Every year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences singles out nominees in categories ranging from Best Picture to Best Documentary.Those who watch the awards ceremonies often bemoan the length of the program and inclusion of lesser known categories. Until March 25, this writer’s goal is to illuminate why these categories are just as important, if not more important, than best actor or actress.
Over the next four weeks, we will look at the contributions of the cinematographers, the writers, composers, editors and visual effects designers to the motion picture industry, with special consideration for the nominees.
Vittorio Storaro has long fought for the artistic rights of cinematographers as co-authors of the films in which they participate. Also known as directors of photography, these individuals are responsible for lighting the sets, composing the scenes, selecting the colors of the images and selecting the appropriate cameras, lenses, filters and film stock.
Generally, the DP works closely with the director, determining the quality of the film’s image.
Because he or she determines the look of the film, the cinematographer also must work closely with the production designer and art director so that the colors of the costumes and sets are in accordance with the desired effect.
This year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has singled out five cinematography nominees for their consideration. They are Peter Pau for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” John Mathieson for “Gladiator,” Lajos Koltai for “Malena,” Roger Deakins for “O Brother Where Art Thou?” and Caleb Deschanel for “The Patriot.”
Pau received his bachelor’s degree from the San Francisco Art Institute. After graduation, he returned to Hong Kong and worked on more than 24 films, many of which have brought him accolades.
He has garnered three Hong Kong Film Awards for Best Cinematography and nine additional nominations.
With most of his work completed in Asia, American audiences would be more familiar with his contributions to “Bride of Chucky” and “Dracula 2000.”
When Pau joined director Ang Lee on “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” both knew they wanted to make a different kind of martial arts film. In a recent article, Pau explained that many Hong Kong films of this type rely on hard lighting and a colorful palette to overdramatize the films.
Because of “Crouching Tiger’s” storytelling approach, Pau went with a more realistic look, relying on a desaturated, low-contrast color scheme – a look he called “Chinese watercolor.”
Pau chose film stocks that would help him achieve his goal and worked closely with Tim Yip, the film’s production and costume designer, to ensure this style would be carried throughout the film.
Working together, the three men delineated the three parts of narrative through color. They infused the first act with yellow hues. Then, to show the heightened emotion of the second act, they added more golden tones and fiery reds.
To create a moody atmosphere for the final segment, Pau shot it through with greens. Pau achieved these effects by color timing.
To emphasize the beauty of the leading actresses, Pau softened the film’s lighting, and to give the film an epic feel, he and Lee shot “Crouching Tiger” in wide screen.
Finally, to create the amazing flying sequences, Pau under-cranked the camera, adding speed and heightened drama. He also reworked some of these scenes digitally in post-production.
To recreate the valor and glory of ancient Rome in “Gladiator,” director Ridley Scott called upon Mathieson.
Before coming to the director’s notice, this British cinematographer had worked as an assistant DP and provided cinematography for many commercials and music videos.
His work on several French films eventually won him France’s Legion D’Or.
In 1999, he joined forces with Ridley’s son, Jake, on the film “Plunkett and Macleane,” a story about highwaymen in the 18th century.
Impressed by what he saw, the elder director partnered with Mathieson on a British telephone ad. This led to their collaboration on “Gladiator” and since then, “Hannibal.”
Because of the locations and the number of extras, Scott and Mathieson used up to seven cameras at one time.
Scott, who comes from a strong visual background himself, becomes heavily involved in the filmmaking process. For example, the director determined the look of his film would derive more from the paintings of 19th century artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tameda than from Hollywood invention.
To get the hues he wanted, particularly during the battle scenes, Mathieson relied upon color timing. Finally, to recreate the epic feel of David Lean, he filmed on Super 35 with spherical lenses.
For “Malena,” Hungarian cinematographer Lajos Koltai reprises his winning collaboration with director Giuseppe Tornatore. The men had worked two years before on “La Leggenda del pianista sull’oceano” (The Legend of the Pianist on the Ocean).
In a recent interview, Koltai expressed his excitement about teaming up with the Italian director, saying that like him, Tornatore “talks more with images than words.”
With more than 60 films to his credit, Koltai has found work on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States, he has displayed his skills on “White Palace,” “When a Man Loves a Woman” and “Mother.”
As a youth, Koltai shot his own films on Super 8. One year, he entered an amateur film festival and subsequently took home the first and second prizes.
Director Istvan Szabo, who was one of the contest’s judges, formed an early friendship with Koltai. And, since their meeting, the men have collaborated on at least 10 films.
Koltai’s work with Tornatore has brought him the most praise. His cinematography on “Legend” won him a David di Donatello award and a European Film Award.
Koltai received his training from the School of Drama and Film in Budapest.
When one thinks of Joel and Ethan Coen, it’s hard not to also think of British cinematographer Roger Deakins, as he has been DP on five of their seven films. These include “Barton Fink,” “The Big Lebowski,” “Fargo,” “The Hudsucker Proxy” and, most recently, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
For the latter film, Deakins took his role as cinematographer in a new direction.
In a recent interview, he explained that the Coens wanted to give certain scenes in the film rich, golden hues. But they were filming in Mississippi in the summertime, where the grass was green and the temperatures horrendous.
The best way to correct this color, then, was in the lab. But try as he might, Deakins couldn’t quite achieve what was desired. So, he turned to technology.
He scanned the film into a computer and digitally retooled the palette to the directors’ specifications. The result has to be seen to be believed.
Because this is an epic story, based loosely on Homer’s “Odyssey,” the filmmakers decided to shoot in wide screen. Deakins shot in Super 35 because the spherical lenses pull the audience closer to the characters. And this is a character piece.
Deakins is no stranger to the Oscars. He was nominated for his work on “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Fargo” and “Kundun.”
The nomination for the only American in the group, Caleb Deschanel, for “The Patriot” makes this his fourth. Previous nominations were for “Fly Away Home,” “The Natural” and “The Right Stuff.”
Deschanel has extensive training in filmmaking and attended Johns Hopkins University, the University of Southern California Film School and the American Film Institute.
In a recent interview, this cinematographer said he received the script for “The Patriot” while working on “Anna and the King.” Although he said he was reluctant to commit himself to another lengthy project, he was captivated by the script.
To get his ideas on lighting this period piece, he and director Roland Emmerich watched films such as “Dances with Wolves,” “The Last of the Mohicans,” “Glory” and those made by John Ford.
Recreating the American Revolution on film wasn’t without its challenges. To depict the hundreds of soldiers on the battlefield, many were added digitally during post-production, along with explosions and cannonballs.
For this, Deschanel worked closely with visual effects supervisor Stuart Robertson.
Because of the sheer immensity of the project, the filmmakers had to make sure they would capture every angle. To do this, they used nine different cameras.
Because half of the scenes were shot indoors, lighting consistency was paramount. Therefore, he relied on a technique he had used on “The Right Stuff.” He placed painted backdrops outside windows.
To give some of the scenes a softer look, the DP experimented with combinations of neutral density filters to bring down the level of light. And, like so many other cinematographer nominees, to give the film that epic look, Deschanel employed Super 35.
Which cinematographer will walk away with the Oscar remains to be seen. However, after watching their efforts and realizing the skill and patience required to achieve them, it’s plain to see how stiff the competition is and why each should be acknowledged for his contribution to the industry.
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