1. “The Revenant”: Emmanuel (Chivo) Lubezki has a great shot at three Oscars in a row for what’s turned out be a survival trilogy in space (“Gravity”), in a theater and in the mind (“Birdman”), and in the wilderness (“The Revenant”). But “The Revenant” carries even greater metaphysical weight for director Alejandro González Iñárritu. It’s about learning to co-exist with brutality and beauty, inspired by the life of frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonard DiCaprio), who’s mauled by a bear and left for dead by a member of his hunting team (Tom Hardy). But he miraculously tracks him down in the bitter cold like a corpse rising from the dead. Lubezki shot exteriors in the Canadian Rockies and the tip of Argentina with natural light, Steadicam and the untested Alexa 65, the first large-format digital camera, for 360-degree, high dynamic range compositions with very wide lenses that wrap around the actors only inches away. Visceral and immersive, he once again made extensive use of the tracking-shot technique and preferred shooting at “magic hour,” so seamlessly stitching the footage together was difficult to match. The only other light available from the period was fire, candles and torches. But he darkened the backgrounds so the actors would stand out like in a Caravaggio painting.
2. “The Hateful Eight”: The race looks to be a large-format wilderness shootout because three-time Oscar winner Robert Richardson literally stumbled upon Ultra Panavision 70 anamorphic lenses that hadn’t been used in 50 years. This allowed Quentin Tarantino to recreate the roadshow experience, reminding us of the unparalleled scope, resolution and beauty of film in the widest possible aspect ratio (2.76:1). Panavision reconfigured and applied new coatings for focus pulling, made a 2,000-foot magazine to accommodate his penchant for long takes and provided anamorphic lenses for 70mm projectors. There were challenges because of weather and low-lighting conditions. And it also meant learning how to choreograph action on set to create a dynamic interior landscape for eight actors. The result is a warmth and softness and bronze look that we have not witnessed in quite a while. Close-ups are particularly revealing. It’s a visual feast and the ultimate cinephile Christmas present.
3. “Sicario”: Roger Deakins, who will surely get his 13th Oscar nomination, crosses new aesthetic borders with Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”). Interiors were often yellow-orange to complement the landscape, but unlike the bleached look of “No Country for Old Men,” Deakins embraced a more colorful landscape for “Sicario,” set on the Mexican border and shot in Albuquerque and Mexico City. The use of silhouette is powerful. However, the most nerve-racking challenge for Deakins was figuring out how to shoot the nighttime raid in the tunnels where the drugs were transported across the border. It was too dark to believably shoot the objective shots with only the Alexa, so Deakins successfully tested a thermal imaging camera from FLIR used for scientific research. The result is one of the most fascinating night vision sequences in a movie, with two different looks achieved through separate vision systems (infrared for Benicio Del Toro’s POV and green image-enhancer for everyone else’s).
5. “Mad Max: Fury Road”: With usual “Mad Max” DP Dean Semler out of the picture, veteran John Seale came out of retirement and stepped out of his comfort zone to tackle the reboot, which turned out to be the best action film in years—and in what is still the best post-apocalyptic franchise. The whole film is basically a chase in the desert landscape of West Africa with 75 vehicles, and Seale, working digitally for the first time, was able to adjust the 2D rig for smaller, lighter and more versatile camera placement inside the the War Rig helmed by Charlize Theron’s Furiosa. Miller’s mandate was to center the frame at all times, because he was going to cut fast and wanted the appearance of seamless, continuous action, with the viewer never confused. He even manipulated frames to help achieve this effect. And thanks to the Edge Arm crane for total immersion, this allowed them to get right in there much more kinetically, like being in the middle of a video game. But Seale wisely convinced Miller to add multiple cameras to give editorial more choices. These were definitely two masters in total control of their craft.
6. “The Martian”: For Ridley Scott and long-time DP Dariusz Wolski, this was actually three movies in one: the “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” survival story for Matt Damon’s astronaut/botanist, the NASA/JPL interaction (shot on stages in Budapest) and the final rescue. Shot natively in 3D with RED Dragons to enhance the spectacle, they naturally referenced both “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Lawrence of Arabia” (their all-time favorite movie). Indeed, “Lawrence” became a crucial influence on the look of the Mars landscape, which is why they shot for eight days in Wadi Rum in Jordan (but they had to grade the sky and landscape from blue to the more desired bronze/butterscotch look). At the same time, it’s a very intimate story, with Damon recording his personal ordeal as a confessional in case he doesn’t survive. They used GoPro cameras throughout the sets serving for the Hermes spacecraft and when he communicates via computer. These scenes are, of course, the most emotionally gripping and absurdly funny in this surprising best picture contender.