Talking Cinematography with Oscar Nominees Lubezki, Deakins, Delbonnel, Le Sourd and Papamichael

Talking Cinematography with Oscar Nominees Lubezki, Deakins, Delbonnel, Le Sourd and Papamichael
Talking Cinematography with Oscar Nominees Lubezki, Deakins, Delbonnel, Le Sourd and Papamichael

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. 

“The first shot is impressive in ‘Gravity,’ but I’m not surprised because Alfonso and Chivo are quite amazing in thinking about very long complicated shots and doing impressive work with it. And to make it work in terms of light is even more complicated. And I’m sure that on ‘Gravity,’ Chivo controlled it from beginning to end.
“Philippe’s work in ‘The Grandmaster’ is absolutely gorgeous. I’m not really interested in the fights but the general concept of framing and those kinds of silhouettes is beautiful. And you have to have a director with you that follows this kind of aesthetic and supports it.
“And this digital transition is an interesting one. I challenge anyone who has seen ‘Prisoners’ to say that it has been shot digitally. I think this fight is basically over between film and digital. And you know anything that Roger uses is going to be gorgeous. What I think is beautiful in ‘Prisoners’ is that it’s a very simple light. But very efficient. It’s not only an aesthetic but very intense. When Jake Gyllenhaal discovers the van at night and the silhouette is a very hard light which goes with the action.”
For Papamichael, black-and-white narrows it down so you can focus more on Bruce Dern’s face with its textures and crazy, glowing hair. Indeed, this is Alexander Payne’s zombie movie. He describes the choreography of light and mood in “The Grandmaster” as exquisite opera. “And what really struck me about ‘Llewyn Davis’ was the consistency of tonality that Bruno was able to achieve throughout the story. It just shows great control of his craft, the way he manipulates the film to get the tonality and the textures.”
Deakins, though, has just returned from Australia shooting “Unbroken,” the World War II prisoner of war film directed by Angelina Jolie. He says it’s both epic in scale and claustrophobic, another new world to capture.
He liked that “Prisoners” wasn’t just an intense mystery or a gothic thriller: “Like any film, I think the challenge is to sustain the mood and atmosphere through the whole piece. And Denis wanted it to be far more connected to the characters than it being just this engrossing thriller.”
He finds the nominees always diverse but particularly worthy of recognition this year. “They’re all so different just in terms of technology. Obviously ‘Gravity’s’ whole use of CG and that boundary is sort of dissolving between purist live action and [virtual cinematography].” As a visual consultant at DreamWorks (“The Croods”), Deakins even believes they should expand the category to include animation.
However, Deakins will not be returning with Sam Mendes to shoot “Bond 24” next year. “He’s got a great idea for another film, which is really an extension [of ‘Skyfall’] but from my point, I don’t know what else I could do with it, really.”
Deakins will just have to find another new world to capture, for which he will no doubt snag another nomination.

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