It’s been a great year for cinematography, with such an emphasis on survival, turmoil and trying to find beauty or redemption within the suffering. “Gravity,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Captain Phillips,”“Nebraska,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “The Grandmaster,” and “Rush”are among the standouts. Whether they used digital or film, the results are organic to theme and design.
Will Emmanuel (“Chivo”) Lubezki finally get his Oscar for “Gravity”? Maybe so, if you look at the recent digital trend that saw Claudio Miranda (“Life of Pi”), Bob Richardson (“Hugo”), and Mauro Fiore (“Avatar”) take the award for three out of the last four years.
For Lubezki’s first foray into virtual production, he achieved a breathtaking photo-realism that approximates the NASA photos and IMAX films that he benchmarked, while delivering the long, continuous takes in CG that are a hallmark of director Alfonso Cuaron’s visual style. But he needed the Light Box to help solve a very complicated lighting situation with the zero-g simulation in outer space. However, Lubezki made sure to illuminate the dark and infinite with the gorgeous light from mother Earth.
Still, there’s nothing more awe-inspiring than going from an objective, wide-angle view of Sandra Bullock’s terrified face to an extreme close-up and then into her helmet for a subjective POV before pulling out again for an objective panorama.
For Sean Bobbitt, “12 Years a Slave” represents the culmination of his three-film collaboration with director Steve McQueen. Only this one is a Goya-esque exploration of horror and beauty. For Bobbitt, the hanging scene stimulated his imagination and served as the embodiment of slavery.
“Northup’s hanging for the better part of the day is inconceivable. And yet nobody can touch him because he belongs to another man. And to see everyone else moving around behind him is such a powerful statement,” Bobbitt explains.
The key to the hanging was finding the right composition, which was a matter of simplicity and authenticity. “Because your first thought is that no one can stand hanging for the whole day. The idea was to make it believable but also for the audience to viscerally become a party to that physical torture. But at the same time to be oddly beautiful so that it resonated and it wasn’t an image that you could just throw away.”
Barry Ackroyd‘s documentary experience served him well in “Captain Phillips” as its own culmination with director Paul Greengrass. His job was to capture everything in this cat-and-mouse between Tom Hanks’ Captain Phillips and the Somalian pirates led by newcomer Barkhad Abdi. “Everyone who appears in front of the camera has the same intensity and relevance,” Ackroyd suggests.”It’s part of my psyche and the way I work.”
On the one hand, there’s a frightening intensity to the way the pirates overtake the ship by overcoming the blasts of water from the crew. On the other hand, the improvised ending with a real medic is informed by Ackroyd’s documentary skill and Hanks’s complete trust in Greengrass. “The juxtaposition is really quite moving between his tragedy and her professionalism. They meet in a way that you don’t usually see in film studio films.”
In the murky black-and-white “Nebraska” (admittedly recorded in color on the Alexa and then altered during post), Phedon Papamichael also reaches new heights with director Alexander Payne. “The thing about landscapes is whatever the day is, you go out and shoot it,” he insists.
As far as interiors, they let the actors invade the spaces, whether it was a house, a restaurant, or a bar. But Bruce Dern defined it: “The first time he stepped in front of a camera when we were doing a test, I was in a parking lot and the sun was out and I turned him so we’d get some backlight, and his hair just glowed and he looked like a ghost, and it was fascinating to study that face.”
For Bruno Delbonnel, “Inside Llewyn Davis” marked his first collaboration with the Coen brothers, but he felt at ease with their detailed preparation and communicative style. He used “The Freewheelin Bob Dylan” album cover as a starting point with its evocation of “the slushy, cold New York winter.” But he also structured the lighting as an early ’60s folk song. He mainly went for a milky palette that was an uncomfortable magenta, yellow and shot on film because of the period and grain structure of the stock.
“For me, the rule was to have the light falling off,” Delbonnel says. “It was more about being evocative than truthful to the ’60s. I was looking for coldness, sadness, unhappiness, loneliness.”
“The Grandmaster,” Wong Kar-wai’s exquisite biopic about martial arts legend Ip Man (Tony Leung), is about the clash of physical and philosophical ideals. But it was a freewheeling, unconventional experience for cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, who wasn’t used to such improvisation. However, it all comes together in the snowy fight on a train platform between Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) and her late father’s killer and protege (Zhang Jin).
It took two years to shoot, often changing and expanding sets and props, and what began as a series of close-ups, escalated into a tour de force sequence defined by the performances of the two actors and a sense of discovery that informed the lighting and camera movement.
In “Rush,” Anthony Dod Mantle developed a way of creating his own unique production values for the ’70s look of the Formula 1 locations on the circuit. Which meant they were dependent on certain archival material that had to be manipulated and seamlessly integrated with the live-action footage.
“The aesthetic was a very painterly and, what I thought, an inspiring, visceral, sexy, color palette, and not the desaturated, golf ball grain, sadness of ’70s. In Monaco, I was particularly struck by the yellow, cyan, and red. It’s not pristine — it has grit. The drivers were eccentric and raggedy; they had dirty underwear and bad hair, in comparison to multi-millionaire motor racing drivers now and their entourage.”