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Why Roger Deakins Will Finally Win the Cinematography Oscar

The 14-time nominee is the sentimental favorite for "Blade Runner 2049," but faces fierce competition.

“Blade Runner 2049”


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Once again, Roger Deakins dominates the cinematography race, though he faces stiff competition from Hoyte van Hoytema’s innovative IMAX achievement on “Dunkirk,” Dan Laustsen’s sublime work on “The Shape of Water,” Bruno Delbonnel’s cunning shadow play for “Darkest Hour,” and Rachel Morrison’s unique period look for “Mudbound,” which was also noteworthy for breaking her branch’s gender barrier.

But, after 14 nominations, the timing seems right for Deakins, the master of naturalism, to finally win for “Blade Runner 2049.” In addition to the sentimental factor, there’s the fact that Deakins also stepped out of his comfort zone to make the iconic “Blade Runner” universe his own with the encouragement of director Denis Villeneuve. Indeed, for the first time, Villeneuve worked out a thematic visual plan with Deakins that drove the narrative about the importance of memory and “becoming more human than human.”

Thus, the “Blade Runner” sequel became a meta experience, with Deakins’ choice of lighting influencing every visual aspect of the movie, which Villeneuve and his crew (including nominated production designer Dennis Gassner) touted at every opportunity.

“Dunkirk”

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

But there are still hurdles for Deakins to overcome, and he could be overtaken by either van Hoytema or Laustsen. Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is in a class by itself as a large-format experiment in pure cinema, and del Toro’s Oscar juggernaut, “The Shape of Water,” could be a rising tide that lifts Laustsen and some of his craft colleagues to victory as well. As always, it all comes down to the acting branch, which represents the largest Academy voting bloc. And it didn’t help that the “Blade Runner” sequel didn’t connect at the box office and had its fair share of detractors, too. So it remains a suspenseful race.

Read more about these nominees, ranked in order of their likelihood to win:

“Blade Runner 2049” (Roger Deakins)

Villeneuve, the Montreal native, began with the concept of frozen snow defining a more brutal future in LA, and he went from there with Deakins in planning the impact of the atmosphere on the lighting.

“Blade Runner 2049”

Stephen Vaughan

And the strongest color for this hypnotic, dream-like journey was yellow, a symbol of love in this perpetual climate of snow and rain. And Deakins’ master stroke was infusing the cathedral-like lair of replicant maker, Wallace (Jared Leto), with artificial sunlight, which interacted with the pool of water and formed beautiful caustic patterns on the walls.

For Deakins, though, it was important to ground everything in reality, and when he insisted on revealing the source of the light in Wallace’s office, the director granted his wish. “I was amazed at the end that what I had in mind at the very beginning was on the screen,” Villeneuve said.

“Dunkirk” (Hoyte van Hoytema)

For Nolan’s World War II survival story, van Hoytema went further with IMAX in conveying intimacy as well as spectacle. Since there was minimal dialogue for the land, air, and sea sequences depicted in staggered time frames, they were able to shoot 70% of the movie with the noisy IMAX 65mm cameras, upping their game by playing with shifting points of view and pushing pure cinema in a new direction. And, for the first time, Nolan could go all analog for finished prints.

“Dunkirk”

Although the movie is divided into three separate time lines, van Hoytema avoided any sort of visual demarcation that might confuse the viewer. Instead, he went for a documentary approach, shooting hand-held in natural, available light whenever possible and as much in-camera. And, with the help of dolly grip Ryan Monro, they developed the IMAX camera as a run and shoot machine to record whatever action was in front of them, despite the often harsh weather conditions on the beaches of Dunkirk.

The visceral highlight, though, was the aerial footage, shot in actual Spitfires. This was groundbreaking in both authenticity and intimacy, requiring new periscope lenses and lightweight mounts from Panavision. But it allowed shooting from inside and outside the cockpits, providing close-ups and unsettling vibrations. It was very much a “You Are There” experience, as van Hoytema demystified the IMAX camera.

“The Shape of Water” (Dan Laustsen)

For del Toro’s fairy tale passion project about a mute night janitor (Oscar-nominated Sally Hawkins) who falls for an Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) during the Cold War of 1962, Laustsen seduced us with deep-sea colors and a fluid camera using single light sources. The blues and greens were offset by the occasional amber or gold to move away from noir, and red was reserved for evoking love or depicting blood.

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in the film THE SHAPE OF WATER. Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

“The Shape of Water”

Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchligh

From the graceful, surreal opening, with Elisa (Hawkins) sleeping in her underwater room, where everything floats serenely in her dream (shot dry for wet), to the big black-and-white musical fantasy homage to Ginger Rogers with sweeping camera moves, the cinematographer helped transport us to a fantastical world where movies became reality for the lonely and the oppressed.

Even shooting the Amphibian Man (described by Jones as a cross between Silver Surfer and a matador) became a less is more approach for the cinematographer. He wasn’t afraid of darkness but the key was to convey his beauty.

“Darkest Hour” (Bruno Delbonnel)

Director Joe Wright and Delbonnel helped humanize Gary Oldman’s Oscar-frontrunning portrayal of Winston Churchill by constantly bringing him out of the shadows. Originally, the plan was to contrast exterior sunshine with interior darkness, since London experienced a beautiful spring in 1940. But with the production shooting in winter, there was constant rainfall, so Delbonnel brought the effect of sunlight indoors whenever possible.

4106_D015_00585_R_CROPGary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill and Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI in director Joe Wright's DARKEST HOUR, a Focus Features release.Credit: Jack English / Focus Features

“Darkest Hour”

Jack English

For instance, Churchill’s first, tense meeting with King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) in Buckingham Palace was a very dim setting. The blinds in front of the large windows in the actual Buckingham Palace provided a narrow sliver of sunlight, but Delbonnel asked Oscar-nominated production designer Sarah Greenwood to widen it where they were shooting to create an enormous shaft of light between these two men who disliked one another.

However, for the emotional high point when Churchill rides the London Underground to ride with everyday people, the lighting was suitably dim with the windows blacked out and LED lights providing tiny shafts of light. The memorable effect was like creating a portrait of England in 1940.

“Mudbound” (Rachel Morrison)

What was particularly special about Morrison’s historic nomination was that it complemented the subject matter of Dee Rees’ exploration of black and white struggle for the American Dream on the Mississippi Delta of the 1940s. And the cinematographer achieved a poetic beauty that unites the two families living and working on the same farm.

MUDBOUND

“Mudbound”

Steve Dietl/Netflix

The challenge was avoiding a faded look and coming up with something fresh. Inspired by Gordon Parks’ celebrated color photography in Life magazine, Morrison decided on a pastel-like, understated richness. But the movie fittingly opens in the pouring rain with the digging of a muddy grave. The way it’s shot by Morrison, it feels like we’re trapped in the mud along with the characters.

And contrast abounds in the use of color, lighting, composition, and movement.  It all centers on the land as a place of hope or imprisonment, and the success or failure in rising above the general state of upheaval.

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