By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist November 18, 2011 at 3:19PM
So far in this column, we've focused principally on the acting and writing categories, in part because they're the bigger tickets; when the mainstream press cover the Academy Awards, it's the actors, directors and (to a lesser extent), the writers who get the real coverage. However, what makes cinema well, cinema, and what makes it different from any other art form, are the cinematography and editing. The former is linked to photography, but goes so far beyond that to become an entirely different craft; when the layman says a film was "well-directed," he's normally talking about how well shot it is. Of course, that's partially the responsibility of the director, but it's the cinematographer who has to work out how to achieve the shots, and oftentimes is more responsible for the look of the film than his director.
And editing...well, ever since Eisenstein, editing has been the thing that makes cinema unique; the juxtaposition of two shots, and the filmic grammar created by such a thing, has no comparison in any other medium. In theory, the awards in their respective Oscar categories should be given as much, if not more prominence as, say, Best Supporting Actor, but instead they're tossed off midway through the show, given significantly less screen time than Best Original Song (although it could be worse, as the categories are excluded from the TV broadcast of the BAFTAs altogether).
But as far as we're concerned, they're among the most prestigious categories of the ceremony, and we wanted to dig in to them properly this week. Cinematography is the less easily predictable of the two as it's less in sync with the big winners than most, with only one Best Picture winner in the last decade also taking the Cinematography prize -- Anthony Dod Mantle's work on "Slumdog Millionaire," which also doubled as the first digitally-shot picture to win. It's also a category where films that go relatively unrewarded in other categories pick up nominations. Pictures like "The Patriot," "Girl With A Pearl Earring," "Phantom of the Opera," "Batman Begins," "The Black Dahlia," "Children of Men," and "The White Ribbon" are all nominees in the last decade or so, without picking up much love elsewhere. The cinematography branch, to their credit, will generally vote for a film based on the merit of their own craft, ignoring failings, or the fact that it's "not an Oscar movie."
As such, it does make it tricky to pick potential winners. This is, however, a year where a number of potential Best Picture nominees look like good bets. Steven Spielberg's regular DoP Janusz Kaminski, somewhat surprisingly, only has four nominations (with two wins, for "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan,") but the Academy respond more to his more serious collaborations with the director, so "War Horse" seems like it could be a good bet, particularly considering that the glimpses of footage so far look pretty strong. "The Artist" should be something close to a lock, as well; Guillaume Shiffman might not be a familiar name to his most, but his recreation of the silent-film look is meticulous, with some of the most impressive (and showy) lighting of the year.
Meanwhile, Wally Pfister was nominated four times for Christopher Nolan's films before winning with last year's "Inception." This time, he's stepped outside the Nolan camp for Bennett Miller's "Moneyball," and did some typically stunning work. It's not necessarily the kind of film that usually does well in the category, but Pfister's clearly a favorite of the branch, and the film is well-liked, even if it ends up falling short in the Best Picture category. "Midnight in Paris" has a certain swooning charm to its cinematography, but the credit is split between Darius Khondji and Johanne Debas, and no film with multiple cinematographers has been nominated since "Tora! Tora! Tora!" in 1970 (it's arguably why "127 Hours" didn't manage it last year).
Other contenders in that prize seem like longer shots, however. "The Descendants" is an actor's film, and while Phedon Papamichael does good work there (and, even more so, in "The Ides of March"), he doesn't feel like a likely winner. Robert Richardson won for "The Aviator" a few years back, and worked in 3D for the first time this year for "Hugo," but it doesn't appear to be his strongest work, and, while "Avatar" won two years ago, principally live-action 3D seems like a different kettle of fish (we have the same reservation about Peter Zeitlinger for "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," which some have mentioned, doubly so because the film's also a documentary).
Veteran Chris Menges could be a serious contender for "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," but that's a hard one to pick sight unseen. Finally, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" would be a worthwhile nominee, but Hoyte von Hoytema's work may be too monochrome to go the distance, while even if the film gets traction, Dean Semler for "In The Land of Blood and Honey" still seems like a long shot. And Stephen Goldblatt has two past nominations, but none since "Batman Forever" in 1996, and his lensing on "The Help" is far from his best.
Looking outside the major Best Picture nominees, there's a few films that look like serious possibilities, first among them Emanuel Lubezki's work on "The Tree of Life." Even those who dislike the film must admit that the cinematography is stunning. It's the one take-away that most have from the film, and could well end up walking away with the Oscar, particularly as Lubezki has been nominated four times, but never won. Similarly, the defeat of "The Social Network" by "The King's Speech" last year was something of an upset, but the former's DoP Jeff Cronenweth could well end up repeating with "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" this year.
