The Oscar nominees for best cinematography are not only filled with indelible images but they’re all constructed around the common theme of survival, disconnect and rebirth. I discuss the works with all five Oscar nominees: Philippe Le Sourd (“The Grandmaster”), Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki (“Gravity”), Bruno Delbonnel (“Inside Llewyn Davis”), Phedon Papamichael (“Nebraska”), and 11-time nominee Roger Deakins (“Prisoners”).
What a visually diverse feast: Sandra Bullock’s terrifying detachment in outer space in “Gravity”; the surreal train platform fight in the falling snow in “The Grandmaster”; the ghost-like, black-and-white rendering of Bruce Dern in “Nebraska”; the melancholy Oscar Isaac fighting failure as well as the bitter cold in “Inside Llewyn Davis”; and Hugh Jackman succumbing to his weaknesses in the gray skies of “Prisoners.”
Of course, Lubezki is the clear frontrunner for his stunningly immersive work in “Gravity,” pushing the boundaries of what it’s like to be lost in space, detached from home and humanity, and yet in awe at the beauty of the universe. There’s no question that the popular cinematographer was the master of his light, even though most of it was virtual in collaboration with director Alfonso Cuaron and the meticulous animation team at Framestore, which is expected to take the VFX Oscar as well.
“I think Alfonso made a great choice in having a cinematographer, me or whoever, go through this entire journey with him and figure out the movie and build the virtual cinematography and the virtual world before and then do the light capture,” Lubezki offers. “In that sense it was reverse-engineered, but it could not have happened the other way around: it would have been catastrophic and too expensive. We made a lot of mistakes but in general we were successful. And we’re going to see more and more of the virtual world and CG because more and more directors are going to want to make their dreams come to life. And it’s something we couldn’t do five years ago.
“I think they are all extraordinary movies and all completely different. How can you judge this work? You need to line up all of the cinematographers and have us all shoot the same scene. Guillermo del Toro has this theory about beauty. He separates it into two categories: calories and protein. Calories are not essential but protein beauty is essential for the existence of the movie, and I think all these movies have lots of protein beauty.”
For Le Sourd, the revenge-filled train station fight in “The Grandmaster” became the dramatic highlight: graphic shapes were reminiscent of Chinese painting while director Wong Kar Wai’s improvisational style offered new artistic possibilities every moment.
“That’s the beauty of cinema today,” Le Sourd suggests. “You can go from the black-and-white to the amazing high-technology of shooting a film you couldn’t do a few years ago. So the highlight of color and texture and emotion is completely different from one scene to another. And I recognize all this talent in a different way. I like the first sequence in ‘Gravity’ because you don’t know exactly the feeling of the film at all, and first sequence into the space and into the discovery of the gravity is a strong image.
“And in ‘Nebraska,’ the humanity of this man and the beauty of this landscape and its shape is perfect for black-and-white.”
In “Llewyn Davis,” Delbonnel equates sadness with lack of light. It’s usually overcast, there’s rarely bright sunlight. Daylight comes and dies very fast in this strange musical odyssey.