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On The Rise ’12: 5 Cinematographers Lighting Up Screens In Recent Years

On The Rise '12: 5 Cinematographers Lighting Up Screens In Recent Years

Following our looks at actors, actresses, screenwriters and directors to watch in recent months, when the time came to put together a list of cinematographers (as we did two years ago), we went in with an open mind. But what was interesting is realizing, after the fact, that in an era where 35mm film is allegedly being phased out, that all five have done perhaps their most distinctive work on old-fashioned celluloid, rather than digital.

All have worked in digital of course, at least in the commercial world, and some have done hugely impressive work on new formats. But most of our five are fierce advocates for good ‘ol 35mm, and it’s another sign that the death knell shouldn’t be rung for the old ways just yet. As long as there are talented DoPs like the ones below, and on the following pages, working closely with filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson, Joe Cornish and Gerardo Naranjo, we should hopefully be seeing film on screen for a long time to come. Check out our five picks below, and let us know other DoPs you’ve got your eye on in the comments section below.

Mihai Malamaire Jr.
When Paul Thomas Anderson was gearing up to make “The Master,” he found himself in something of a quandry; his usual DoP, Robert Elswit, who lensed every one of his films to date (including winning an Oscar for “There Will Be Blood“), was already booked, doing globetrotting spy double-duty on “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” and “The Bourne Legacy.” His choice of replacement was a surprising one: rather than going for an established A-lister — someone like Roger Deakins or Emmanuel Lubezki — he picked out a rising star with only a handful of credits to his name. To be exact, 37-year-old Romanian cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr.

Of course, it helps a great deal if three of those credits are with one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in history, Francis Ford Coppola, on his trilogy of semi-experimental passion projects “Youth Without Youth,” “Tetro” and “Twixt.” The DoP, born in 1975, is the son of two theater professionals — his father Mihai is an actor and politician, and founder of the Mask Theater Company in Bucharest, and his mother is theater director Anca Dana Florea, and Mihai became interested in the movies after being given a video camera at 15. After training at the University of Theatre and Film in Bucharest, he worked on a number of short films, including “Canton” and “The Apartment” by Romanian new waver Constantin Popescu (“Tales Of The Golden Age“), before making the leap to features with 2004’s “Lotus.

The following year, Coppola came to Bucharest to make his first film in a decade, “Youth Without Youth,” based on the novella by Romanian author Mircea Eliade. Coppola explained that he ended up auditioning local DoPs through screen tests for prospective actors: “There [were] over 50 roles in ‘Youth Without Youth’. How many could I cast right there? But I had an even more elaborate scheme: each time I shot a test with an actor, I’d use a different photographer. They were all fine but I chose Mihai Malaimare Jr.” The then 29-year-old had never worked with digital, which Coppola intended to use, but he flew him to Sony’s lab in L.A. for training, and the film proved to be a very impressive-looking piece of work.

Even more stunning was 2009’s “Tetro,” which saw the pair reunite, this time in Argentina (Malaimare was planning on working with Christi Puiu (“The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu“) on “Aurora,” but had to bow out for the Coppola film). Shooting in black and white was a new challenge, but one that the DoP embraced, commenting at the time: “In black and white, you have to be careful with the framing, with the light and shadow. Even if you’re not conscious of those things, viewers will be more conscious of what they see in terms of composition. With color it’s easier to trick viewers. So at first you might think it’s easier to shoot in black and white, but it’s actually more difficult because you have to do more with composition and light and shadow to make up for the things that you can’t express with color.” And it certainly paid off — the (somewhat underrated) film looked absolutely glorious.

One more collaboration with Coppola followed, with last year’s still unreleased “Twixt,” which has been fairly badly received, but the footage we’ve seen still looks distinctive, and demonstrates the young cinematographer showing off his talents further. He also shot a campaign for the MTV Video Music Awards in “Tetro”-style B&W, starring Drake and Eminem, among others, before PTA came calling. And that early footage of “The Master” (which is shot on film, much of 65mm film) looks absolutely stunning, saturated and glorious and very different from his work on Coppola. It can only lead to much more work down the line, with Coppola saying of his DoP, “Always observing, always thinking, he’s a minimalist. And yet when we talk to him, you feel he understands what you’re trying to express, even if he’s not in your face with a lot of suggestions at first… Gordon Willis, Vittorio Storaro, he’s definitely one of those extraordinarily talented cinematographers.”

