Despite COVID pushing back the release of “Dune,” “The French Dispatch, “No Time to Die,” and “West Side Story,” it’s still a very competitive cinematography Oscar race this season, led by “Tenet,” Christopher Nolan’s time inversion spy thriller, with Oscar-nominated Hoyte van Hoytema (“Dunkirk”) leaning more heavily on the large-format IMAX camera; “Mank,” David Fincher’s dazzling deep dive into the tumultuous scripting of “Citizen Kane” by co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), shot in black-and-white by Emmy-nominated Erik Messerschmidt (“Mindhunter”); and “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” Aaron Sorkin’s timely account of the 1969 Vietnam protest conspiracy trial, shot by Oscar-nominated Phedon Papamichael (“Nebraska”) in both large-format and documentary styles.
For the Bond on steroids “Tenet,” which concerns a secret plot to destroy the world by pitting the future against the present, van Hoytema needed the IMAX film cameras to run in reverse to achieve the trippy effect. This required IMAX to rebuild the mechanics and redo the electronics to shoot in both directions. At the same time, the innovative cinematographer pushed the limits of IMAX for more hand-held and quieter work. The cameras were stripped back and remote heads were mounted inside cars for shooting 360-degree chases. Additionally, special lenses were designed for lower light shooting. But van Hoytema also deployed Logmar’s light-weight, compact Magellan 65mm film camera for quieter and closer intimate scenes.
Fincher’s passion project — scripted in the ’90s by his late father, Jack, and rewritten by uncredited Eric Roth — deconstructs the first draft of “Citizen Kane” by the acerbic and alcoholic Mankiewicz, who battles personal demons and a deadline imposed by wunderkind director Orson Welles (Tom Burke). It’s a snapshot of ’30s Hollywood as a confluence of movies, politics, and propaganda, with down and out Mank striving for greatness and redemption, channeling his experiences with Machiavellian publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) as his inspiration. And Messerschmidt dutifully emulates the look of a black-and-white movies from the period (only in widescreen), with a nod to Gregg Toland’s iconic use of depth of field and chiaroscuro lighting.
For Papamichael, shooting “The Trial of the Chicago 7” required a new mindset with sophomore director Sorkin, whose technical inexperience demanded more visual heavy lifting of the cinematographer. It was about conveying the rhythm and language of the script (divided between the overheated courtroom drama, how the peaceful demonstrations turned violent, and the bitter political rivalry between Eddie Redmayne’s progressive Tom Hayden and Sacha Baron Cohen’s more radical Abbie Hoffman). Papamichael shot the courtroom scenes with the same large-format setup as “Ford v Ferrari” (the Alexa LF with expanded, anamorphic lenses), and the riot scenes with two hand-held cameras for more of an improvised, vérité approach.
Three female cinematographers are in the running for nominations: “Mulan,” Disney’s live-action reimagining, was shot by Mandy Walker in China with the large-format Alexa 65 and a set of vintage lenses, centering the heroine in the frame and adding a softness around the edges for a vignette quality; “Hillbilly Elegy,” Ron Howard’s adaptation of J.D. Vance’s memoir about his Southern Ohio family haunted by its Appalachian roots, starring Amy Adams and Glenn Close, was filmed with a vérité touch by documentary cinematographer Maryse Alberti (“Velvet Goldmine”); and “One Night in Miami,” Regina King’s adaptation of Kemp Powers’ play about the clash of success and conscience for Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Sam Cooke (Lesley Odom Jr.), was shot by Tami Reiker with striking reflections and shadows.
Two picaresque movies to keep an eye on are Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland,” the TIFF and Venice award winner about a recessionary road odyssey with Frances McDormand, shot by the director’s go-to cinematographer Joshua James Richards (winner of Camerimage’s prestigious Golden Frog this year) with a roving, naturalistic nod to Terrence Malick; and “News of the World,” Paul Greengrass’ reunion with Tom Hanks (“Captain Phillips”) about a lonely Civil War vet, who connects Texas communities together with his newspaper recitals, and an unexpected trek with an abandoned young girl (Helena Zengel), shot by Dariusz Wolski (“The Last Duel”) with a burnished sense of melancholy.
