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On The Rise '12: 5 Cinematographers Lighting Up Screens In Recent Years

by Oliver Lyttelton
June 26, 2012 1:10 PM
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Mátyás Erdély
Steven Soderbergh's "Traffic" had defined the look of the Mexican cartel movie so strongly that last year's "Miss Bala" came as a real shock -- long, graceful, precise Steadicam shots rather than sunwashed handheld. And almost as surprising was where it came from; director Gerardo Naranjo didn't pick a fellow countryman for the project, but rather a Hungarian DoP named Mátyás Erdély.

Erdély got the filmmaking bug after being cast in a film in his native Budapest as a 16-year-old, and befriending the DoP on the shoot. Straight after graduating high school, he trained at the Hungarian University of Drama and Film in Budapest, graduating in 2000, and three years later, continued his training at the prestigious AFI in L.A, finding work on high-profile commercials even as he was still studying. He already had one 35mm feature to his name at the age of 23 (he later said that he "made all the mistakes"), but upon leaving AFI, he became something of a festival staple, hitting Cannes with the short "Before Dawn" in 2005.

It was the same festival that saw him really come to the attention of cinephiles in 2008, thanks to Kornel Mundruczo's "Delta," a gorgeous, glacially-paced drama with more than a little in common with Terrence Malick, which premiered in competition on the Croisette, where it won the FIPRESCI prize.  After a few years full of shorts (including "Five Miles Out," directed by Andrew Haigh, who'd go on to make last year's superb "Weekend"), he reuntied with Mundruczo for "Tender Son: The Frankenstein Project," which also played in competition, this time in 2010.

That film, an opaque retelling of Mary Shelley's tale, reframed as a story about a destructive teenager, further confirmed his talent, but he was already set to work on the film that would prove his breakout. Mexican helmer Naranjo had seen both "Before Dawn" and "Delta" at Cannes in previous years, and was stunned to discover they were shot by the same person. He approached Erdély out of the blue, and the cinematographer, who'd just landed a second unit gig on a big European production, dropped everything and, after a series of long Skype meetings, flew to Mexico to meet Naranjo and the rest of the team.

The director and his new DoP had very similar ideas: to keep the visuals as subjective as possible, telling the story through the eyes of principal character Laura as she sinks deeper and deeper into the cartel world, which led to a series of hugely impressive, Dardenne Brothers-style tracking shots. Erdély used anamorphic lenses, to further keep the POV-style foremost in the mind, and endeavored to tell as much of the story as possible in single moving masters, mostly shunning close-ups and coverage for the most part. It was easily one of the most impressively shot films of 2011.

And yet Erdély isn't some technical whiz obsessed with the lighting at the expense of all else -- he thinks his experience acting as a teen has made him more sensitive to the needs of actors, and he endeavors to "create an environment where they can be safe," which certainly shows in the performances of "Miss Bala." His next project, "The Woman Who Brushed Off Her Tears," premiered at Berlin in February, and he's just gotten underway on his English-language feature, debut, the Oren Moverman-scripted Hammer horror "The Quiet Ones," with Sam Claflin and Jared Harris, which has made us infinitely more excited to see that particular project.

Whether more studio fare follows after that remains to be seen, but it's clear Erdély is a serious talent. As his AFI professor, Bill Dill, said, "If you look at his still photography, you can see that he brings that into any lens that is in front of his face. You can see that same subtlety of lighting, control of color, the kind of soft, aerially diffused imagery that is just a part of this guy’s aesthetic. It doesn’t make any difference what he’s shooting. But that is a classically filmic approach, and you can see it no matter what he’s shooting."

Honorable Mentions: Other DoPs who've caught our attention of late include Matt Flannery, whose ever-moving camerawork on "The Raid" emphasized the bone-breaking action; Urszula Pontikos, who lensed "Weekend" with beautiful romanticism; Ben Richardson, DoP on "Beasts of the Southern Wild," and Manuel Alberto Claro, who stepped in for Von Trier's usual collaborator Anthony Dod Mantle on "Melancholia" to spectacular effect.

Jody Lee Lipes ("Martha Marcy May Marlene") might well have made this list were it not that his ambitions seem to lie more in directing -- he helmed several episodes of "Girls" among others, and has his feature directorial debut in development with the Sundance Labs. Adam Stone's also turned our heads with his work with Jeff Nichols on "Take Shelter" and the upcoming "Mud," and showed a different side with Sundance talking piece "Compliance," while Laurie Rose's third collaboration with Ben Wheatley, "Sightseers," looks like the most distinctive yet. Also on the rise is camera and electrical department multi-tasker Christopher Blauvelt. After working under Harris Savides several times ("Margot At The Wedding," "Zodiac," "Elephant") and DoPs like Christopher Doyle ("Paranoid Park") and Lance Acord ("Where The Wild Things Are"), Blauvelt is striking out on his own. His work in "Meek's Cutoff,"  gorgeously shot in a minimalist and naturalistic style (in a pre-1940s square-ish 4x3 aspect ratio no less) was stunning and similarly natural, almost underlit work in Ry Russo-Young's "Nobody Walks" was equally striking in a way that feels like Blauvelt has learned much from Savides.

