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.