities are being crushed under the threat of their brave new world. Of course, throughout it all, love prevails. Love, that great cinematic motivator, proves that our heroes are more than just cogs in a machine, and capable of doing great things; little great things in the case of The Tramp or big great things in the case of WALL•E.


This is probably the most significant thematic difference between the two films. Chaplin's Tramp wants to get the girl, but WALL•E is tasked with getting the girl and saving the world. Of course, WALLE's plot gives the film no other choice. Perhaps it the modern mindset that demands a whole world-saving happy ending, or perhaps it was impossible to place that old trash compator WALL•E in a trash-ridden world and not expect him to exceed in the biggest scale imaginable. Either way, Chaplin's film can leave the world a mess while Pixar's cannot. Still, both films serve up a decent serving of uncertainty for their finales, emphasizing that the real important goal, the pursuit of love, has been met and the rest will somehow be okay. Sentimental yet socially conscious, Modern Times and WALLE are brethren that aim to entertain and enlighten and propell their lovable protagonists into a satisfying future.

Other Cinematic Relatives: Meet John Doe (1941), The Apartment (1960), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Avatar (2009)


Reader Spotlight: Chris

Continuing the weekly or twice weekly series of reader spotlights. Today's reader is Chris a Midwestern reader with a great sense of humor who started reading TFE in his senior year of high school back in the mid Aughts and never stopped. That's the way we like it, the never-stopping part.

Nathaniel: Do you remember your first moviegoing experience or first movie obsession?
CHRIS: I'm pretty sure it was The Little Mermaid, because I have a distinct memory of Ursula's entrance. I can't remember my first movie obsession, because there have been so many. Probably the biggest was the summer that Moulin Rouge! and Hedwig and the Angry Inch came out. I flipped for both movies individually, but collectively they made me feel like musicals were back for good.

Take one Oscar away and give it to someone else.
I have to go with two on this one (and I'd take them away from double winners actually): First, I'd give Sean Penn's Mystic River Oscar to Bill Murray for Lost in Translation, because Murray gave a career-defining performance and, let's be honest, Penn was light years better in Milk anyway. Second, I'd give Hilary Swank's second Oscar to Kate Winslet for Eternal Sunshine, because it's her best work and Hilary Swank was the weakest performance in the category by a mile!

You're suddenly in charge of world cinema for a year! How do you you wield this awesome power?
I'd get rid of the whole "Oscar movie" release pattern! I hate that having to wait all year for the quality movies, and then try to cram in far too many movies into too little time. Plus, living in the crappy midwest means most of the smaller films don't stick around and I have to rush to see them ASAP anyway.

Have you ever dressed as a movie character for Halloween? And has a movie character ever dressed as you?

I went as Wall•E. Made it myself, too! On the flip side, Joseph Gordon-Levitt totally raided my wardrobe in (500) Days of Summer.

Chris makes his own costumes. JGL steals his look! 

Three Favorite Actresses?
Only 3 is so not fair! I'd have to go with Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Laura Linney.

Name your favorite movie in the following five genres: musical, drama, scifi, horror, woody allen. Go!
Aladdin, Boogie Nights, Children of Men, The Shining, Interiors. Most of those are hard to narrow down just to one, but I was half tempted to put The Room as one that fits all these categories. Jokes!

Previous Reader Spotlights: Peter, Ziyad, Andrew, Yonatan, Keir, Kyle, Jamie, Vinci, Victor, Bill, Hayden, Dominique, Murtada, Cory, Walter, Paolo, Leehee and BBats



Interview: Roger Deakins, The Man With the Golden Light

Sometimes when prepping for interviews you can jot down film titles and pick a few key bits to ask about. Every filmography will yield a few rich areas for potential questions. But what to do when the filmography is so imposing. To read Roger Deakins filmography is to become lost, not in titles and potential avenues of discussion, but in images. It's hard to concentrate when your mind's eye flies from the white snow of Fargo to the shadowy menace of A Beautiful Mind's paranoid bits, to the rich color of Kundun, to the desolate dusty beauty of both Jarhead and WALL•E and on through hi recent string of westerns. And that's just scratching the surface of the images that the filmography calls to mind. In cinematography, Roger Deakins has few peers.

Roger Deakins and True Grit, which won him his ninth Oscar nomination

So, if I struggled for questions, it was still a treat to talk to a living legend. We started at the most logical place, his collaborative relationship with the Coen brothers. True Grit is their tenth film together. Since they began working together Deakins has rarely been absent (Burn After Reading was shot by Emmanuel Lubezki).

Nathaniel: You've been working with the Coen brothers since Barton Fink (1991). Obviously that's been a fruitful partnership. How did it start? 

Deakins: I met with them in London before Fink and their regular cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld had gone off to directing so they were looking for somebody.

Nathaniel: What convinced them then?

Deakins:  I think they'd seen Sid & Nancy and 1984. I think the variation in what I'd been doing was something they noticed, that they responded to.