Thomas Townend
Low-budget films about British council estate gigs battling aliens do not, generally speaking, win cinematography awards. Especially when they are to all intents and purposes the first big-screen credit for the DoP in question. Which is a shame, because to our mind, “Attack The Block” featured some of the most memorable lensing of 2011. But while his trophy cabinet didn’t fill up as a result (at least for that film — see below), Thomas Townend certainly announced himself as a major talent to watch.

Townend trained at the National Film And Television School, whose other alumni include Roger Deakins, Lynne Ramsay, Terence Davies, David Yates and Joachim Trier, and has been working mostly in the commercials sector for years, assembling an imperessive CV in the meantime. Once the 2000s got underway, he started to get major credits in the feature world, with 2nd unit DoP credits on “28 Days Later,” “Harry Brown” and “Pride & Prejudice,” as well as working on all three of Lynne Ramsay’s films, serving as second unit DoP on “We Need To Talk About Kevin” (he also lensed a Doves music video for the director, a classmate at the NFTS).

While he was becoming more and more successful as a DoP in the promos world, it was likely due to the Ramsay collection that saw Paddy Considine pick him to serve as cinematographer as his short film “Dog Altogether” (which the actor/director went on to expand as feature “Tyrannosaur“). Work on Jennifer Saunders’ TV comedy “The Life And Times Of Vivienne Vyle” followed, before Samantha Morton‘s harrowing made-for-TV directorial debut “The Unloved,” which got a theatrical release, and much acclaim, in the U.S.

Even so, the kitchen sink drama of that film meant he wasn’t an obvious choice for the directorial debut of Joe Cornish, and Cornish even admits that his producers held some reservations: “…they…cautioned me that using a comparatively less experienced (in terms of features) DoP would be a harder sell to the investors. In truth, as soon as everyone met Tom and saw his work, they were immediately as convinced as I was that he was the man for the job.” And indeed, it turned out to be a stroke of genius; Townend could bring the grit, but he also brought a sense of color (and some astonishing lighting) that helped the film straddle the real and the fantastical.

Townend explained his approach to U.K. site The Incredible Suit, telling them that it was in part inspired by the low-budget lighting of films like “Escape From New York” and “The Terminator.” “They didn’t have the resources to relight acres of city streets, and at the time municipal lighting in the U.S. was mostly mercury vapour lamps which appear as a green blue, as opposed to sodium vapour lamps which are orange. There’s bold use of colour throughout the film, in both the production design and costume, and it made sense for the lighting to follow suit. Street lighting is artificial by definition, and Joe wanted us to push saturated colour as far as would look plausible – partly as a reaction to the historically dingy and monochrome look of low budget British film-making, and also to up the ‘fun’ quotient.”

Up the fun quotient it did, and it was one of the most distinctive-looking films of last year. Since then, surprisingly, Townend doesn’t seem to have worked on another feature, but he’s been busy — one of his most recent credits was on an ad for Hiscox Insurance directed by “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” helmer Tomas Alfredson, demonstrating how he’s come to the attention of big-name directors now, something only helped by him winning the Best Cinematography prize at the MTV Music Video Awards for his work on Adele‘s omnipresent, yet still awesome “Rolling In The Deep” clip. He’s also hugely knowledgeable and uncompromising about film on his must-follow Twitter account @prarie_oysters, and took part in a discussion with FilmCritHulk about action cinema that displays what a master in his field he appears to be.

Luc Montpellier
Unlike most of the names on this list, Luc Montpellier has award nominations galore, and acclaimed screen credits going back a decade, so he’s not quite a newcomer. But perhaps because he’s rarely, if ever, worked outside his native Canada, he’s yet to be  a familiar name among cinephiles around the world, something that will hopefully change thanks to his superb work on Sarah Polley‘s “Take This Waltz.”