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  • paul | April 9, 2014 5:34 PMReply

    what about ELLIOT DAVIS, long time collaborator with catherine hardwicke....stunning work on the Iron Lady and keanu reeves directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi.......beautiful

  • Grey | August 8, 2012 1:49 AMReply

    No Greig Fraser? His work has been out of this world. The cinematography in 2009's Bright Star was so gorgeous.

  • Winnie Jong | July 18, 2012 9:14 PMReply

    According to critics' reviews, Marco Cappetta, AIC, should make your list. How often does a horror film get sweeping praise for its beautiful cinematography? "Bereavement" did just that, its award-winning cinematography was easily one of the best reviewed of 2011. Fantastic-looking film!

    “evocatively photographed by D.P. Marco Cappetta"
    Frank Scheck - The Los Angeles Times

    "almost flawless visually"
    John Anderson - New York Film Critics Circle

    "stylishly filmed and technically accomplished"
    Frank Scheck - The Hollywood Reporter

    "Marco Cappetta's cinematography is one of the film's key assets"
    Michael Gingold - Fangoria

    "shot with far more care than most studio-produced horror films"
    Christian Toto - The Washington Times

    “Marco Cappetta may be the finest cinematographer since Dean Cundey. "Bereavement" is beautiful, it's rare to see a horror film so lovingly shot. Many of the shots are near works of art in themselves"
    Kyle Scott - The Horror Hotel

    "The Cinematography is excellent, I’m talking Oscar-awarding excellent"
    The Horror Review

    "sumptuosly somber cinematography by Marco Cappetta. Visually, everything was simply gorgeous"
    John Fallon - Joblo/Arrow in the Head

    "One of the key assets is the cinematography, by Marco Cappetta. Touching, masterful and amazing"
    Lorenzo Ricciardi - L'Ecran Fantastique

    “Marco Cappetta gives audiences one of the most beautiful-looking horror films of the year”
    Heather Wixson – The Misadventures of the Horror Chick

    "the cinematography is striking"
    Bryan Buss - Moving Pictures

    "this film looks amazing... Marco Cappetta knows how to make horror look absolutely beautiful"
    Bryan Martinez - Film

    "the cinematography is gorgeous"
    Brad Keefe - Columbus

    "'Bereavement' looks amazing"
    Take my Life

    "the cinematography, by Marco Cappetta, looks great"
    Glenn McDonald -

    "The film looks better than many major studio horror productions"
    John Wirt -

    "the cinematography by Marco Cappetta is top-notch"
    Dustin Putman -

    “beautifully shot, compliments of cinematographer Marco Cappetta”

    “with key cinematography by Marco Cappetta”
    Carl Manes - I Like Horror

    “the cinematography of Marco Cappetta is stunning”
    Ted Payson – The Flick Cast

    “gorgeous shots, one of the most beautiful horror films I've seen in a long time”
    T.D. Clark – Death

    “the film is beautifully shot by Marco Cappetta, with some terrific cinematography”
    Jesse Miller – More

    "a great-looking film, courtesy of DP Marco Cappetta"
    Horror Movie a Day

    "beautiful cinematography by Marco Cappetta. The photography is almost surreal, artfully creating a nightmarish dimension"
    Chiara Pani - Araknex's Film Critic Horror Vault

    "with a great look by cinematographer Marco Cappetta"
    Lee Weber - AV Blue-Ray reviews

    "beautifully filmed, one of the most handsome films I've seen in ages"
    Jay Kulpa - DVD Snapshot

    “beautiful cinematography”
    Kevin Woods – Independent

  • cbh | July 11, 2012 4:33 PMReply

    Bárbara Alvarez. She shot Lucrecia Martel's LA MUJER SIN CABEZA (THE HEADLESS WOMAN, Argentina 2008) which, for me, is the best lensed feature of the decade. Period. CBH

  • jb | July 2, 2012 2:31 PMReply

    i think you mean "cairo time" under the luc montpellier section. and i second the surprise at no bradford young.

  • Suspicious | June 26, 2012 8:01 PMReply

    Very suspicious of the race quota that has been adressed here
    in the section comments.
    Favorites are a matter of taste not of democracy.
    No one has the right to demand that a Black DP should be
    one's favorite. It's ridiculous. Wake up people.

  • Wide Awake | June 26, 2012 9:22 PM

    Well @Suspicious, the last time I checked, which is every morning when I wake up; this was an industry trade site. Where, in the article does it mention the word "favorite"? If it were a list about favorites not one of us film psycho-fanatic-lovers who took pause to excitedly click on and read an entire piece top to bottom on DoP's, would give a rat's ass about who did and who didn't make the cut . Let us get one thing straight, Oliver built a solid list! And every single DoP on it deserves their seat at the table. No if, and or buts!
    The article pointedly states; "Check out our five picks below, and let us know other DoPs you've got your eye on in the comments section below."
    You don't have to agree that Playlist regularly excludes wide variety on all their given menus slash lists (click the attached links in article for their previous lists on actors, actresses, screenwriters and directors for a dose of outer perspective.) but that doesn't make it less truthful or small sighted or infer devout readers hungry for macro are asleep and need to wake up to your bountiful horizon.
    Bradford was mentioned for merit, not skin tone. The healthy question arising appears to be; what is the yard stick for getting Playlist's attention on this or any of their other killer-talentfilled lists/daily posts/career tracking?
    Sorta humorous and entitled to think you have a right to command [people to wake up] because they're filmlovers with respect for this site and are simply commenting (upon request) toward a more macro menu to dine upon...

