By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist August 20, 2010 at 5:59AM
A couple of months ago, we took a look at five of the screenwriters that we're most excited about making their big screen debuts in the near future. For the next step in our semi-regular series, we wanted to look at another job that sometimes doesn't get the credit that it deserves. If the layman is struck by a film's imagery, the most common response is "That was well directed." But while a handful of directors have the technical knowledge necessary (Steven Soderbergh comes to mind), most filmmakers will admit that one of the most vital collaborative relationships on set is between them and their Director of Photography.
Just to try to think of the Coen Brothers without Roger Deakins, Christopher Nolan without Wally Pfister or Paul Thomas Anderson without Robert Elswit, for instance. While few cinematographers are household names, the above names, along with the likes of Christopher Doyle, Emmanuel Lubezki, Rodrigo Prieto, Ellen Kuras and Anthony Dod Mantle, are normally enough to get us into theaters on their own. But what of the next generation? Who are the directors of photography that look likely to take their places among the masters in the next few years? Below are five cinematographers who've made a major impression in the last few years, and who have a strong chance of creating some of the killer big-screen images in years to come. Fair Warning: this may get a little technical in places, but probably not technical enough for anyone who actually works in a camera department...
Considering it was directed by noted aesthete and fashion designer Tom Ford, it was no surprise that virtually every frame of "A Single Man" was heart-stoppingly gorgeous. But Ford can't claim all the credit; the lion's share must go to 28-year-old Spanish DoP Eduard Grau, who was shamefully overlooked at both the Oscars and the Independent Spirit Awards for his work on the film. Grau trained at both ESCAC in his native Barcelona, and at the NFTS in London, with the film "The Natural Route," made at the former by director Alex Pastor (who went on to make the Chris Pine horror flick "Carriers"), winning the Best Short Award at Sundance in 2006. Grau went on to be director of photography on the BBC drama "Kiss of Death," and the British film "Kicks." We saw the latter at the London Film Festival last year and, while we weren't overly impressed by the film, Grau's digital work stood out.
But it was "A Single Man" that saw Grau's star rising. Shot with discontinued stock from the 1990s (Kodak 52/79 500 Tungston, if you're asking, the same kind that Robert Elswit used on Magnolia), used to, in Grau's words, give the film the look of "1960s Life Magazine covers," and using his preferred lenses, Panavision Primos, it gives the film a stunning look, both nostalgic and fresh. The way Grau and Ford uses empty space in the composition suggests a confidence that belies their relative inexperience; few films last year were as visually striking. The future's bright for Grau; next up is "Buried" for another debut director, Rodrigo Cortes, which involved finding a way to shoot Ryan Reynolds in a dark, subterranean coffin for 90 minutes, a challenge that far more experienced cinematographers could have shrunk from. We haven't caught the film yet, but word from Sundance this year is that they've pulled it off.
He also shot the intriguing "Finsterrae" in Spain recently, the directorial debut of Sergi Caballero, the co-founder of the Sonar music festival. An experimental road movie tracking two ghosts on a journey through Spain, the early footage is stunning, and we hope it ends up making the festival rounds in the rest of the world at least. His next big gig is the British chiller "The Awakening" with Dominic West and Rebecca Hall, and the idea of Grau being unleashed on a ghost story is a very promising one. His website is an excellent resource, incidentally, with Grau reflecting on all his projects to date, including music videos and commercials.
This year has seen something of a resurgence for Australian film through the collective Blue Tongue Films, seeing Luke Doolan nominated for an Oscar for his short "Miracle Fish," Nash Edgerton's crime flick "The Square" pick up strong reviews, Spencer Susser's "Hesher" do well at Sundance, and David Michod's "Animal Kingdom" prove to be one of the very best movies of the year. So it's somewhat surprising, considering the dark subject matter of these films, that the man who shot many of the group's early shorts was also the director of photography on Jane Campion's "Bright Star." Greig Fraser, a mere 35, shot Michod's acclaimed short "Crossbow," as well as Edgerton's excellent "Spider" (watch it below).
He also served as the DoP on "Cracker Bag," which picked up the Palme D'Or for short films in 2003, and made his feature debut on the excellent, underseen New Zealand drama "Out Of The Blue," a docudrama focusing on a real shooting spree, which features a stunning performance from Karl Urban. He reteamed with Campion (who'd he previously worked with on the short "Water Diary") for "Bright Star," and his contribution there proved invaluable to one of The Playlist's favorite films of last year. Fraser has pointed to Keats' poetry as a direct inspiration for his work on the film, saying "I tried to come to a good understanding of not only what was being said, but also the colors those words conjured up and what those combinations of words were saying to me"
While Fraser had been best known for his handheld work, Campion asked him to rein it in, "so that the audience wasn't trying to battle over-powering movements or flowery images or garish colors... they could just be absorbed into the picture and into the words," as he told Guy Lodge at In Contention. But he does come off the tripod every so often (the Valentine's Day sequence, for instance), and it does give the film a vitality in those sections. But for the most part, it's a very delicate shooting style, one that gives the actors the space they need -- indeed, Fraser kept the crew to a minimum for their sake. He even took his own Arri camera out on his days off to capture extra footage, and to adjust to the English light.