Hailing from Sudbury, Ontario, Montpellier picked up his first cinematography credit on Toronto director Daniel Wilson‘s 1994 film, titled, uh, “1994,” with a number of credits on shorts, TV and features following. Perhaps the most important came in 2001, with “I Shout Love,” the short film that marked the directorial debut of Polley (then only 22), who credited her collaboration with Montepellier as helping her to come to grips with the visual side of filmmaking: “I was not that confident visually at the time, and Luc gave me a lot of confidence, and he was constantly kind of bringing out in me what I saw visually and translating it into real practical terms.”

2003 proved to be something of a banner year for the cinematographer. He won a Gemini award (the Canadian version of the Emmys) for his work on TV movie “Hemingway Vs. Callaghan,” and won international acclaim for Guy Maddin‘s astonishing-looking “The Saddest Music In The World,” which, as the LA Times put it, “doesn’t just re-create 1933 through costumes; it actually looks like a 1933 picture.” And indeed it is, truly distinctive, stunning work which rightly should have launched him into the stratosphere.

It didn’t quite, although he’s rarely out of work, and when Polley came to make her feature debut with “Away From Her,” Montpellier was her only choice, and his haunting wintry images are almost as crucial to the film as Julie Christie‘s astonishing performance. Further features followed, including Jamie Thraves‘ underseen “Cry Of The Owl,” and Ruba Nadda‘s “Cairo Time,” which landed the director a spot on Kris Tapley’s competitive best shots of the year list in 2010, and rightly so — it was more great work from the DoP. He’s also stacked up the TV credits, including the pilot to the successful show “Flashpoint.”

But it’s “Take This Waltz” that really shows what Montpellier’s capable of. Polley’s tale of infidelity over a sizzling Toronto summer has its flaws, but the photography is not one of them; sun-kissed, intimate and somehow evocative of the feeling of being head over heels in love, especially in the spectacular, scored-to-The-Buggles fairground scene, one our favorite things on screen so far in 2012. If there’s any justice in the world, it’ll see Montpellier mentioned throughout the year when people talk about the best cinematography.

The DoP explained his work to the Canadian Society of Cinematographers. Polley told him that she wanted a “hot, colourful, welcoming, beautiful rendering of Toronto and the people within it. She wanted this sexy passion to take over, that every frame felt like it was dripping wet with sweat,” and that the film was “like a bowl of fruit… The most successful cinematography, no matter how bold it is, becomes seamless. [You commit] implicitly to the world that you’re creating. You don’t start the film with these beautiful saturated colours and bowls of fruit and then divert from it. From frame one to the very last frame of the film, there’s a commitment to the world that we’ve created.”

Hopefully they’ve got more collaborations in the pipeline, but until then, Montpellier certainly isn’t being idle — he shot a feature entitled “Happy Slapping” entirely on an iPhone 4, and has reunited with Sadda on “Inescapable,” starring Marisa Tomei, Joshua Jackson and Alexander Siddig, which should start doing the festival rounds later in the year.  

Reed Morano
Last time we did one of these features looking at cinematographers, one of our commenters suggested the name Reed Morano, who we had to confess was only starting to come on to our radar. But props to ‘Ink2Lens’ for prescience way back in the day, because Morano is now a fixture in the indie world, and a cinematographer whose work has been consistently excellent across a diverse range of films, even as she gets busier and busier.

The 35-year-old Morano started out documenting family life as a teenager, which along with a high school interest in stills photography, led her to apply to film school at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts (she’d later return to teach as an adjunct professor of cinematography for two years). She worked as a camera assistant throughout college, before moving into grip and electrical departments after graduation, picking up her first DoP credit on Joshua Rofe‘s 2005 indie feature “Brooklyn Battery.” This was followed up by regular TV work, on reality shows like The Learning Channel‘s “Cover Shot” and Court TV‘s “Psychic Detective,” while making features like the excellent documentary “Off The Grid: Life On The Mesa.”