  • Person | June 26, 2012 4:26 PMReply

    Great article. Talented batch. Don't take this personal but goodness how is it remotely possible you don't have BRADFORD YOUNG on this list? (It isn't as if he's hiding, he won "Best DP" at Sundance 2011, for 1 of 2 features on that year's roster. How many DP'S can you list with 2feature narratives at Sundance?) Had a feature in 2012 Sundance, "Middle of Nowhere", where the director won "Best Director" &it just played LAFF, Gala night. Will be released in October, with 3additional films in the can. This site needs to expand peripheral vision, you can't say you didn't see "Pariah". What about "R.C." and "M.O.N? It isn't as if Bradford's films are off the radar. Obviously off Playlist &your radar but not off "the" radar. He has 1-2 films a year at 'the' meta-domestic fest. "Restless City" is a love letter to light &tones, the cinematography is knock down enviable. When you see it, you're going to understand my frustration.
    A particular group of people, seem invisible whenever Playlist makes these lists, even when those people are right under your nose, in the 'exact-precise' same pool the entire industry is fishing from...widen the net already. I love-love this site, but damn, taller hat. (Super grt that Reed Morano is on this list.)

  • Todd | June 26, 2012 6:10 PM

    @Oliver, I didn't read that (person's) remark as a question. The period indicates a statement as in, You can't excuse your omission by stating, "You didn't see [one particular film]". The point is Bradford's had three films in circulation inside a fourteen month stretch and a quick check to IMDB reveals he's made other films, Entre Nos and Mississippi Damned. Are we to surmise those 2009 entries haven't made it to you either? This site gets heavy industry traction. Kind of seems careless, somewhat lazy not to go hunting for wide scope of talent that's out there when you're building these list. You have a forum to teach us about talent we don't know, instead of waiting for films to reach your part of the world, whereby we're bound to end up teaching you.

  • Nisa | June 26, 2012 5:03 PM

    Holy cow! In total agreement!

  • Oliver Lyttelton | June 26, 2012 4:38 PM

    See below. But to reprise, I put the list together, and Pariah hasn't made it to my part of the world yet, and neither have Restless City or Middle of Nowhere. Pariah looks glorious, but if I haven't seen the whole thing, I wouldn't feel comfortable putting him on here. Next time we do this list, I bet Young's a dead cert.

  • edward | June 26, 2012 4:18 PMReply

    lance acord in honorable mentions??? he's been around since '93. no bother in mentioning him as he's directing his first feature at his company park pictures (which did robot & frank). he's without a doubt one of the most talented working DP's working today. BAD PLAYLIST BAD!!!

  • Mony | June 26, 2012 3:17 PMReply

    Interesting article, I never really thought about the cinematographers but probably should pay more attention to them..

    Do they make good money? Some actors make more than they should, but I hope these cinematographers make some good money for all the work they do.

  • bunty | June 26, 2012 3:08 PMReply

    Nice article, Oliver. Well done.

  • jb | July 2, 2012 3:22 PM

    this is my go-to film blog, but i have to second nisa's comments.

  • Nisa | June 26, 2012 5:02 PM

    Not quite. Severely under researched and made under the lens of writer's limits and privilege. The excuse that the writer hasn't seen THREE celebrated films by directors of color shot by Bradford Young that have ALL THREE played the country's top festival is a pathetic reflection on this blog's scope and highlights an ongoing exclusion of movielovers who don't look exactly like you. Thought you guys were better than that.

  • Oliver Lyttelton | June 26, 2012 2:36 PMReply

    Greig Fraser was on our list last time around, two years ago. And mea culpa on Bradford Young; Pariah hasn't made it to my part of the world yet, though I'm sure he'd be a serious contender if I had seen it.

  • jb | July 2, 2012 3:20 PM

    not just pariah, but also middle of nowhere, ma'george, and restless city. features with considerable noise and traction in indie circles.

  • Katie Walsh | June 26, 2012 2:22 PMReply

    Robert Hauer. He's only done shorts for the most part, but as a first feature, Dead Man's Burden on 35mm is absolutely stunning. If that's any indication, he will be on this list soon.

  • Martin | June 26, 2012 1:45 PMReply

    Good list, but you should name Greig Fraser too.

  • Pierce V | June 26, 2012 1:35 PMReply

    No Bradford Young? What the hell.

  • Arch | June 26, 2012 1:41 PM

    I really was looking forward to read about him too ... yet Pariah is a few days short of being a 2012 release so I guess that's why... Great idea for a list anyway, these are people I wanna hear about !

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