[Note: Deakins career began with documentaries but by the mid 80s he was working in British features, often with the director Michael Radford. The Coen brothers weren't the first directors to monopolize his impressive visual gifts.]

Nathaniel: How early do the Coens bring you into each new project?

Deakins: Usually quite early but it depends on the project. In some cases i've been working on something else right up until they start shooting. For instance with The Big Lebowski, I didn't have much prep at all because I was off in Morocco doing [Martin Scorsese's] Kundun. Usually I like a lot of prep.

On True Grit we were scouting quite a lot before shooting. The more time you spend -- especially scouting and looking at locations and talking about the script -- it's time well spent. You get to understand what the director is really after.

Nathaniel: Obviously the relationship with the director is prime but what about the art directors. Do you have input into the sets? How much back and forth is there?

Deakins: Quite a bit, absolutely. It's a discussion really. Sometimes you need some adaption on a set. Even if it's a simple set, like where Rooster (Jeff Bridges) was bedding down in the back of the grocer's store. I just wanted a certain kind of light in that set and Jess Gonchor [nominated for Art Direction] came up with the idea of that type of window we used. It was cobbled together to facilitate the lighting that I wanted in there. It's a collaboration really to figure out how it's done. I have been on films where I've been on a set with no windows. You go well… [indicating frustration] There's no reason. It wasn't an aesthetic choice. The designer just didn't put any windows. That's restricting.

Nathaniel: One of the showiest bits in True Grit, in terms of your work is the courtroom scene early in the film. Do the Coens decide everything about camera placement and you're just working on the lighting?

Deakins: It does depend. The Coen's storyboard everything so actually the camera placement is worked out [before shooting]. But we've discussed it in prep and then they storyboard it. And we walk through the locations and talk about which angles might work and I talk about the way I can make the light feel in the room.  I remember in the courtroom we had this  discussion about where the witness stand would be and where the jury box would be within that space and it had a lot to do with the lighting that  I could bring to it for the final image.

Nathaniel: You've done quite a few westerns lately: No Country For Old Men, True Grit, The Assassination of Jesse James. Was that a conscious direction? Is it a genre you respond to visually?

Deakin: [Happily] It's a lot of luck! When Joel and Ethan were saying they were writing a script for No Country 'If we like it we might direct.' I said 'You've got to, you've got to!' I just thought it was such a wonderful piece and then to get the chance to do The Assassination... after that? I was really lucky.

Nathaniel: The Assassination of Jesse James is so focused on its images, too. Far more than your average movie.

Deakins: That was much more of a poem, a meditation on the period and character. A very different kind of movie. It came from the book. It's a historical book, a piece of history, but it's done in a lyrical way.

Nathaniel: When you get a project like that as a cinematographer, do you just start salivating? [Laughter]

Deakins: Kind of, yeah. When I read the book,  the original material -- Yeah absolutely, you die to do a film like that. The moods you can create, the mood it's demanding you create in the visuals. Andrew Dominick had such a firm idea of where he waned to go with that visually, how far he wanted to push it. It was quite a challenge and an exciting challenge.

Nathaniel: The movie is stunning. I'm curious about working with actors. Are they props to be lit or do they have input in how they're shot.

Deakins: Well I mean in terms of blocking and how the camera is recording what they're doing and interpreting, there is to and fro. It depends on the actor and the director and the feel of the set, the way that set works. It can be a collaboration.

Nathaniel: You read a lot of Old Hollywood stories about stars demanding to be shot in certain ways.  Like they're very invested in how they're shot and from only certain angles.

Deakins: I'm afraid I'm not very tolerant of that sort of thing! [Thinking about it...] It's a matter of trust. I think a big part of the cinematographer's job is creating a space where the actor feels comfortable to do their work. I don't want an actor to think i'm filming them in a ugly way. You do the best for them, there's trust both ways. They need to be able to trust you.

Nathaniel: How about more actor-focused films?  I'm thinking of films you've shot like Passion Fish or Dead Man Walking, those are very much performance pieces. Do you have to do more tests with the actors on films that are so focused on faces? Do you have to approach that differently?

Deakins: No, not really. I seem to remember we did quite a few tests with Sean Penn on Dead Man Walking just to get his look right and stuff. But it's not different. It's always about the performance. To me that's the most important thing. You have to give the actor space to do that. If you haven't got a performance you haven't got a film. It doesn't matter how pretty the images are, they mean nothing. It's really important.

And especially on something like Dead Man Walking which is a very intense piece you do really want to be in the background, in terms of the crew and how much you impose on the scene. It's a delicate balance really. It's still a visual medium so you have to do your part.

Nathaniel: I'm wondering if you enjoy a minimalist aesthetic?  To me, True Grit and Fargo both feel...

Deakins: It's interesting how minimalist True Grit is, isn't it? It was quite a complicated piece to do, really. It comes across as very simple in terms of composition and carmera movements.