But 2008 saw her get her breakout, thanks to Courtney Hunt‘s “Frozen River,” starring Melissa Leo (who went on to get an Oscar nomination for the role, while the film picked up the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance that year). Shooting on HD video, Morano still says the film, lensed in upstate New York in icy temperatures, was her toughest shoot, the camera even freezing on one day (As Morano tells it, “Kate Larose and Kristian Maynard, my camera assistants that night, took the camera to a house where they massaged it until it started wroking again. Miraculously, we only lost a few hours.”) But her simple naturalism — lighting scenes 360 degrees and shooting handheld — worked beautifully for the film, and was surely one of the reasons for its great success.

That film put her firmly on the map, and after 2011’s “Yelling To The Sky,” which played at Berlin, she’s got five films in theaters and festivals across 2012: Elgin James‘ “Little Birds” which premiered at Sundance last year (and which Morano shot while seven months pregnant — her husband, Matt, is her gaffer); So Yong Kim‘s “For Ellen“; Jay Gammill‘s “Free Samples”; Will Lovelace & Dylan Southern‘s LCD Soundsystem documentary “Shut Up And Play The Hits” and Rob Reiner‘s “The Magic Of Belle Isle,” which Morano self-effacingly claims she got because she was used to working on much shorter schedules (“I told them 25 days sounded luxurious when they asked if it was possible to complete the movie in that time. I was totally confident that it was completely doable”).

That’s certainly unfair, we think. Morano is unpretentious about her work, saying “A lot of cinematography is intuition,” and explaining her philosophy by saying “It’s not that I’m not into super-stylized cinematography, because I actually am a huge admirer of it. But, in execution, I personally gravitate towards simplicity. If I can light a whole scene with one unit outside a window, and shoot 360, that’s what I love. My favorite challenge is finding a way to light that doesn’t interfere at all with the actors. I also like being able to go wherever I want to with the camera. I think it comes in part from necessity, and the need to move very quickly. But I also believe that less is more and it can put the focus on the story.”

But the beauty of the images she delivers, from the sun-kissed vistas of “Little Birds” to the intimate, snatched insights of “Shut Up And Play The Hits,” one of the best-looking concert movies we’ve ever seen, can be put up against anyone working. And unusually for someone who’s worked predominately in the indie world, she still fights for film, although has worked on digital, saying “It’s hard to describe why film looks better. I always come back to the feeling it gives me. There is something about it. Digital tends to look flatter to me. I think it’s because there’s less information in the image. There is something about film that feels warmer and more real to me. It’s very hard to put into words. You just have to look at it, and it speaks for itself. Some people prefer digital because they can shoot as much as they want. That seems greedy to me. I would rather be restricted in how much I can shoot, and have it look stunning. I’m not at the point where I can insist on film yet, but all but three of my features have been shot on film. As much as I embrace every format for its innovation, film is very, very important to me.”

Morano’s wrapped on a couple of features that should arrive next year — Markus Blunder‘s “Autumn Blood” with Sophie Lowe and Peter Stormare, and the highly promising Beat Generation murder mystery “Kill Your Darlings,” with Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan and Elizabeth Olsen. And she’s got even more on the way; reteaming with “Little Birds” director Elgin James on hostage thriller “Come Sundown,” and lensing Deborah Kampmeir‘s Carson McCullers biopic “Lonely Hunter,” with Jena Malone. We honestly don’t know where she finds the time, but we’re awfully glad she does.  

Mátyás Erdély
Steven Soderbergh‘s “Traffic” had defined the look of the Mexican cartel movie so strongly that last year’s “Miss Bala” came as a real shock — long, graceful, precise Steadicam shots rather than sunwashed handheld. And almost as surprising was where it came from; director Gerardo Naranjo didn’t pick a fellow countryman for the project, but rather a Hungarian DoP named Mátyás Erdély.

Erdély got the filmmaking bug after being cast in a film in his native Budapest as a 16-year-old, and befriending the DoP on the shoot. Straight after graduating high school, he trained at the Hungarian University of Drama and Film in Budapest, graduating in 2000, and three years later, continued his training at the prestigious AFI in L.A, finding work on high-profile commercials even as he was still studying. He already had one 35mm feature to his name at the age of 23 (he later said that he “made all the mistakes”), but upon leaving AFI, he became something of a festival staple, hitting Cannes with the short “Before Dawn” in 2005.

