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Know Your Oscar Nominees: Cinematographers

Like the Globes, the Oscars can be overwhelming. And while you may feel comfortable trying your hand at predictions for Best Picture or Best Director, the technical categories (that is, Cinematography, Film Editing, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing and Visual Effects) can prove a little more difficult. So difficult in fact, that for some, the arrival of each February has come to mean a new imposing challenge to your cinematic knowledge. Luckily, The Credits is here to help you fill out your ballots confident and impress your Oscar party guests with the low down on the best, if obscure, contenders. That's why we've covered them all—film editing, sound editing and mixing, and visual effects, leaving cinematography as our last technical category.

Perhaps one of the most contentious technical fields this year is the race for cinematography, which pits many previous nominees against each other, including a DP with 13 nominations under his belt and another with 3 wins. But what exactly is this category honoring? Cinematographers, or DPs (directors of photography) are largely in charge of determining and capturing the look of the film, representing and organizing the camera crew on the project and for achieving the artistic and technical aspects of the film. Often the cinematographer is the director’s right hand in achieving the unique look of a film. This year, the Academy chose five cinematographers from five films that have not lacked for buzz: Edward Lachman for Carol, Robert Richardson for The Hateful Eight, John Seale for Mad Max: Fury Road, Emmanuel Lubezki for The Revenant and Roger Deakins for Sicario. Stay tuned for film-by-film insight, including history of the cinematographer nominated, technical specs on the film and shooting details and insights.

The last time Edward Lachman was staring down the barrel of an Oscar statue was twelve years ago for another Haynes drama, this one Far From Heaven, a Sirkian tribute to the melodramatic films of the fifties. And while Lachman has been working with Haynes ever since, it wasn’t until this year when the frequent collaborator snagged his second nomination, this time for his lyrical work on Carol.

Visual References: Though Far From Heaven was obviously influenced by the films of Douglas Sirk, Carol was conceived without any direct reference to cinematic history. “[With Carol] we’re representing and looking at the cultural and visual signifiers of the time,” Lachman confided to Variety. “So, yes, we actually looked at mid-century photographers who were photojournalists…. starting to experiment in color.” In fact, Phyllis Nagy, the screenwriter of the film who we spoke to earlier this month, made the important change from Patricia Highsmith’s original novel, upon which the film was based, to transform Therese (played by Rooney Mara) from a production designer to a photographer, allowing Lachman to play with the themes of film capture and the practice of photography.

Shooting Details: Though not the only nominated cinematographer to be shoot on film, Carol was the only one shot on super 16mm, a 16 millimeter format that allows for a wider aspect ratio than other kinds of film, and a stock that allows much of the film grain to stand out. “Even 35mm negative is so grainless that it almost looks digital,” Lachman explained. “When you shoot digitally they can add grain to the film, but it doesn’t operate the same way. Grain moves. I like to feel a pulsing of something living underneath the surface of the image… Like looking at a photograph from the past.”

Chances of Winning: Without an accompanying Best Picture or Director nomination, Lachman’s chances of taking home a statue are pretty thin, despite his impressive work and previous nomination.

For a film that almost never made it to screen, the publicity of The Hateful Eight has largely surrounded its celluloid reality. Namely, Tarantino’s 70mm roadshow, which was designed to showcase the film’s massive aspect ratio and Panavision lenses despite the film’s relatively simple setting. Robert Richardson has been Tarantino’s go-to cinematographer since Kill Bill Vol. 1 and if anyone was up to the job of resurrecting a film style scrapped fifty years before with the epic Ben Hur, it was he, the three-time Oscar winner responsible for JFK, The Aviator and Hugo.

Visual References: Considering his status as a well-known film buff (or obsessive, depending on who you ask), it’s inconceivable that Tarantino could make a film without obvious references to other works. With The Hateful Eight standing as his first official foray into the Western (though there are clear touches in Django Unchained and the Kill Bill series) the film featured visual references to John Ford’s Stagecoach in its opening sequence, and directly refers to Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller in its scaled down setting.

Shooting Details: Though the film has since become all but defined by its visual quirks, Richardson’s original concept for the film wasn’t so unique. "We went in thinking we were going to shoot standard format for 65mm and one day Dan Sasaki [Panavision VP of optical engineering] was showing us standard Panavision lenses for 65mm and while looking at them I… saw this shelf filled with odd-shaped lenses [triangular with prisms]. They were Ultra Panavision lenses," Richardson told Indiewire. Choosing the lenses meant shooting with an aspect ratio of 2.76:1, the widest aspect ratio cinema has to offer.

Chances of Winning: Considering neither Tarantino nor the film itself are up for any big prizes besides a nod for screenplay, Richardson’s valiant and historic effort looks unlikely to take home the gold.

