As previously noted, the Oscar crafts contenders embrace a wide range of genres, periods, subjects, themes, and settings this season, with a particular emphasis on the movies, music, and political/social activism. This definitely affects the cinematography race, which shines a light on the remarkable looks that help drive visual storytelling.
This season, three-time winner Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki (“The Revenant,” “Birdman,” “Gravity”) goes up against two-time winners Roger Deakins (“1917,” “Blade Runner 2049”) and Janusz Kamiński (“Saving Private Ryan,” “Schindler’s List”) along with several other distinguished winners: Russell Carpenter (“Titanic”), Greig Fraser (“Dune”), Claudio Miranda (“Life of Pi”), Linus Sandgren (“La La Land”), and John Seale (“The English Patient”).
Best Cinematography has historically been one of the Oscars’ least inclusive awards; last year, Ari Wegner (“The Power of the Dog”) became only the second woman ever nominated in the category. Wegner returns to the race this year with “The Wonder,” along with several other contenders who could help continue to break the cinematography glass ceiling: Autumn Durald Arkapaw (“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”), Natasha Braier (“She Said”), Judith Kaufman (“Corsage”), Polly Morgan (“The Woman King”), and Mandy Walker (“Elvis”).
Among the early frontrunners are Joseph Kosinski’s high-octane “Top Gun: Maverick” (Paramount), Matt Reeves’ noirish “The Batman” (Warner Bros.), Jordan Peele’s flipped-out “Nope” (Universal), and Baz Luhrmann’s delirious “Elvis” (Warner Bros.). But this will change quickly with the festival season right around the corner, including Camerimage, the influential November event in Toruń, Poland — celebrating its 30th anniversary — which has seen several recent winners (“Joker,” “Lion,” “Carol,” and “Ida”) secure Oscar nominations.
Spotlight on Hollywood and the Power of Cinema
Roger Deakins reunites with “1917” director Sam Mendes on “Empire of Light” (Searchlight). The director’s first solo script is his British answer to “Cinema Paradiso”: a love letter to the importance of the theatrical experience. It’s about a May-December, interracial romance between Olivia Colman and Micheal Ward, who work at the Art Deco Empire movie theater on the English coast in the ’80s. They shot on location in in Margate, a town on the northern shore of Kent, where J. M. W. Turner painted most of his most famous works. Deakins, who grew up in a similar town, once again shot with the Alexa large format camera and its Signature Prime lenses. The location provided the right scale to the visual landscape and allowed them to take advantage of the beautiful skies and the gray sea.
Andrew Dominik’s “Blonde” (Netflix) pivots between color and black-and-white to evoke the mental state of Marilyn Monroe (Ana de Armas); Chayse Irvin (“BlacKKKlansman”) shot on the Sony Venice (for the color portions) and the Arri Alexa XT B+W. They chose not to do a traditional color grade to create heightened visuals: Technicolor recreation for the films Monroe stared in (such as “Niagara”), and black-and-white recreation of photographic images from her life.
The darker side of Hollywood is further exposed in “She Said” (Universal), based on the New York Times investigation (and subsequent book) that brought down Harvey Weinstein and bolstered the #MeToo movement. Natasha Braier brings a Gordon Willis-style ferocity to shooting the film, an “All the President’s Men”-style procedural following reporters Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan). However, unlike the landmark Watergate movie, which Willis shot on a set in Burbank replicating the Washington Post, Braier got to shoot at The Times Building and make use of its energy-efficient, dimmable fluorescent fixtures that supplement natural light.
“Elvis” is the first feature film musical for Mandy Walker. She shot with the Alexa 65, recreating the lighting and shooting styles from the musical performances of Presley (Austin Butler) with the help of replica lenses, camera moves, and angles. Walker had lenses custom-adapted for each time period of the film, from Panavision Spheros 65s and LUTs to 1.8x T Seriesanamorphics and petzval lenses. Different time periods were marked by desaturation and a spherical look for the ’50s, more color, depth of field, and contrast when he comes to Hollywood, and then aberrations, horizontal flares and anamorphic during his glam Vegas period.
