The cinematography Oscar race is wide-open this season. Period movies dominate the race, from Robert Richardson’s 35mm film flashback to 1969 in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Rodrigo Prieto’s 35mm film/digital hybrid saga of mob life in Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” Lawrence Sher’s large-format digital deep dive into a gritty 80s New York-infused Gotham City for Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” and Roger Deakins’ bold, experimental real-time/continuous take journey into the trenches of World War I for Sam Mendes’ “1917,” to Jarin Blaschke’s black-and-white 35mm film rendering of 1890s Gothic psychological horror for Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse.”
However, the early favorites are Richardson and Prieto for their brilliant work on Best Picture frontrunners “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and “The Irishman.” For Richardson, the challenge was finding the right look for depicting 1969 at the end of the golden age and the rise of the counterculture in Hollywood. He achieved 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 about has-been TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt-double/buddy Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) on a collision course with the mass murders at the home of Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) by the Manson Family.
For Prieto, there were two visual challenges: capturing the zigzagging looks of the mid-to-late 20th century in telling the epic flashback story of mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), and accommodating Industrial Light & Magic’s innovative VFX de-aging of De Niro, Al Pacino (as Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa), and Joe Pesci (as Philly crime boss Russell Bufalino). ILM’s tech challenge was to create the lightest possible capture footprint for the trio of actors without helmet cameras or facial markers. So ILM devised a special three-camera rig (termed “the three-headed monster” by Pietro for its bulkiness) consisting of two digital witness cameras on either side of the director’s 35mm film camera. The witness cameras captured the most amount of geometry from the actors in the onset lighting without obstructing the principal photography.
Meanwhile, other contenders include Phedon Papamichael’s wonderfully saturated work on James Mangold’s racing drama, “Ford v Ferrari,” playing off the gorgeous ’60s era race cars with the Arri Alexa LF (large format); Mihai Mălaimare Jr.’s colorful depiction of Taika Waititi’s anti-hate, Nazi satire, “Jojo Rabbit”; Hoyte van Hoytema’s mostly 35mm film work on James Gray’s existential space journey, “Ad Astra,” in which the physical distance from the sun was an important element in the lighting design to mirror astronaut Brad Pitt’s state of mind; Hong Kyung-pyo’s multi-layered work on Bong Joon Ho’s acclaimed, richly textured horror movie about class division, “Parasite”; Yorick Le Saux’s exquisite 35mm film work on Greta Gerwig’s emotionally stirring “Little Women” adaptation; and Jörg Widmer’s solemn-looking depiction of World War II-era Austria for Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life.”
Contenders listed in alphabetical order. No film will be considered a frontrunner until we have seen it.
Roger Deakins (“1917”)
Phedon Papamichael (“Ford v Ferrari”)
Rodrigo Prieto (“The Irishman”)
Robert Richardson (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”)
Lawrence Sher (“Joker”)
Jarin Blaschke (“The Lighthouse”)
Hong Kyung-pyo (“Parasite”)
Hoyte van Hoytema (“Ad Astra”)
Yorick Le Saux (“Little Women”)
Mihai Mălaimare Jr. (“Jojo Rabbit”)
Jörg Widmer (“A Hidden Life”)
Caleb Deschanel (“The Lion King”)
Dick Pope (“Motherless Brooklyn”)
José Luis Alcaine (“Pain and Glory”)
Robbie Ryan (“Marriage Story”)