The crafts buzz has already started with Emmanuel (Chivo) Lubezki’s extraordinary “continuous take” in Alejandro Iñárritu’s “Birdman.” Will the experimental cinematographer snag his second Academy Award in a row after “Gravity”? Or will 11-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins (just as digitally cutting edge) finally win his elusive prize for “Unbroken,” the epic biopic directed by Angelina Jolie about the late Olympian war hero Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell)? That’s probably the biggest mini-drama that will play out in this year’s below-the-line awards competition.
For “Birdman,” which has already conquered critics and journos at Venice and Telluride, Lubezki achieves another primal, “continuous life experience” in portraying the bold reinvention gamble by Michael Keaton’s former superhero/Hollywood has-been.
As with Sandra Bullock in “Gravity,” we stay with Keaton’s anxiety-ridden POV, but the intensity of the rhythm is much more theatrical for this claustrophobic black comedy. The extended, unbroken nature of the shots was planned in rehearsal and accomplished with Steadicam and hand-held cameras, with blocking and dialog timed perfectly with the sweeping camera movement. (Editors Stephen Mirrione and Douglas Crise ought to be considered for creating such a seamless flow in sync with the complex psychological underpinning.)
However, for this theater of the absurd shot in New York City in only 30 days, the lighting was not achieved traditionally. Lubezki once again went with an LED approach with a big one planted in the ceiling. This enabled him to crash and layer cool and warm colors while relying on practical fixtures to move the camera freely without having to relight, since “Birdman” was shot primarily in sequence with uninterrupted takes.
On the other hand, Deakins achieves an epic scope and intimacy with “Unbroken” (sure to be a prime best picture contender) that’s very different from his idiosyncratic work with the Coen brothers. It’s a powerful story, co-scripted by Joel and Ethan Coen, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s bestseller: Former Olympic track star Zamperini survives a plane crash in the Pacific, spends 47 days drifting on a raft, and then more than two-and-a-half years living in several Japanese POW camps. Think “Chariots of Fire” meets “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”
That’s quite a canvas for Deakins — the master of naturalism — to work with, and a minister conveys an apt metaphor early on: “The light will always follow darkness.” Also in contention will be production designer Jon Hutman (“In the Land of Blood and Honey”), the prolific composer Alexandre Desplat (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”), costume designer Louise Frogley (“Good Night and Good Luck”), editor Tim Squyers (“Life of Pi”), and supervising sound editor Becky Sullivan (“The Avengers”).
But don’t discount another potential “Gravity” effect for Christopher Nolan’s epic space adventure, “Interstellar,” shot primarily in IMAX for maximum impact by Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Her,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”). Judging by the stirring trailers, Nolan has captured the right celestial stuff with Matthew McConaughey leaving behind his daughter and son to find another planet to colonize because ours is dying.
The imagery is stunning for its contrast: There is a barrenness on Earth indicative of a world facing starvation, while glimpses inside the space craft and in outer space look perilous but very organic as well. In fact, it’s not surprising that Nolan assembled a modeling unit to stay as practical and as in-camera as possible. And while the wormhole looks like a thrilling light show, the potential alien planets being scouted look alternately glacial and oceanic.
Look for further Oscar potential from composer Hans Zimmer, production designer Nathan Crowley, editor Lee Smith, VFX supervisor Paul Franklin (and Double Negative), sound editor Richard King and re-recording mixers Greg Landaker and Gary Rizzo. All are long-time Nolan collaborators and Oscar winners save for Crowley.
Meanwhile, Jolie will have Oscar competition from new hubby Brad Pitt, who plays battle-hardened army sergeant Wardaddy in David Ayer’s “Fury,” commanding a Sherman tank and a five-man crew behind enemy lines in Nazi Germany. There is certainly crafts potential from cinematographer Roman Vasyanov (“End of Watch”), Oscar-winning “Gravity” composer Steven Price, and sound designer-supervisor-re-recording mixer Paul Ottosson.
A bigger crafts-heavy contender, “Into the Woods,” Rob Marshall’s adaptation of the beloved Stephen Sondheim musical that turns Grimm fairy tales on their head, should reap nominations from his Oscar-winning crew of cinematographer Dion Beebe (“Memoirs of a Geisha”), production designer Dennis Gassner (“Bugsy”), and costume designer Colleen Atwood (“Alice in Wonderland,” “Memoirs of a Geisha,” and “Chicago”), in addition to supervising sound editor Blake Leyh and sound effects editor Wyatt Sprague. It looks dark and creepy, all the better for Meryl Streep’s vengeful Witch and Johnny Depp’s Big, Bad Wolf to sink their teeth into.
As for VFX, “Interstellar” will face stiff competition from Weta’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” which reaches new photo-real, performance-captured heights with Andy Serkis as simian leader, Caesar. Weta will also have “The Hobbit” finale, “The Battle of Five Armies,” boasting the best that Peter Jackson’s company has to offer in virtual production wizardry. Other contenders include “Guardians of the Galaxy,” featuring the superbly animated Groot and Rocket by MPC and Framestore, “Godzilla” (more MPC greatness), and ILM’s “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” in which the indestructible Hasbro bots have never looked more powerful and majestic.
Of course, this just scratches the surface, and I look forward to exploring all of the contenders as we get deeper into the awards season.