“The Fabelmans” (Universal) marks Janusz Kamiński’s 20th film with Spielberg. Shot on 35mm Kodak film, Kamiński re-imagines the suburbia of Spielberg’s youth along with his early adventures in filmmaking. Coming on the heels of “West Side Story,” we anticipate a colorful evocation of the ’50s and ’60s.
Linus Sandgren works once more with director Damien Chazelle for “Babylon” (Paramount), which takes root in the late ’20s during the dramatic transition between silent film and the talkies. Shooting on 35mm Kodak film, Sandgren strikes a visual tone that embraces Hollywood glam, glitz, and debauchery, layering the visuals in such a way that they display the different strata of society during a time of major transformation for L.A. and the film industry.
The Time of Their Lives
Darius Khondji (“Uncut Gems”) shoots two very personal contenders this season: Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Bardo (or False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths),” from Netflix, and James Gray’s “Armageddon Time” (Focus Features). The blurring reality and memories of the Mexican documentarian (Daniel Giménez Cacho) at the center of “Bardo” are conveyed in large format with the Alexa 65. Khondji turns Iñárritu’s native Mexico City into a wildly imaginative mindscape; the iconic dance hall Salon Los Angeles becomes a surreal state of limbo with a very long take. The cinematographer employs the Alexa 65 for the first time with Gray on “Armageddon Time,” their third film together after “The Lost City of Z” and “The Immigrant.” Rather than focusing on definition or sharpness, though, they went for intimacy, using some old lenses to evoke the director’s ’80s upbringing naturally without filtration, fanciness, or lengthy DI.
With Sebastián Lelio’s “The Wonder” (Netflix), a psychological thriller set in the Irish Midlands of 1862 (based on the novel by Emma Donoghue), Ari Wegner delves into Gothic territory. Wegner, who shot “The Power of the Dog” with the Alexa LF to take advantage of the vast landscapes in New Zealand, had a very different atmosphere shooting “The Wonder” in Dublin, capturing Florence Pugh as an English nurse observing an adolescent girl whose months-long fast could either be a medical anomaly or a genuine miracle.
“Amsterdam” (2oth Century) is Emmanuel Lubezki’s first collaboration with David O. Russell. It’s very much a departure for both of them: a mystery-comedy about three friends (Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington) who become prime suspects in a murder investigation during the 1930s. Lubezki emphasizes a warm creaminess around the reds and browns of Judy Becker’s interior design along with soft depth of field in the exteriors.
Noah Baumbach chose cinematographer Lol Crawley (“Vox Lux”) to capture the nightmarish tone of “White Noise” (Netflix) with exaggerated colors and contrast and an increasingly untethered camera to signify the chaos of the Don DeLillo novel that is the film’s basis. Crawley shot on 35mm Kodak film using Arri film cameras and Hawk and Cooke anamorphic lenses, and was inspired by a range of ’70s and ’80s films, particularly “Paris, Texas” (shot by Robby Müller), and infuses a green neon look befitting the chemical waste mishap that sends Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, and family fleeing from their Midwestern college town.
“White Noise” shares a time period with “Bones & All” (UA), in which Luca Guadagnino revels in the romance of two cannibalistic lovers on the margins of society — Maren (Taylor Russell) and Lee (Timothée Chalamet). Shot by Arseni Khachaturan on 35mm Kodak film, the saturated beauty of the landscape Maren and Lee trek across offers hope, while the darkness surrounding their monstrosity only undermines it.
For “Corsage” (IFC), Austria’s international Oscar pick, which is a black comedy about the Aristocratic rebellion of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Vicky Krieps), director Marie Kreutzer tapped German cinematographer Kaufman to pierce the lavish surroundings with a dynamic demystification. Shooting on 35mm Kodak film, Kaufman depicts symmetrical landscapes, aerial views of dinner scenes, and even women ascending a staircase in slow-motion.
In “Three Thousand Years of Longing” (UA), George Miller drew John Seale out of retirement with an adult genie-in-a-bottle story starring Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba. For this time-hopping Middle Eastern sojourn — full of opulence and grandeur with interior Technochrane choreography sweeping through rooms and going from wide shots to extreme closeups. — Seale shot with the Alexa 65 and the Premista 19-45mm wide-angle zoom lens for natural beauty.