As for more commercial fare, 'Harry Potter' managed a nomination a few years back for "The Half-Blood Prince," and capping off the franchise with another nod (this time for two-time nominee Eduardo Serra,) is certainly feasible, as is Peter Andrews (aka Steven Soderbergh) on "Contagion," although that's much less likely. Meanwhile, we've got a funny feeling about Robert Elswit for "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol." the film's obviously not an Oscar movie, but it does look stunning, and the sheer feat of shooting with giant IMAX cameras hundreds of storeys up the world's tallest building in Dubai could well be a major selling point. It's hanging around outside our top five, but only just, and we wouldn't be at all surprised to see it among the nominees. Some have mentioned Larry Fong's work on "Super 8," but the film's lost most of its momentum from the summer, and we don't see it overshadowing other films, while Rodrigo Prieto for "Water for Elephants" is a real long shot, given its early release date, but not totally impossible.
And on the other end of the budget scale, there are a few indies with an outside chance, even if the category traditionally favors big and lush rather than intimate and controlled. Adriano Goldman did wonderful, underrated work on the wonderful, underrated "Jane Eyre," but the film feels like a non-starter in most categories bar perhaps costume and score, unfortunately. Seamus MacGarvey's "We Need To Talk About Kevin" gig is one of the showier ones of the year, which always helps, and the category likely has one of the film's best shots, along with Best Actress, of course, although Oscilloscope will need to make sure that enough people see the film. "Shame" has probably our favorite eligible cinematography of the year, thanks to Sean Bobbitt, easily one of the best young talents in the field. We'd be delighted if it made it in, but it depends on how successful Fox Searchlight are in getting people to watch the NC-17-rated film. The lighting on "Drive" is just as stunning, but we think Newton Thomas Siegel likely doesn't have a chance, while "Martha Marcy May Marlene," "Like Crazy," "The Deep Blue Sea," "Melancholia," "Take Shelter" and "Beginners" would all be deserving, but also have next to no chance of nomination.
And finally, from a position of pure advocacy, we'd like to remind any voters who've accidentally stumbled across us that some of the best cinematography of the year came from relative newcomers; people like Thomas Townend ("Attack the Block"), Erik Wilson ("Submarine," "Tyrannosaur"), Bradford Young ("Pariah") and Matyas Erdely ("Miss Bala"). We don't expect any to get nominated this year, but we won't be surprised if any manage the task in a few short years.
"The Artist" - Guillaume Shiffman
"The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" - Jeff Cronenweth
"Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" - Robert Elswit
"The Tree of Life" - Emmanuel Lubezki
"War Horse" - Janusz Kamisnki
The Best Editing category is a far simpler prospect, with nominees and winners generally leaning towards Best Picture nominees and winners -- the logic being that the best films are generally the best edited. The exceptions can come with more action-heavy fare, where voters can sometimes mistake the name of the category for "Most Editing." "The Bourne Ultimatum" and "Black Hawk Down" both won in recent memory, while "District 9" and "The Dark Knight" both picked up nominations. With that in mind, Paul Hirsch for "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol," Conrad Buff IV and Mark Goldblatt for "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," Michael Kahn for "The Adventures of Tintin," Mark Day for "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2" and even Paul Tothill for "Hanna" could theoretically figure in.
But in all honesty, we think the list will be closer to prestige fare. "The Artist" feels like a given, but we wonder if its old school rhythm might not feel busy enough for voters, while veterans Michael Kahn and Thelma Schoonmaker will likely be included for "War Horse" and "Hugo," the former likely nullifying his more deserving work on 'Tintin.' Stephen Mirrione is a double threat for "The Ides of March" and "Contagion" (the latter of which being one of the more impressive editing jobs of the year), and Fincher's team of Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, who won last year, seem like a good bet for their third nomination in four years, even after winning for "The Social Network." We wonder if "The Tree of LIfe" might figure in as the legend of piles and piles of footage can only help the cause of Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber and Mark Yoshikawa.
Comedies traditionally fare less well in the category (you've got to go back a decade to "Wonder Boys" and "Almost Famous" to find anything in the genre), which likely counts out "The Descendants" and "Young Adult," although "Moneyball" stands a better chance. Claire Simpson for "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" is, again, dependent on the film, and the extent to which it sweeps the board or not, while accusations in some quarters of being difficult to follow could hurt Dino Jonsater for "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," although it might still sneak in if the film catches light. As with cinematography, we feel like "The Help" probably won't figure in here; its best craft chances come with costume and production design.
"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" - Claire Simpson
"The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" - Kirk Baxter & Angus Wall
"Hugo" - Thelma Schoonmaker
"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" - Dino Jonsater
"War Horse" - Michael Kahn