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Crafts Roundup: The Year of Cinematographers Capturing Turmoil On Screen

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood November 26, 2013 at 2:15PM

It's been a great year for cinematography, with such an emphasis on survival, turmoil and trying to find beauty or redemption within the suffering. The cinematographers of "Gravity," "12 Years a Slave," "Captain Phillips," "Nebraska," "Inside Llewyn Davis," "The Grandmaster," and "Rush" talk striking that cruel-beautiful visual balance, below.


Barry Ackroyd's documentary experience served him well in "Captain Phillips" as its own culmination with director Paul Greengrass. His job was to capture everything in this cat-and-mouse between Tom Hanks' Captain Phillips and the Somalian pirates led by newcomer Barkhad Abdi. "Everyone who appears in front of the camera has the same intensity and relevance," Ackroyd suggests."It's part of my psyche and the way I work."

On the one hand, there's a frightening intensity to the way the pirates overtake the ship by overcoming the blasts of water from the crew. On the other hand, the improvised ending with a real medic is informed by Ackroyd's documentary skill and Hanks's complete trust in Greengrass. "The juxtaposition is really quite moving between his tragedy and her professionalism. They meet in a way that you don't usually see in film studio films."

In the murky black-and-white "Nebraska" (admittedly recorded in color on the Alexa and then altered during post), Phedon Papamichael also reaches new heights with director Alexander Payne. "The thing about landscapes is whatever the day is, you go out and shoot it," he insists.

As far as interiors, they let the actors invade the spaces, whether it was a house, a restaurant, or a bar. But Bruce Dern defined it: "The first time he stepped in front of a camera when we were doing a test, I was in a parking lot and the sun was out and I turned him so we'd get some backlight, and his hair just glowed and he looked like a ghost, and it was fascinating to study that face."

For Bruno Delbonnel, "Inside Llewyn Davis" marked his first collaboration with the Coen brothers, but he felt at ease with their detailed preparation and communicative style. He used "The Freewheelin Bob Dylan" album cover as a starting point with its evocation of "the slushy, cold New York winter." But he also structured the lighting as an early '60s folk song. He mainly went for a milky palette that was an uncomfortable magenta, yellow and shot on film because of the period and grain structure of the stock. 

"The Grandmaster"
"The Grandmaster"

"For me, the rule was to have the light falling off," Delbonnel says. "It  was more about being evocative than truthful to the '60s. I was looking for coldness, sadness, unhappiness, loneliness."

"The Grandmaster," Wong Kar-wai’s exquisite biopic about martial arts legend Ip Man (Tony Leung), is about the clash of physical and philosophical ideals. But it was a freewheeling, unconventional experience for cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, who wasn't used to such improvisation. However, it all comes together in the snowy fight on a train platform between Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) and her late father's killer and protege (Zhang Jin).

It took two years to shoot, often changing and expanding sets and props, and what began as a series of close-ups, escalated into a tour de force sequence defined by the performances of the two actors and a sense of discovery that informed the lighting and camera movement.

In "Rush," Anthony Dod Mantle developed a way of creating his own unique production values for the '70s look of the Formula 1 locations on the circuit. Which meant they were dependent on certain archival material that had to be manipulated and seamlessly integrated with the live-action footage.

"The aesthetic was a very painterly and, what I thought, an inspiring, visceral, sexy, color palette, and not the desaturated, golf ball grain, sadness of '70s. In Monaco, I was particularly struck by the yellow, cyan, and red. It's not pristine -- it has grit. The drivers were eccentric and raggedy; they had dirty underwear and bad hair, in comparison to multi-millionaire motor racing drivers now and their entourage."

This article is related to: Crafts Round-up, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, Nebraska, Inside Llewyn Davis, Rush, Interviews, Interviews

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.