It would be difficult to find a more frequently snubbed nominee than Roger Deakins, a man who’s just hit a record 13 nods without a win, and the DP behind Skyfall, Fargo and The Shawshank Redemption (among countless others). Back with his frequent collaborator Denis Villeneuve, Deakins is up for the win this year with Sicario, a thriller that’s as visually as it is thematically suspenseful that employs night vision, thermal imaging and digital photography to form an intimate thriller that has Deakins’ fingerprints all over it.

Visual References: Both Villeneuve and Deakins approached the film with specific cinematic references, but while the director Akira Kurosawa would be the appropriate place to start, Deakins saw the New Wave king Jean-Pierre Melville as a more clear directorial connection. “The idea of Seven Samurai is you get these long-held moments and suddenly there’s action: boom, boom, boom!” he told TheWrap. “Melville is quite similar, especially Red Circle. The tension builds from something that seems very normal. It’s about composition, holding the shot. The pacing and action are very naturalistic, because it’s so fast and brutal.”

Shooting Details: Though the cinematographer prefers a single camera mode of shooting, that didn’t stop Deakins from using many different modes of photography including the ALEXA digital camera, night vision systems and a thermal imaging camera known as an FLIR. But the DP was sure to prioritize theme over style, making sure suspense ruled the film. “Denis is a very visual director,” Deakins explained to Filmmaker Magazine. “He’s very into trying to create something more than what is on the page… It’s very tense and it’s very deliberately building that tension. Sometimes we were building that by an image of the dust in the sunlight…You’re watching the shot and you’re wondering what’s going to happen now.”   

Chances of Winning: Considering Sicario didn’t receive many nominations across the board, it might seem easy to push aside the chance for Deakins’ win. However, with the cinematographer’s impressive nomination history, it seems wrong to count Deakins out too soon.

For a cinematographer who is supposed to be retired, John Seale has certainly been a busy man this year. The DP, who won a statue for his work on The English Patient had entered into retirement by 2012. But when fellow Aussie George Miller came to him with elaborate storyboards and a vision, it was almost impossible for the cinematic veteran to say no. And thus, Mad Max: Fury Road, audience favorite and surprise Oscar darling, was born.

Visual References: Fury Road was famously conceived by Miller over years of conceptualization, leading to thousands of small storyboarded images complete with extensive information on each of the characters in the film. “Every scene and shot was intricate,” Seale explained to Filmmaker Magazine. “It’s a very fast cut film. There’s not one shot that doesn’t pay its way.”

Shooting Details: For a film with such a complex look, it’s no surprise that the shoot required many kinds of cameras. The one that did most of the heft? “The EDGE camera,” Seale confided. “That’s a piece of camera equipment which is built in America. It’s a Toyota Tundra truck with a big engine in it with a lot of carbon fiber mudguards. It has a stabilized crane on the roof which has a stabilized camera on the end of it. It’s the most awesome piece of filmmaking machine I’ve seen in my life.” And though the film was released in both 3D and 2D, Miller and Seale only shot in 2D after running into issues with their own self-designed 3D cameras.

Chances of Winning: Pretty minimal. Despite Mad Max’s Best Picture nomination, it seems clear to most involved that Miller was the mastermind behind most of the look of the film. And though John Seale would be a worthy winner, the Academy is much likely to go the route of Deakins or Lubezki.

Since his first win in 2013 for Cuaron’s Gravity, Emmanuel Lubezki has all but been crowned king of the cinema by the Academy, and for good reason. The DP, who won last year with Inarritu’s seamless Birdman is looking to three-peat with his stunning frontier revenge thriller The Revenant.

Visual References: “We knew that we wanted the movie to be incredibly immersive,” Lubezki told The Daily Beast. “We wanted the movie to feel visceral… naturalistic.” In order to achieve that, Lubezki used a combination of wide lenses and natural light. “[I]t allows us to get very close to the actors but still see the environment surrounding them,” he told Deadline. “The lens is so wide that I have to be very close to Leo…When I’m getting a close-up. It’s almost like feeling his life.”

Shooting Details: When listening to the description of the set from Lubezki, it sounds as though he an Inarritu were hell-bent on creating one of the most challenging shooting scenarios imaginable. They decided on three shooting tenets: shoot in chronological order; use natural light only; and continue to develop the long takes they began to work on in Birdman. All of which, of course, they did. In order to combat the difficult conditions, Lubezki had no choice but to shoot with digital: specifically, the ARRI ALEXA 65. “I felt this was my divorce from film — finally,” explained Inarritu. “The idea of using natural light came because we wanted the audience to feel, I hope, that this stuff is really happening,” he explained to Variety. But he wasn’t immune to the harsh and freezing conditions. “You have to learn how to manage your energy, because you want to use it to shoot the movie,” he says. Meanwhile, “your body is starting to say, ‘Go back to the hotel! … Go back to the hotel!’ ” We’re all glad he didn’t.

Chances of Winning: Lubezki is the odds-on favorite for this one. Besides his two previous wins, the praise for The Revenant has been consistently surrounding the film’s visuality. Factor in the harsh conditions and the tricky shooting conditions, Lubezki might just be a shoo-in.

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