The Thrill of It All
Tom Cruise’s amazing practical aerial work in the jet fighters on “Top Gun: Maverick” was achieved as a result of Claudio Miranda’s ingenious use of the innovative Sony Rialto Camera Extension System, which fit six 6k Venice cameras inside the planes’ cockpits. The camera crew was able to reach a new level of flight-photography realism and IMAX-level spectacle during the test flights and thrilling, “Star Wars”- and “The Dam Busters”-inspired bomber raid. The Rialto provided four cameras looking back at the actor from different angles and two looking forward.
Russell Carpenter heads back to Pandora for the four “Avatar” sequels, commencing with “The Way of Water” (20th Century). He and James Cameron are exploring a host of lush new frontiers, but especially the sweeping oceans with advanced in-camera underwater cinematography and first-time underwater performance capture from Wētā FX. They are using Venice cameras throughout, but for 3D (optimized for IMAX), they rigged the Venice to a specially made 3D stereoscopic beam splitter system, utilizing the Rialto extension unit used on “Top Gun: Maverick.” (This system is called the Sony CineAlta Venice 3D). The sequel will be offered in an unprecedented number of versions, including 4K and 3D at a high frame rate of 48 fps.
“Nope” was the first horror movie to be shot in IMAX, bringing a sense of maximum immersion to Jordan Peele’s deconstruction of the UFO film. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema used IMAX cameras for the alien attacks and the opening chimp massacre and Panavision System 65 cameras for the rest, with Kodak supplying 65mm film. However, van Hoytema’s greatest innovation was devising a technique for shooting large format day-for-night for more realistic nighttime vision. This consisted of shooting each sequence on an infrared digital 65mm camera synchronized with a Panavision System 65 camera. They then blended this seamlessly with footage captured through the traditional camera lens.
For “The Batman,” Matt Reeves wanted a grunge-like procedural, in keeping with Robert Pattinson’s sullen Bruce Wayne and a totally corrupted, Gothic-inspired Gotham. Greig Fraser (who was also the cinematographer for Reeves’ “Let Me In”) shot “The Batman” on the Alexa LF 4K with Arri Alpha lenses, moving laterally with Wayne/Batman’s POV to evoke his inner turmoil. The lighting was dark but contained bright areas in the frame, and he wet the streets and sets in every scene. Fraser, who helped develop ILM’s innovative StageCraft LED wall volume system for “The Mandalorian,” recommended its VFX use to add unfinished skylines.
The genre-bending “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (A24) reteams Larkin Seiple (“Swiss Army Man”) with the Daniels. Shooting with the Arri Alexa Mini, Seiple used an assortment of lenses (Altas Orion, Scorpiolens, and Todd-AO anamorphic, Zeiss Master Primes) and custom lighting rigs to differentiate Michelle Yeoh’s time-hopping, multiverse adventures. Using “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” as inspiration, they created their own cinematic language, referencing “Die Hard,” “In the Mood for Love,” “Magnolia,” “The Sound of Music,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and many more. Plus, each action sequence had its own look to go along with the martial arts style.
MCU veteran Autumn Durald Arkapaw (Emmy-nominated for “Loki”) boards Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (Marvel/Disney), in which the colorful pageantry of Afrofuturism bumps up against the Atlantis-inspired underwater civilization of Talocan, with its Azetec and Mayan influences. She shot on the Sony Venice with a set of modified T Series Panavision lenses to infuse them with some of the organic character of the anamorphic C series she normally works with (such as graduated depth of field, flare, and flattering bokeh).
Gina Prince-Bythewood tapped Polly Morgan for her historical epic, “The Woman King” (Sony Pictures), which serves as a real life complement to “Black Panther.” It stars Viola Davis as Nanisca, general of the all-female military Agojie warriors in the West African kingdom of Dahomey in the 19th century. Blending contemporary techniques with a historical story, Morgan shot with large format Arri Alexas paired with anamorphic glass from Panavision. The expansive widescreen format was used to capture both the scope of the period and setting and also the close and emotive relationships of the female warriors. The raw visual style was intimately epic, based on highlighting the beauty of the culture against the contrasting ugliness of the slave trade.
