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Immersed in Movies: Assessing the Cinematography Oscar Race

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood February 6, 2013 at 3:56PM

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...

Lincoln, window

For Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," two-time Oscar winner Janusz Kaminski also experimented with a new theatrical, stripped-down aesthetic. It was a great opportunity to work more abstractly: creating foreground, middle ground, and background spatial divides and utilizing exterior lighting, artificial gas lighting, and magical lighting to illuminate the eyes or convey strong silhouettes. Everything revolves around the powerful yet conflicted Lincoln in an exploration of his inner and outer worlds, his public and private lives.

For this creative departure, Kaminski's a strong contender. "The movie is unique because in a funny way it's relevant to what we're experiencing now as a nation," Kaminski offers. "Yes, it's a historical thing but it talks about the need to help the nation reunite and have the same vision. And then just purely from the use of the cinematic language, which is a model of restraint in comparison to the other movies we've done where the camera was always very active and there was this need to amaze the viewer with interesting angles; but in this movie we really didn't do that."

Not with such a commanding performance from Daniel Day Lewis. "But the lighting part was cool because I had the chance to create a semi-realistic world of what it must've been like to be there with great freedom and license."

Yet the sentimental choice this year is Roger Deakins for "Skyfall." The 10-time nominee has never won the Oscar, but he elevates the first billion dollar Bond movie with supreme elegance and emotional depth for 007's existential journey. Shooting with the Arri Alexa, he visualizes the emotional arc with different shades. It fits in perfectly with the notion of the old and new, as we follow Daniel Craig's Bond on a journey that takes him to sun-drenched Istanbul, the gray underworld of London, golden Shanghai, a dead city in Macao, and his otherworldly Scottish origins.

But recreating Shanghai at Pinewood in collaboration with production designer Dennis Gassner was the standout. They captured the modernistic essence of the city with the blue neon LED advertising screens from skyscrapers outside the office tower where Bond fights henchman Patrice (Ola Rapace) in silhouette. "The original idea was to shoot it on location in Shanghai but you couldn't find a place with that kind of light source, so Dennis and I talked about doing it on stage with big LED signs so that we could control it and that's how it evolved. But it's based on that look of Shanghai," Deakins explains.

Which brings us back to "Life of Pi," an otherworldly spiritual journey in 3-D between a boy and his tiger that is remarkably different from the rest of the contenders.

"It's a movie about derailing you and making your own choices of what's real, and there are a lot of interesting, little weird things," Miranda suggests." My favorite scene is probably the candlelit [temple float festival] where the art department got more than 120,000 candles and we worked all night to scatter them around."

But it's Miranda's achievement in the second half on a breathtaking virtual ocean and with a riveting animated tiger that might earn him the Oscar. Invariably, we become more active participants because of the dynamic 3-D and Miranda's exquisite cinematography, which helps transport us to another realm.

This article is related to: Immersed In Movies, Life of Pi, Skyfall, Lincoln, Django Unchained, Interviews, Awards, Awards

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Thompson on Hollywood

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.