While the tech momentum for Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" is clearly spilling over into the cinematography race, making Claudio Miranda the frontrunner for his ethereal golden hour hue, the other four nominees are a study in stylistic brilliance as well, conveying a vibe of what's old is new again:
In "Anna Karenina," Seamus McGarvey embraced director Joe Wright's bold theatrical approach as an opportunity to streamline and clarify ideas from the Tolstoy novel. He found a way to coalesce theater, movies, and photography into a new form of visual expression, using Powell & Pressburger's "The Red Shoes" as inspiration.
"After initial fears from the producers, we wanted to create a world that was believable once you entered it," explains McGarvey. "There's cinematic space there [in the derelict theater] for an audience to stitch in what's absent. And your imagination is straining for meaning as well. And it's also a gentler way of experiencing because you're building the image yourself so the image becomes disparate for each person that watches it."
However, it was the success of the bravura horse race sequence (combining live action, green screen, and onset elements), shot as a test to validate the theatrical conceit of the 19th century Russian aristocracy rotting from the inside out. "First thing, we shot them for real and that was a daylight scenario. And then as night falls and the lights dim, we're suddenly witnessing the horses hurtling across the stage."
Of course, there were different hues in terms of what you wanted to express. "The Karenin house has a rectitude of overbearing symmetry," the cinematography continues. "The colors are diminished; the lines are strong; the compositions are metric and very strict; the lighting is harder and darker; movement is minimal. This is to express the fragility and brittleness of that world."
By contrast, the Oblonsky house contains more of a luminosity, innocence, and glow. Therefore, McGarvey shot this environment by day in cooler, softer light or by candlelight to attain a sense of romance. Outside, when they occasionally shot on real locations, there's more camera movement and autumnal light to create a sense of hopefulness and a terrestrial nature beyond the artifice.
"In the Vronsky home, we wanted sexy swirling and to get lost in emotions," McGarvey suggests. "When Vronsky leads Anna on the dance floor, everyone is frozen but they come to life one by one as though their elicit love is igniting the people around them."
For Quentin Tarantino's spaghetti western/Blaxploitation mash-up, "Django Unchained," Robert Richardson (last year's winner for "Hugo"), infused a rock sensibility that alternates between ragged and elegant. After all, this is a love story as well as a violent slavery saga.
"The beauty of a Tarantino film is that the visuals match the rhythm of the words," Richardson observes. "That's his goal. And that's my goal." So he varied the lighting, going from the naturalism of candlelit scenes to stylized shootouts.
The climactic shootout involving Jamie Foxx's Django was the most ambitious, of course, and probably the sequence that got Richardson his nomination. The six-minute blood bath oscillates between normal speed and slo-mo. It's pure Tarantino in all his film geek reverie, and it's pure Richardson in its Neil Young-inspired picture of Americana.