The last time Jarin Blaschke worked with Robert Eggers, on 2019’s “The Lighthouse,” he earned an Oscar nomination. For Eggers’ masterful Viking epic “The Northman” (Focus Features), Blaschke shot on 35mm Kodak film, and got to experiment with night scenes under a full moon for a monochromatic look with bursts of color created by firelight. He did this with gels and filters and tight grids of 500-watt bulbs. The film’s thrilling berserker raid was shot in one frenzied, unbroken shot with a single camera.
Three More to Consider
The always fascinating Matthew Libatique has two contenders worth considering— “The Whale” (A24) and “Don’t Worry Darling” (Warner Bros.) — while Edward Berger’s first German-language reworking of the World War I classic, “All Quiet on the Western Front” (Netflix), looks to be a bravura piece of work from cinematographer James Friend.
“The Whale,” a drama about a 600-pound middle aged man (Brendan Fraser) who tries to reconnect with his teenage daughter (Sadie Sink), is the seventh collaboration between Libatique and Darren Aronofsky. Shot on a single Sony Venice with Angenieaux primes, the director and cinematographer embraced the challenge of transforming Sam Hunter’s stage play into a cinematic experience. The filmmakers chose the square aspect ratio of 1:33:1 and used a subtle approach to light and composition to maximize emotional power. For Olivia Wilde’s mind-bender “Don’t Worry Darling,” Libatique shot on Alexa Mini LF cameras, lensed by Tribe 7 Blackwings and Sigma Classics, to contrast a highly stylized, colorful world with a photographic naturalism. Each color and skin tone was built to maximize the strong contributions of production design (Katie Byron), costumes (Arianne Phillips), and makeup (Heba Thorisdottir). Shot in Palm Springs, Libatique’s vision was to capture a ’50s utopian world with a sense of mystique.
With Germany’s international Oscar submission, “All Quiet on the Western Front” — which is more logistically ambitious than the Oscar-winning “1917” — Friend covers the trenches and battlefield (shot in the Czech republic) through the day and against the light. He shot with the Alexa 65 and also with the Alexa Mini LF for tight spaces in the trenches, focusing primarily on the POV of young German soldier Paul (Felix Kammerer), avoiding the use of many cuts. He also employed the same miniature stabilized head (Stabileye) that Roger Deakins used in “1917” for wide shots outside the trenches. It promises to be both harrowing and immersive.
Greig Fraser (“The Batman”)
Claudio Miranda (“Top Gun: Maverick”)
Hoyte van Hoytema (“Nope”)
Mandy Walker (“Elvis”)
Note: Only films that the author has seen will be named frontrunners at this time
Autumn Durald Arkapaw (“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”)
Natasha Braier (“She Said”)
Lol Crawley (“White Noise”)
Roger Deakins (“Empire of Light”)
Chayse Irvin (“Blonde”)
Janusz Kamiński (“The Fabelmans”)
Darius Khondji (“Bardo,” “Armageddon Time”)
Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki (“Amsterdam”)
Linus Sandgren (“Babylon”)
Ari Wegner (“The Wonder”)
Barry Ackroyd (“I Wanna Dance with Somebody”)
Jarin Blaschke (“The Northman”)
Bobby Bukowski (“Till”)
Russell Carpenter (“Avatar: The Way of Water”)
Ben Davis (“The Banshees of Inisherin,” “My Policeman”)
James Friend (“All Quiet on the Western Front”)
Jess Hall (“Chevalier”)
Florian Hoffmeister (“TÁR”)
Judith Kaufman (“Corsage”)
Arseni Khachaturan (“Bones & All”)
Matthew Libatique (“The Whale,” “Don’t Worry Darling”)
Luc Montpellier (“Women Talking”)
Polly Morgan (“The Woman King”)
Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (“Thirteen Lives”)
Frank Passingham (“Pinocchio”)
John Seale (“Three Thousand Years of Longing”)
Larkin Seiple (“Everything Everywhere All at Once”)