Fraser went on to Scott Hicks' "The Boys Are Back" and the Hugo Weaving father-son drama "Last Ride," and next up is working with Matt Reeves on "Let Me In," the remake of acclaimed Swedish vampire drama "Let The Right One In." The glimpses we've had so far from the trailer to that make Fraser's work look stunning, and more than a match for Hoyte Van Hoytema's work on the original -- which interestingly, Reeves asked Fraser not to watch before they went to work.
From Australia to literally the other side of the world, the United Kingdom, where many of the most memorable films of the last few years have again been shot by the same DP. Robbie Ryan is best-known for his collaborations with Andrea Arnold on the Oscar-winning short "Wasp," and the features "Red Road" and "Fish Tank," but he's also had a hand in "Brick Lane," "The Scouting Book For Boys" and Gabriel Range's upcoming, buzzed-about "I Am Slave," as well as a brace of shorts, music videos and commercials.
Ryan was born in Ireland, training at the IADT there and working his way up the crew, before starting to pick up DP credits on shorts, making his major feature debut on the now-forgotten comedy "Large" in 2001. "Wasp" came two years later, followed by Arnold's feature debut "Red Road" in 2006. For someone with a stated preference for film, it's interesting that Ryan's biggest breakthrough came with that film, which is digitally shot, but it perfectly suits the CCTV voyeurism of Arnold's shocking, startling picture, giving nighttime Glasgow an eerie, otherworldly glow. Sarah Gavron's "Brick Lane" gave Ryan a bigger scope, and the contrast between glorious Bangladeshi landscapes and a chilly East London is one of the key ingredients that makes the film work (it's an underseen film, particularly in the States).
"Fish Tank" is arguably Ryan's most visually striking work to date, and deservedly landed Ryan a BIFA nomination for the cinematography. Unusually, the film is in a 4:3 aspect ratio (or, if we're being anal, a 1.33:1 Academy ratio), an initially distancing move which ends up being hugely engaging. Chasing an extreme form of naturalism, Arnold and Ryan's plan was originally to shoot entirely photochemically, without any digital post-production. As it turned out, however, almost no theaters are equipped to project in the format, and they had to digitally reduce the frame in post. You wouldn't tell from the finished product however, which featured some of the most indelible images of the year.
His work on "The Scouting Book For Boys" (re-uniting with director Tom Harper, for whom he shot the short "Cubs" -- watch it below) was a little more stylized and sun-kissed, but equally strong; indeed, of all the cinematographers on this list, Ryan perhaps has the most distinctive style. He clearly likes working with familiar collaborators (he's currently gearing up for his third feature with Arnold, "Wuthering Heights"), but he's also aware of the dangers there, telling the Irish Film & Television Network that "I'm aware that loyalty is a dangerous thing in filmmaking because you know you can sometimes get a little bit hurt if someone goes for somebody else -- its very difficult for directors." But to be honest, we can't see any reason why the likes of Arnold or Harper would want to hire anyone else.
When we saw, and fell hard for, Cary Fukunaga's extraordinary feature debut "Sin Nombre" at SXSW last year, one of the things that stood out was the "incredibly crisp cinematography." That lensing came from Brazilian-born Adriano Goldman, in his first film outside his home country, and it was an incredibly smart hire on Fukunaga's part.
Goldman came to prominence with the TV spin-off of "City of God," "City of Men," and the 2007 film of the same name. He picked up the baton from Cesar Charlone's stunning work in the original, one of the most stunningly photographed films of the last decade, and certainly did himself justice in the comparison. Even better was his work on the excellent period drama "The Year My Parents Went On Vacation," but his peak so far is clearly "Sin Nombre," which "City of God" helmer Fernando Mereilles recommended the DP for. Shooting almost entirely handheld, and often guerilla-style across Mexico, Fukunaga and Goldman give the film a chaotic, propulsive feel, but shooting on Super 35mm film means that there's real beauty in the film too. (Yes, it's time for some stock statistics; Fuji Eterna negatives, 500T 8573 for night work and day interiors, Vivid 160 8543 for day exteriors).