It was the same festival that saw him really come to the attention of cinephiles in 2008, thanks to Kornel Mundruczo‘s “Delta,” a gorgeous, glacially-paced drama with more than a little in common with Terrence Malick, which premiered in competition on the Croisette, where it won the FIPRESCI prize.  After a few years full of shorts (including “Five Miles Out,” directed by Andrew Haigh, who’d go on to make last year’s superb “Weekend“), he reuntied with Mundruczo for “Tender Son: The Frankenstein Project,” which also played in competition, this time in 2010.

That film, an opaque retelling of Mary Shelley‘s tale, reframed as a story about a destructive teenager, further confirmed his talent, but he was already set to work on the film that would prove his breakout. Mexican helmer Naranjo had seen both “Before Dawn” and “Delta” at Cannes in previous years, and was stunned to discover they were shot by the same person. He approached Erdély out of the blue, and the cinematographer, who’d just landed a second unit gig on a big European production, dropped everything and, after a series of long Skype meetings, flew to Mexico to meet Naranjo and the rest of the team.

The director and his new DoP had very similar ideas: to keep the visuals as subjective as possible, telling the story through the eyes of principal character Laura as she sinks deeper and deeper into the cartel world, which led to a series of hugely impressive, Dardenne Brothers-style tracking shots. Erdély used anamorphic lenses, to further keep the POV-style foremost in the mind, and endeavored to tell as much of the story as possible in single moving masters, mostly shunning close-ups and coverage for the most part. It was easily one of the most impressively shot films of 2011.

And yet Erdély isn’t some technical whiz obsessed with the lighting at the expense of all else — he thinks his experience acting as a teen has made him more sensitive to the needs of actors, and he endeavors to “create an environment where they can be safe,” which certainly shows in the performances of “Miss Bala.” His next project, “The Woman Who Brushed Off Her Tears,” premiered at Berlin in February, and he’s just gotten underway on his English-language feature, debut, the Oren Moverman-scripted Hammer horror “The Quiet Ones,” with Sam Claflin and Jared Harris, which has made us infinitely more excited to see that particular project.

Whether more studio fare follows after that remains to be seen, but it’s clear Erdély is a serious talent. As his AFI professor, Bill Dill, said, “If you look at his still photography, you can see that he brings that into any lens that is in front of his face. You can see that same subtlety of lighting, control of color, the kind of soft, aerially diffused imagery that is just a part of this guy’s aesthetic. It doesn’t make any difference what he’s shooting. But that is a classically filmic approach, and you can see it no matter what he’s shooting.”

Honorable Mentions: Other DoPs who’ve caught our attention of late include Matt Flannery, whose ever-moving camerawork on “The Raid” emphasized the bone-breaking action; Urszula Pontikos, who lensed “Weekend” with beautiful romanticism; Ben Richardson, DoP on “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and Manuel Alberto Claro, who stepped in for Von Trier’s usual collaborator Anthony Dod Mantle on “Melancholia” to spectacular effect.

Jody Lee Lipes (“Martha Marcy May Marlene“) might well have made this list were it not that his ambitions seem to lie more in directing — he helmed several episodes of “Girls” among others, and has his feature directorial debut in development with the Sundance Labs. Adam Stone‘s also turned our heads with his work with Jeff Nichols on “Take Shelter” and the upcoming “Mud,” and showed a different side with Sundance talking piece “Compliance,” while Laurie Rose‘s third collaboration with Ben Wheatley, “Sightseers,” looks like the most distinctive yet. Also on the rise is camera and electrical department multi-tasker Christopher Blauvelt. After working under Harris Savides several times (“Margot At The Wedding,” “Zodiac,” “Elephant“) and DoPs like Christopher Doyle (“Paranoid Park“) and Lance Acord (“Where The Wild Things Are“), Blauvelt is striking out on his own. His work in “Meek’s Cutoff,”  gorgeously shot in a minimalist and naturalistic style (in a pre-1940s square-ish 4×3 aspect ratio no less) was stunning and similarly natural, almost underlit work in Ry Russo-Young‘s “Nobody Walks” was equally striking in a way that feels like Blauvelt has learned much from Savides.

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