This year’s Oscar race for cinematography is dedicated to period pieces: Roger Deakins’ tour de force, continuous-shot experiment for “1917,” Sam Mendes’ bold World War I thriller; 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 1890s Gothic psychological horror for Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse.”
Once Deakins wrapped his head around the continuous-shot concept, he worked out the entire movie with Mendes and the crew as a choreographed dance with George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman as the two British soldiers, Schofield, and Blake. He used ARRI’s brand new Alexa Mini LF, the lightweight, large-format version of the LF, and an assortment of creative rigs (including the Trinity hybrid stabilizer and a cable wire, remote-controlled from a vehicle). The look was high-resolution with a shallow depth of field like still photography from the period. And his most eye-catching sequence was the nighttime village chase, utilizing synchronized flares and a gigantic lighting rig.
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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 shot on Kodak 35mm film and 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.
Sheer shot “Joker” with the ARRI 65 for a high-resolution, handmade look conducive of the period. It’s a character study of Arthur Fleck’s (Joaquin Phoenix) arrested development and how bullying takes him over the edge into madness as Joker. Closeups and long-takes created intimacy without the need of wide lenses. We are invited to become voyeurs in this unreliable narrative where reality and fantasy are often confusing.
For Prieto, there were two visual challenges on “The Irishman,” a memory movie about the loyalty and betrayal that defined Frank Sheeran’s (Robert De Niro) life as a mob hitman: accommodating Industrial Light & Magic’s innovative VFX de-aging with a special three-camera digital rig and shooting the rest on Kodak 35mm film, with the ’50s resembling the colorful look of Kodachrome and the ’60s resembling Ektachrome for a less saturated, low contrast look.
Despite “The Lighthouse” taking place in the 1890s, Blaschke went for a silent movie look, with bright skies and rugged skintones for a preponderance of scenes shot at night. And the boxy, 1.19:1 aspect ratio made it look like a window into this mysterious, maddening, hallucinatory world.
The final five contenders are listed in alphabetical order. No film will be considered a frontrunner until we have seen it.
Roger Deakins (“1917”)
Robert Richardson (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”)
Lawrence Sher (“Joker”)
Rodrigo Prieto (“The Irishman”)
Jarin Blaschke (“The Lighthouse”)