Key Oscar Indicators
The Academy’s cinematography branch currently has 331 members, of which 287 are active and 44 are retired. The ASC currently has 415 active members in more than 20 countries. There are also 260 associate members from ancillary segments of the industry, and eight honorary members. In comparing Oscar winners with ASC winners, they have overlapped 11 times in the last 20 years.
In terms of “Mank’s” prospects as a monochromatic entry for Messerschmidt, it’s worth noting that Jarin Blaschke scored his first Oscar nomination last season for “The Lighthouse,” the Robert Eggers-directed black-and-white Gothic drama. Significantly, 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.” Żal previously earned his first Oscar nomination in 2015 for Pawlikowski’s black-and-white “Ida.” And this year Żal is in contention once again for his first American movie: Charlie Kaufman’s mind-bender, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” which was shot in color.
Meanwhile, Richards’ Camerimage prize for “Nomadland” puts him in a strong position for an Oscar nomination. The Polish cinematography festival serves as a key indicator of Oscar recognition, with previous festival winners “Joker,” “Cold War,” “Roma,” and “Lion” earning nominations.
In terms of contenders shot on film, joining the large-format “Tenet” are Sofia Coppola’s “On the Rocks,” the daughter-father comedy with Rashida Jones and Bill Murray, shot by Philippe Le Sourd; and Judd Apatow’s “The King of Staten Island,” the semi-autobiographical dramedy about “SNL” comedian Pete Davidson, shot by Oscar winner Robert Elswit (“There Will Be Blood”).
Key Awards Dates
Monday, February 1, 2021
Preliminary Oscar voting begins
Monday, February 15, 2021
Feature Film nomination ballots mailed for ASC Awards
Sunday, February 28, 2021
Submission deadline for the Oscars and ASC Awards
Friday, March 5, 2021
Oscar nominations voting begins, ASC nomination polls close
Wednesday, March 10, 2021
Oscar nominations voting ends 5 PM PT, ASC nominations announced
Friday, March 12, 2021
Final ASC ballots mailed
Monday, March 15, 2021
Oscar nominations announced
Saturday, April 10, 2021
Nominees and ASC Members Breakfast, Panel & ASC Open House
Tuesday, April 13, 2021
Final ASC polls close
Thursday, April 15, 2021
Oscar Nominees Luncheon
Final Oscar voting begins
Sunday, April 18, 2021
ASC Awards streamed live from the ASC Clubhouse in Hollywood, with plans for simultaneous in-person component TBD.
Tuesday, April 20, 2021
Final Oscar voting ends
Sunday, April 25, 2021
Winners announced at the 93rd Academy Awards (Oscars)
Contenders listed in alphabetical order. No film will be considered a frontrunner until we have seen it.
Erik Messerschmidt (“Mank”)
Phedon Papamichael (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”)
Tami Reiker (“One Night in Miami”)
Joshua James Richards (“Nomadland”)
Hoyte van Hoytema (“Tenet”)
Maryse Alberti (“Hillbilly Elegy”)
Sean Bobbitt (“Judas and the Black Messiah”)
Robert Elswit (“The King of Staten Island”)
Philippe Le Sourd (“On the Rocks”)
Matthew Libatique (“The Prom”)
Benjamin Loeb (“Pieces of a Woman”)
Martin Ruhe (“The Midnight Sky”)
Tobias Schliessler (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”)
Newton Thomas Sigel (“Cherry”)
Mandy Walker (“Mulan”)
Dariusz Wolski (“News of the World”)
Christopher Blauvelt (“Emma”)
Paolo Carnera (“The White Tiger”)
Stéphane Fontaine (“Ammonite”)
Shelly Johnson (“Greyhound”)
Lachlan Milne (“Minari”)
Zac Nicholson (“The Personal History of David Copperfield”)
Gianfranco Rosi (“Notturno”)
Newton Thomas Sigel (“Da 5 Bloods”)
Łukasz Żal (“I’m Thinking of Ending Things”)