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ASC Awards 2021 Upset: Erik Messerschmidt Wins Feature Film Award for ‘Mank’

ASC Awards winners include Netflix's "The Crown," "The Queen’s Gambit," and "Mank," and Disney+ series "The Mandalorian."


Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman in “Mank”


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“Mank” cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt upset “Nomadland” DP Joshua James Richards, the Oscar favorite, at the 35th annual American Society of Cinematographers Awards on Sunday. The win for David Fincher’s monochromatic biopic, with Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) struggling to churn out a first draft of “Citizen Kane,” was a surprise, given the momentum that has been with Richards since he won Camerimage’s prestigious Golden Frog last year. However, Richards (previously nominated for the Spotlight Award for “The Rider” but is not a current ASC member) still remains the Oscar favorite for shooting Chloé Zhao’s Best Picture frontrunner (she is also the favorite to take Best Director).

Yet it was a breakthrough achievement for Fincher’s go-to cinematographer from “Mindhunter.” Messerschmidt recreated a Golden Age of Hollywood in black-and-white, shooting with the RED Ranger Helium Monochrome, and bolstered by the Cinefade variable depth of field tool to emulate Gregg Toland’s iconic “Pan-Focus” for “Kane.” Crucially, the cinematographer struck a balance between retro and modern, taking advantage of the director’s efficient digital workflow to approximate the look of a movie made around the time of “Kane” in 1940 yet “Photographed in Hi-Dynamic Range.”

“Thanks to David Fincher for creating an environment where we could do our best work, and expecting it,” Messerschmidt said. He also beat Oscar nominees Phedon Papamichael (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”) and Dariusz Wolski (“News of the World”) along with Newton Thomas Sigel (“Cherry”) in the feature film category.

The last black-and-white Oscar winner was director Alfonso Cuarón’s historic win for “Roma” in 2019, which split that year, interestingly enough, with ASC winner and Oscar nominee Łukasz Żal for Pawel Pawlikowski’s black-and-white “Cold War.”

In terms of a bellwether, the ASC has been predictive 11 times in the last 20 years, but only six times in the last decade, so it’s clear that the honorary society likes to display its independence from the Academy. So Richards remains a good bet to win the Oscar for Zhao’s recessionary road odyssey. Her go-to DP offered a roving, naturalistic nod to Terrence Malick, capturing Frances McDormand’s journey through the landscapes of the American West during Magic Hour. Her long walks became the most vivid expression of her spiritual awakening, which became all the more powerful to observe during the pandemic.

TV winners included Baz Idoine for “The Mandalorian” and Fabian Wagner for “The Crown.”

The annual awards, conducted virtually this year, honor the year’s top cinematography in categories spanning film and TV. The small ceremony was broadcast from the ASC Clubhouse in Hollywood and hosted by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz, grandson of the titular character in “Mank.” Winners accepted their awards remotely.

Gregory Kershaw, one of the Documentary winners for “The Truffle Hunters,” said he was grateful for the recognition. “We set out to make a documentary that was more than facts and information and reached toward that lofty goal of cinema,” Kershaw said. “To have it recognized by this group — the cinematographers, the poets, the magicians who who bring it all to life — it means everything to us.”

Aurélien Marra won the Spotlight Award for his work on the bittersweet queer French drama “Two of Us”. The prize honors cutting-edge work on independent films.

Edward Lachman presented Sofia Coppola (“On the Rocks”) with the Board of Governors Award,  bestowed to non-cinematographers for their contributions to cinema. Lachman was the DP on Coppola’s 1999 debut feature “The Virgin Suicides.”

“For me, she had a remarkable composure and vision,” Lachman said. “You found a way that allowed myself and all the creative departments around you to contribute while you still maintained your own personal vision. You’ve always been able to enlighten us with your talent. It seems so effortless, enriching us.”

Feature Film

Erik Messerschmidt, ASC for “Mank” (winner)
Phedon Papamichael, ASC, GSC for “The Trial of the Chicago 7”
Joshua James Richards for “Nomadland”
Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC for “Cherry”
Dariusz Wolski, ASC for “News of the World”


Katelin Arizmendi for “Swallow”
Aurélien Marra for “Two of Us” (winner)
Andrey Naydenov for “Dear Comrades!”


Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw for “The Truffle Hunters” (winner)
Viktor Kosakovskiy and Egil Håskjold Larsen for “Gunda”
Gianfranco Rosi for “Notturno”

Motion Picture, Limited Series, or Pilot Made for Television

Martin Ahlgren, ASC for “The Plot Against America,” “Part 6”
Anette Haellmigk for “The Great,” “The Great”
Pete Konczal for “Fargo,” “The Birthplace of Civilization”
Steven Meizler for “The Queen’s Gambit,” “End Game” (winner)
Gregory Middleton, ASC, CSC for “Watchmen,” “This Extraordinary Being”

Episode of a One-Hour Television Series – Commercial

Marshall Adams, ASC for “Better Call Saul,” “Bagman”
Carlos Catalán for “Killing Eve,” “Meetings Have Biscuits”
François Dagenais, CSC for “Project Blue Book,” “Area 51”
Jon Joffin, ASC for “Motherland: Fort Salem,” “Up is Down” (winner)
C. Kim Miles, ASC, CSC, MySC for “Project Blue Book,” “Operation Mainbrace”

Episode of a One-Hour Television Series – Non-Commercial

David Franco for “Perry Mason,” “Chapter 2”
Ken Glassing for “Lucifer,” “It Never Ends Well for the Chicken”
Adriano Goldman, ASC, ABC, BSC for “The Crown,” “Fairytale”
David Greene, ASC, CSC for “Impulse,” “The Moroi”
M. David Mullen, ASC for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “It’s Comedy or Cabbage”
Fabian Wagner, ASC, BSC for “The Crown,” “Imbroglio” (winner)

Episode of a Half-Hour Television Series

Ava Berkofsky for “Insecure,” “Lowkey Lost”
Greig Fraser, ASC, ACS for “The Mandalorian,” “Chapter 1: The Mandalorian”
Baz Idoine for “The Mandalorian,” “Chapter 13: The Jedi” (winner)
Matthew Jensen, ASC for “The Mandalorian,” “Chapter 15: The Believer”
Jas Shelton for “Homecoming,” “Giant”

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