While the tech momentum for Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" is clearly spilling over into the cinematography race, making Claudio Miranda the frontrunner for his ethereal golden hour hue, the other four nominees are a study in stylistic brilliance as well, conveying a vibe of what's old is new again:
In "Anna Karenina," Seamus McGarvey embraced director Joe Wright's bold theatrical approach as an opportunity to streamline and clarify ideas from the Tolstoy novel. He found a way to coalesce theater, movies, and photography into a new form of visual expression, using Powell & Pressburger's "The Red Shoes" as inspiration.
"After initial fears from the producers, we wanted to create a world that was believable once you entered it," explains McGarvey. "There's cinematic space there [in the derelict theater] for an audience to stitch in what's absent. And your imagination is straining for meaning as well. And it's also a gentler way of experiencing because you're building the image yourself so the image becomes disparate for each person that watches it."
However, it was the success of the bravura horse race sequence (combining live action, green screen, and onset elements), shot as a test to validate the theatrical conceit of the 19th century Russian aristocracy rotting from the inside out. "First thing, we shot them for real and that was a daylight scenario. And then as night falls and the lights dim, we're suddenly witnessing the horses hurtling across the stage."
Of course, there were different hues in terms of what you wanted to express. "The Karenin house has a rectitude of overbearing symmetry," the cinematography continues. "The colors are diminished; the lines are strong; the compositions are metric and very strict; the lighting is harder and darker; movement is minimal. This is to express the fragility and brittleness of that world."
By contrast, the Oblonsky house contains more of a luminosity, innocence, and glow. Therefore, McGarvey shot this environment by day in cooler, softer light or by candlelight to attain a sense of romance. Outside, when they occasionally shot on real locations, there's more camera movement and autumnal light to create a sense of hopefulness and a terrestrial nature beyond the artifice.
"In the Vronsky home, we wanted sexy swirling and to get lost in emotions," McGarvey suggests. "When Vronsky leads Anna on the dance floor, everyone is frozen but they come to life one by one as though their elicit love is igniting the people around them."
For Quentin Tarantino's spaghetti western/Blaxploitation mash-up, "Django Unchained," Robert Richardson (last year's winner for "Hugo"), infused a rock sensibility that alternates between ragged and elegant. After all, this is a love story as well as a violent slavery saga.
"The beauty of a Tarantino film is that the visuals match the rhythm of the words," Richardson observes. "That's his goal. And that's my goal." So he varied the lighting, going from the naturalism of candlelit scenes to stylized shootouts.
The climactic shootout involving Jamie Foxx's Django was the most ambitious, of course, and probably the sequence that got Richardson his nomination. The six-minute blood bath oscillates between normal speed and slo-mo. It's pure Tarantino in all his film geek reverie, and it's pure Richardson in its Neil Young-inspired picture of Americana.
For Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," two-time Oscar winner Janusz Kaminski also experimented with a new theatrical, stripped-down aesthetic. It was a great opportunity to work more abstractly: creating foreground, middle ground, and background spatial divides and utilizing exterior lighting, artificial gas lighting, and magical lighting to illuminate the eyes or convey strong silhouettes. Everything revolves around the powerful yet conflicted Lincoln in an exploration of his inner and outer worlds, his public and private lives.
For this creative departure, Kaminski's a strong contender. "The movie is unique because in a funny way it's relevant to what we're experiencing now as a nation," Kaminski offers. "Yes, it's a historical thing but it talks about the need to help the nation reunite and have the same vision. And then just purely from the use of the cinematic language, which is a model of restraint in comparison to the other movies we've done where the camera was always very active and there was this need to amaze the viewer with interesting angles; but in this movie we really didn't do that."
Not with such a commanding performance from Daniel Day Lewis. "But the lighting part was cool because I had the chance to create a semi-realistic world of what it must've been like to be there with great freedom and license."
Yet the sentimental choice this year is Roger Deakins for "Skyfall." The 10-time nominee has never won the Oscar, but he elevates the first billion dollar Bond movie with supreme elegance and emotional depth for 007's existential journey. Shooting with the Arri Alexa, he visualizes the emotional arc with different shades. It fits in perfectly with the notion of the old and new, as we follow Daniel Craig's Bond on a journey that takes him to sun-drenched Istanbul, the gray underworld of London, golden Shanghai, a dead city in Macao, and his otherworldly Scottish origins.
But recreating Shanghai at Pinewood in collaboration with production designer Dennis Gassner was the standout. They captured the modernistic essence of the city with the blue neon LED advertising screens from skyscrapers outside the office tower where Bond fights henchman Patrice (Ola Rapace) in silhouette. "The original idea was to shoot it on location in Shanghai but you couldn't find a place with that kind of light source, so Dennis and I talked about doing it on stage with big LED signs so that we could control it and that's how it evolved. But it's based on that look of Shanghai," Deakins explains.
Which brings us back to "Life of Pi," an otherworldly spiritual journey in 3-D between a boy and his tiger that is remarkably different from the rest of the contenders.
"It's a movie about derailing you and making your own choices of what's real, and there are a lot of interesting, little weird things," Miranda suggests." My favorite scene is probably the candlelit [temple float festival] where the art department got more than 120,000 candles and we worked all night to scatter them around."
But it's Miranda's achievement in the second half on a breathtaking virtual ocean and with a riveting animated tiger that might earn him the Oscar. Invariably, we become more active participants because of the dynamic 3-D and Miranda's exquisite cinematography, which helps transport us to another realm.