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Oscars 2020: Why ‘1917’ Leads Strong Period Cinematography Race

The past comes alive as a visual feast, with Roger Deakins leading the pack with his tour de force, single-shot "1917."

George MacKay as Schofield in "1917," the new epic from Oscar®-winning filmmaker Sam Mendes.

“1917”

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

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Let’s hear it for the period piece. That’s what this year’s Oscar race for Best Cinematography is about: Roger Deakins’ tour de force, continuous-shot choreography on “1917,” Sam Mendes’ World War I extravaganza; Robert Richardson’s colorful look at Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”; Rodrigo Prieto’s digital/Kodak 35mm film saga of mob life in Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman”; Lawrence Sher’s large-format digital deep dive into a New York-infused Gotham City (circa ’81) for Todd Phillips’ “Joker”; and Jarin Blaschke’s black-and-white 35mm film rendering of 19th century Gothic horror for Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse.”

Deakins, though, is a shoo-in to win his second Oscar. That’s because “1917” was the must-see, theatrical event of the season, and because of its unique, almost video game-like, immersive quality, it packs a great deal of emotional intensity and intimacy in its heroic adventure. The cinematographer created a singular visual language for the movie, which represents the crowning achievement of his illustrious career: naturalism and surrealism colliding during his camera dance with the two British soldiers, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman). We are with them every perilous step of the way, as they miraculously cut through the fog of war (including No Man’s Land, the canal crossing, the burning village of Écoust, and the final dash through the front line and trench). And, under the circumstances of this story about bravery, the very risky, single-shot experiment works.

Using ARRI’s brand new Alexa Mini LF, the lightweight, large-format version of the LF, and a creative assortment of rigs, the look was high-resolution with a shallow depth of field like still photography from the period. And Deakins’ most eye-catching sequence was the nighttime village chase, utilizing synchronized flares and a gigantic lighting rig.

George MacKay as Schofield in "1917," the new epic from Oscar®-winning filmmaker Sam Mendes.

“1917”

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

But Deakins never lost sight of hitting all the important beats in one, fluid move after another. “I love my job, but it was a great thing to do these takes that were so long and get it all right,” he said. “Because you can’t say, ‘That all works, now cut away…I’m going to come back to it.’ You have to do it all the way through, so that’s a hell of a lot of pressure on everybody.”

For Richardson, however, “Once Upon a Time” represents his crowning achievement as well. Visualizing Tarantino’s love letter to Hollywood — the clash of old versus new during the rise of the counterculture in 1969 — became deeply personal and inspirational for the cinematographer. The challenge was finding the right look: not trapped in period, not allegorically modern, but colorfully vivid in depicting the individual spaces and textures for has-been TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), his Zen-like stunt-double/buddy Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), and the angel of hope, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).

Appropriately enough, Robertson shot on Kodak 35mm film and achieved a certain grace in the faces and locations.  He got a high color saturation with hints of blue and deeper skin tones, and pushed the grain for a crisp look. In that way, he conveyed a smooth quality of LA for this intersection of fiction and reality. “I try to make each shot tell the story,” he said. “If I’m sitting in Musso & Frank or Brad’s small trailer home, I want that light to talk about him. I want the light in Leo’s home to talk about Leo. If he’s in the pool, I want it to talk about the pool. I’m also dealing with massive movie stars. I’m not going to fuck with their faces unless it’s needed.

"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," Margot Robbie and Robert Richardson.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Margot Robbie and Robert Richardson.

Sony Pictures

“Like, for example, Brad in those last moments of the third act. I’m going to fuck with that because I’m not trying to define it beautifully; I’m trying to define it by darkness. I’m also going to define the entire Manson explosion in a car by something called darkness. I’m going to etch them into the deepest and darkest spaces.”

The result, according to Richardson, was an effortless quality, despite the changes in tone and genre style throughout the journey. It was a particularly pleasurable experience in linking cinema’s past. “I don’t know a film I’ve ever shot where I have accomplished that task as successfully as I have within this,” he said. “And more, as if it comes out of the words, rather than covering the words, which is a vast difference from what I’ve done in the past.”

Linking the past with the present occurred dramatically as well in “The Irishman,” with its zigzagging flashback structure. It’s a memory movie about the loyalty and betrayal that defined Frank Sheeran’s (Robert De Niro) life as a mob hitman. For cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, though, it was like shooting two movies in one: accommodating Industrial Light & Magic’s Oscar-nominated, innovative VFX de-aging with a special three-camera digital rig for the RED Helium camera, and shooting 45 percent on Kodak 35mm film for vintage looks. So Prieto went down a rabbit hole investigating still photography from different eras and proposed to Scorsese that they use colorful Kodachrome for the ’50s and desaturated Ektachrome for the ’70s.

"The Irishman"

“The Irishman”

Netflix

“With Kodachrome, it’s saturated and the reds become vivid,” Prieto said. “For the first part of the movie, it’s warm and to go against the red we added cyan for the lush green of the trees, and the blacks are clean. After Hoffa [Al Pacino] dies, everything becomes muted in color. With Ektachrome, the low lights and shadows carry more of the cyan influence of blue/green.”

It’s the moment the colorful past disappears and everyone starts dying in their own way. And one of the trickiest shots was the death of Hoffa, which Scorsese wanted to emphasize theatrically. In fact, the angle was spatially impossible because of the narrow hallway, but they made it happen for the emotional impact. “He wanted a wide, frontal shot,” Prieto said. “Hoffa’s on the floor but it’s a full body shot of Sheeran in a lateral shot that contains the hallway.” The betrayal is complete and Sheeran lives with the guilt the rest of his life.

Joker

“Joker”

Warner Bros. Pictures

For “Joker,” the descent into madness character study revolving around Joaquin Phoenix’s tour de force performance as bullied clown Arthur Fleck-turned killer Joker, cinematographer Sheer effectively used the large-format ARRI 65 digital camera. This provided the hand-made ’70s look that director Phillips was after with high-resolution and shallow depth of field, keeping Fleck/Joker in his space but without distortion.

With extreme closeups and long takes, in his apartment, at work at Ha-Has, with the social worker or in the asylum, in the subway train, or doing his dance of liberation on the staircase, we are invited to become voyeurs in this unreliable narrative where reality and fantasy are often confusing.

Williem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in director Robert Eggers THE LIGHTHOUSE. Credit : A24 Pictures

Williem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in “The Lighthouse”

A24 Films

“The Lighthouse” is also a descent into madness, claustrophobic character study. Here we have lighthouse keepers Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, who break each other apart both psychologically and physically in the close quarters and in constant cold and rain. It recalls Harold Pinter’s “The Servant” in its tortuous cat and mouse power play. And, in keeping with the 19th century period and dark tone, it naturally cried out for black-and-white film.

But it required a particular style of black-and-white reminiscent of silent movies: Orthochromatic film (with special filters to remove red light) and a square 1.19:1 aspect ratio to emphasize the vertical framing with enough head room inside the lighthouse. The desired effect of director Eggers was brighter skies, darker flesh tones, and weathered textures throughout. The result was a haunting, hallucinatory experience, culminating in the trippy lighthouse light show that mesmerizes Pattinson. The past, indeed, was harsh and unforgiving.

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