Nathaniel: But do you personally like it sparse?

Deakins: I like simplicity but that whole idea  comes more from Joel and Ethan than from me. It's fueled by the script and their approach to it. The nature of this piece is the idea that it's this young girl's story. That's why it's so minimalist.

[Considering...] i think in terms of the development of what Joel & Ethan havebeen doing, the films have become more minimalist camera wise. Certainly more minimalist than what we were doing on The Hudsucker Proxy. It's not immaterial but the camera was much more a character within it. Whereas … well it's the material. You don't want the camera to be a character in something like True Grit. It really is in the background.

Nathaniel: What about Fargo? Was it hard to shoot snow since it's so reflective?

Deakins: The hard thing about Fargo is we didn't have any snow! A lot of the snow had to be manufactured. It was a really cold winter but it was one of those winters that was so cold that it didn't snow. Arctic air. It was frustrating.

Nathaniel: Lately you've had this little diversion into animated films. You've been consulting...

Deakins: Yeah, it's interesting isn't it? It's becoming a bit more than a diversion, actually. It's a full time thing I do now. Between doing live action films i'm actually working at Dreamworks. It came about first -- Pixar asked me do a couple of seminars about lighting. It sort of developed. Andrew Stanton asked me to get involved in WALL•E . That was only really at the beginning just conceptually talking about it and, how to bring the feel of live action movie to the film, the way the camera moves and interprets the action. I talked to them about lighting and the mood of the thing. After that Dreamwoks, asked me to get nvolved in How To Train Your Dragon. I was involved in that all the way through for 14 months going up there regularly.

Nathaniel: I guess my choice of words was way off, then. It's not a diversion.

Deakins: It's not, really. It's a really interesting aspect of what I can do. It really is that I'm a visual consultant. They do it all but I go in and talk to them and exchange ideas. It's really fun. The two disciplines of animations and live action do seem to be colliding. You look at something like Avatar or whatever: How much is live action and how much is animation? You can't really say that's a live action film.

Nathaniel: I do wonder that about your profession. I've noticed in so many movies lately, not yours in particular, but in general that the image looks really processed.

Deakins: A lot is. You'd be surprised how many shots in True Grit were actually retouched or something digitally: a road in a landscape you have to take out, when Mattie was in the tree cutting down the hanging man, there's all that wire removal. Not big things like the creation of whole cities or something but still a lot of digital tweaks.

Nathaniel: Which film would you call your most challenging job?

Deakins: I don't know. They're all challenging really. Even the simple ones you kind of want to push to some extent and it suddenly becomes challenging. You think 'Oh this will be a nice little summer shoot and suddenly you find out  'ohmygod', you know?  Everyone was saying 'True Grit. Three characters on horse back riding throughout the west.' You think, well, 'oh nice summer shoot in Santa Fe' and then you realize that half of it is interiors and that half of the exteriors are at night! It's actually really complicated. And horseback -- people charging on horseback. 

The hardest thing really in recent memory was doing that whole sequence with the horse Blackie galloping through the night.

Nathaniel: And that scene makes the movie.

Deakins: It's quite emotional really, isn't it? But the idea of how do you do a tracking shot of a horse at night and the horse just happens to be black [Laughter] It's kind of tricky. [Indicating directive]  'A galloping horse at night. And he's black.' And I'm kind of 'What else can you throw at me?'

Nathaniel: How about your next film? It's called Now (2011). From Andrew Niccol of Gattaca fame. That film was so interesting visually. Will this film have a similar aesthetic?

Deakins: I know Gattaca quite well. I think it's got elements of Gattaca in a way. It's sort of similar in mood and feel and being a futuristic parable.

As we closed up our conversations I wanted to broach the topic of Oscar, which I immediately sensed was a topic he's always asked about. In truth he seems more at peace with it than his fans. His long history of nominations without wins is well known. What's less well known is that he is one of only twelve men to ever receive so many nominations in the category and he's the only living member of that frequently honored club. Only one of those men before him went Oscar-less. That was George J Folsey who shot classic musicals like Meet Me in St. Louis and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers was nominated an apparently unlucky 13 times. Folsey, like Deakins, even managed a double nomination. (Deakins double came for the 2007 duo: Jesse James and No Country, Folsey managed it twice but in the years of two separate cinematography categories for color and black and white films.) But hope springs eternal and many believe that with his gorgeous stark vision in True Grit his winning time has finally come.

Nathaniel: Are you exhausted by people wishing you well each time you're nominated. Or saying "it's your year!"?

Deakins: [Laughter] No, it's kind of all right. It's fun.

Nathaniel: Have you been to the Oscars each and every time?

Deakins: [Thinking...] Yeah, I have actually! [Laughter] So I'm quite used to sitting there. It's all right. The film is still the film. It doesn't make any difference.

Nathaniel: I'm always saying that: Great films are their own rewards.

Deakins: They absolutely are.

[want more interviews?]