Oscars 2011 Spotlight: Best Cinematography

2011 Oscars Best Cinematography The Kings Speech

This year's crop of nominees for Best Cinematography all bring something unique to the visual table. Some went with a traditional hand-held approach, while others show vast landscapes and the characters within. Only one can walk away with the Oscar, but each is deserving of a nomination.

Four established cinematographers challenge a relative newcomer, but the crop is filled with pure talent. Each film approached the visual aesthetic in a different way and the result is a compilation of films that stand out from one another, but make for an inspiring year in cinematography.

While each of the five nominees are deserving, some snubs deserve mention. Robert Richardson's cinematography in Shutter Island helped it stand out, but the lengthy gap between its release and the Oscars may have hurt its chances. Enter the Void is arguably the most inspired cinematography of the decade, let alone the year. Unfortunately, its controversial subject matter and arduous pacing may have hurt its opportunity for worldwide recognition.

The Academy tends to vote for imagery over technical creativity. While films like Inception pushed the envelope of modern cinematography with rotating hallways and tilting rooms, it doesn't have lasting images like True Grit or The King's Speech. It would be a surprise if the Academy changed its approach this year, but all five nominees have every right to walk away with an Oscar.


Black Swan

Black Swan cinematography

Director of Photography Mattew Libatique finds a way to make every movie he shoots unique with a less-is-more approach. While his approach to Black Swan owes a lot of gratitude to the advancements in visual effects, the hand-held camera approach was essential to the feel of the film.

Libatique spends much of Black Swan in rooms loaded with mirrors. Obviously, this poses a problem for a camera operator running around an actress. Luckily, the visual effects team had the capability to digitally erase him from the reflection. This gave Libatique free range to film the scene in the most realistic style possible. It is because of this documentary-style visual component that Black Swan continues to pummel its realism on the audience, even amidst its supernatural story arc.

Black Swan deserves its nomination for not only its approach, but also its relevance to the narrative structure. Yet it lacks the visual punch we've seen in so many past winners in this category. It reminds me of The Hurt Locker, which earned a nomination for its style, but lost to a more visually stunning movie, Avatar.



Inception rotating hallway

Innovation is the best word to describe Wally Pfister's cinematography. Rarely does the cinematographer work so closely with so many departments in a film, but Christopher Nolan's unique vision for multiple dreamscapes required the collaborative effort. Cameras were rigged in places they never dare to go and pushed the technical requirements to the brink.

Few question the fortitude of Inception's cinematography. It is fresh from a technical perspective, using the latest technology to give the audience an immersive visual experience without falling into the 3D revolution. As advanced as the execution may be, it still lacks the imagery that the Academy tends to favor. For instance, the hallway fight scene is a true testament to the film's creativity, but many would be hard-pressed to compare the actual imagery to the film's competition this year.

Wally Pfister has shot all of Christopher Nolan's films, with the exception of Following. This relationship has turned into one of the most revered in movies today, even though they rarely dip into the atmospheric imagery that many get from films like True Grit or The King's Speech. Yet, there is a gritty reality fused into Pfister's photography that brings a visual aesthetic consistent throughout much of Nolan's work.


The King's Speech

The Kings Speech cinematography

Danny Cohen may not be as well-known as others on this year's ballot, but his cinematography is at the top of the list of reasons why The King's Speech is one of 2010's most heralded films. If Inception was technically innovative, The King's Speech is creatively innovative. The camera does not perform any tricks, but simply rests in positions that wow the viewer with sensationally memorable imagery.

A round of applause is due for the production design team, which created an environment that popped on camera. But without Cohen's effort to present the film's main character in a way that supplements the story, The King's Speech might be less appreciated.

From the first frame to the last, The King's Speech never forgets it is a movie. It doesn't try to be hyper-realistic, even though it is. The camera accents the riveting story that unfolds in front of it by pushing its characters to the corner of the frame and enhancing every emotion that pours from the Oscar-nominated performances. If The King's Speech does not win Best Cinematography, many viewers will likely sit in shock - I know I will.


The Social Network

The Social Network cinematography

As renowned cinematographers usher in the digital age of filmmaking, Jeff Cronenworth leads the charge with this nominated presentation of a story just as modern as the digital revolution itself. The Social Network is a dark tale and its cinematography pushes that upon the audience with dull color tones and crisp visuals.

The film doesn't provide Cronenworth ample opportunity to get creative with his imagery, so he took a more simple approach and explored the use of color to supplement the character motivations. One standout scene includes strobe lighting and deep colors as Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) talk at a loud bar.

Overall, the film's cinematography is subdued and distant. It tries to be invisible, while also creating a subtle visual accent for the story on screen. It most likely won't win Best Cinematography, but it's nice to see the Academy giving a shout out to digital cinematography yet again.


True Grit

True Grit cinematography

If any film has a chance to compete with the cinematography of The King's Speech, it is Roger Deakins and his wonderfully atmospheric imagery in True Grit. The celebrated cinematographer presented the latest film by The Coen Bros. with jaw-dropping visuals that expose the beauty of the Old West.

Deakins' use of silhouettes and vast landscapes are typically what the Academy votes for, but it does lack a certain creativity that makes The King's Speech so engaging. Still, True Grit gives audiences a classic approach to cinematography that works for the narrative. Even though the story stays true to the people involved, it is a road movie (in a way) and explores the massive space of the Old West.

One scene that particularly stood out (even though it was enhanced with visual effects) was the opening scene in which snow slowly falls onto a dead body. It is a typical Coen Bros. opening, but visually grabs the audience from the opening frame.


Who do you think deserves the 2011 Oscar for Best Cinematography? Did any of your favorites get snubbed?

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