1. "The Revenant": Frontrunner Emmanuel (Chivo) Lubezki seeks a historic three consecutive Oscars for what's turned out be a survival trilogy in space ("Gravity"), in a theater ("Birdman"), and in the frozen wilderness ("The Revenant"). But "The Revenant" carries even greater metaphysical weight. It's about physical and spiritual rebirth and making nature work for you. Lubezki shot exteriors in the Canadian Rockies and the tip of Argentina in natural light, with Steadicam and the untested Alexa 65, the first large-format digital camera — for 360-degree, high dynamic range compositions with very wide lenses that wrap around the actors only inches away. It's a uniquely visceral and immersive experience. He once again made extensive use of the tracking-shot technique and filmed during the "magic hour" whenever possible. The only other light available from the period was fire, candles, and torches. But he darkened the backgrounds so Leonardo DiCaprio and his fellow actors stood out like in a Caravaggio painting.
2. "Mad Max: Fury Road": Oscar winner John Seale ("The English Patient") came out of retirement to tackle George Miller's acclaimed return to his post-apocalyptic universe, which turned out to be the best action film in years. The film is basically a chase in the desert landscape of West Africa with 75 vehicles, and Seale, working digitally for the first time, was able to adjust the 2D rig for smaller, lighter, and more versatile camera placement inside the the War Rig, helmed by Charlize Theron’s Furiosa. Miller's mandate was to center the frame at all times, because he was going to cut fast and wanted the appearance of seamless, continuous action, with the viewer never confused. He even manipulated frames to help achieve this effect. And thanks to the Edge Arm crane for total immersion, this allowed them to get right in there much more kinetically, like being in the middle of a video game. But Seale added multiple cameras to give Oscar-nominated editor Margaret Sixel more choices. He was in total control of his craft and the final look (with DI tweaking) is both gritty and otherworldly.
3. "The Hateful Eight": The race is partly a large-format wilderness shootout because three-time Oscar winner Robert Richardson literally stumbled upon Ultra Panavision 70 anamorphic lenses that hadn't been used in 50 years. This allowed Quentin Tarantino to recreate the roadshow experience, reminding us of the unparalleled scope, resolution, and beauty of film in the widest possible aspect ratio (2.76:1). Panavision reconfigured and applied new coatings for focus pulling, made a 2,000-foot magazine to accommodate his penchant for long takes and provided anamorphic lenses for 70mm projectors. There were challenges because of weather and low-lighting conditions. And it also meant learning how to choreograph action on set to create a dynamic interior landscape for eight actors. Even though the Agatha Christie-inspired Western is mostly set indoors and very claustrophobic, the result is a warmth and softness and bronze look that we have not witnessed in quite a while. Close-ups are particularly revealing. It's a glorious, visual feast for film lovers.
4. "Sicario": With his 13th nomination, Roger Deakins crosses new aesthetic borders with Denis Villeneuve ("Prisoners") for this intense cat-and-mouse thriller. Interiors were often yellow-orange to complement the landscape, but unlike the bleached look of "No Country for Old Men," Deakins embraced a more colorful landscape, set on the Mexican border and shot in Albuquerque and Mexico City. The use of silhouette is powerful. However, the most nerve-racking challenge for Deakins was figuring out how to shoot the nighttime raid in the tunnels where the drugs were transported across the border. It was too dark to believably shoot the objective shots with only the Alexa, so Deakins successfully tested a thermal imaging camera from FLIR used for scientific research. The result is a fascinating night vision sequence with two different looks achieved through separate vision systems (infrared for Benicio Del Toro’s POV and green image-enhancer for everyone else’s).
5. Carol": When Todd Haynes described the naturalistic look that he wanted for the Patricia Highsmith-adapted love story starring nominees Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, his long-time DP Ed Lachman was inspired to use Super 16mm film. It provides "a soft, soiled, indeterminate feeling" that helps evoke the isolation of desire and overheated romantic imagination in the early '50s. And so Lachman referenced the works of several female photojournalists (Ruth Orkin, Esther Bubley, Vivian Maier, Helen Levitt) in stressing magenta and green and an overall grayness that fit the sensitivity of the drama. But, ultimately, it's a refreshingly hopeful female love story, combining the representational with the psychological. And it stands as Lachman's most beautiful cinematic expression to date.