Coming up, he's got Tony Goldwyn's "Conviction," a likely Oscar contender, and from the trailer, his work looks strong, although not immediately up to previous work, but the one we're really excited about is his return trip with Fukunaga for an adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre." The film, set for release in March, promises to be very different from previous adaptations, sticking to the novel's dark, Gothic routes, and it looks like it'll see a change of approach for the pair: Fukunaga said a few months back that "On "Sin Nombre", Adriano Goldman and I improvised a lot of things on-site. We were working with untrained actors, and you can't really block a scene in a traditional way. On this scene, we're working with such pros that can work and hit their mark, so we're coming up with some interesting ways to shoot the film. It's all about tension and creating that sense of horror underneath."
Between the seemingly chameleonic Fukunaga and a DP working in an unfamiliar environment (much like Greig Fraser on "Bright Star"), it's basically guaranteed that the film will look very different from your average costume drama, and the first still released from the project seems to back that up. We're counting the days til the March 11th release, but in the meantime you can check out a commercial lensed by Goldman, and co-directed by Fernando Mereilles, below.
One film we hope won't be forgotten once Oscar season kicks into high gear is Debra Granik's crackling Ozarks drama "Winter's Bone." It's a film the Playlist team has gotten collectively behind for a number of reasons; Granik's direction is the kind of subtle, seamless and confident filmmaking that's all too rare not to mention the top-notch turns by Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role of Ree and John Hawkes as her engimatic uncle, Teardrop. But one element that absolutely floored us was the cinematography by the relatively unknown Michael McDonough.
Born in Scotland, with schooling both at the Glasgow School of Art and The Royal College of Art in London, McDonough made his way across the pond, snagged a Master's from NYU's film program and has been putting it to good use. He earned his stripes behind the camera with Granik's debut feature "Down To The Bone," lent his skills to the low-key dramedy "Diggers" with rare dramatic turns by Paul Rudd and Ken Marino, threw his hand into a few segments of "New York, I Love You" but has undoubtedly done his finest work with this year's "Winter's Bone." It's hard to believe that the film was shot on RED, and when we looked at the press notes following our screening, we nearly did a spit take. We're not sure how he did it, but unlike other films which suffer from a picture that is too "digital" or distractingly pristine, McDonough achieves a film-like quality with this work here. All bruised skylines, dark corners and smoky mystery, McDonough helps Granik achieve a lived-in quality to the film that feels natural, rendering a southern Gothic tale unlike anything we've seen before. While we've seen hints of brilliance in his earlier work, here, McDonough establishes himself as cinematographer with a bright future ahead of him, and name to look out for on the credit roll.
Coming up, McDonough has a diverse array of projects. He's completed work on Gela Babluani's remake of his own film "13," a few low-budget horror films ("Bitter Feast," "Camp Hell" and "The Mortician") but the one we're most excited and which we think probably best suits his talents, is Vera Farmiga's directorial debut, "Higher Ground." The 1970s set story follows the coming-of-age of a young woman within the fundamentalist Christian movement and seems like just the right sort of material for McDonough's observant yet unobtrusive style. To see what got our attention, check out a montage of his work on "Winter's Bone" via his agency Sheldon Prosnit.
Honorable Mentions: As ever, it was hard to pare our list down to just five, and we had to be strict about the level of experience that was needed to qualify. For instance, Eric Steelberg, the DP on "Juno," "(500) Days of Summer" and "Up in the Air" is clearly a great talent, but perhaps now too well established, while Christopher Doyle protege Rain Li, who shared credit with her mentor on "Paranoid Park," and did sterling work on the little seen "Uncertainty," perhaps needs a little more time -- she is, after all, only 27. Music veteran Jo Willems ("Hard Candy," "30 Days of Night," "Rocket Science") is an extraordinary talent too, but perhaps a little glossy for our tastes, as is Ben Seresin ("Transformers 2," "X-Men: First Class"). "Let The Right One In" DoP Hoyte Van Hoytema just missed the cut -- he's got "The Fighter" later this year, and will reteam with Tomas Alfredson on "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" later in the year, but we simply weren't familiar enough with his earlier work. Christopher Ross and Nanu Segal are both very promising Brits, with very strong examples on the indie horrors "Eden Lake" and "The Children," respectively. In the American indie world, Jas Shelton's work on "Cyrus" makes him one to watch, and, while the film divides us at The Playlist, James Laxton's lensing of "Medicine for Melancholy" was stunning, particularly in his use of color-correction, and we've heard nothing but good things about "The Myth of the American Sleepover." And, while our top five is, to our shame, a little bit man-heavy, both Mandy Walker ("Australia," the upcoming "Red Riding Hood") and Amy Vincent ("Hustle & Flow," "Black Snake Moan") are well on their way to helping crack the glass ceiling.