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Oscars 2010: Cinematography Showdown

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Five cinematographers on five films have been nominated for the Best Achievement in Cinematography. This is a category that I have always had trouble defining. It's always been a bit nebulous. I know it when I see it. At the same time, the best cinematography is often that which you do not notice. However, sometimes the best is when you do notice it. Yes, I am aware of how contradictory that sounds.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines cinematography as the "art or science of motion-picture photography." Wow. That certainly doesn't help much, does it? Dictionary.com doesn't do any better, saying it is "the art or technique of motion-picture photography." It seems that looking up a traditional definition is not going to help me tell you what it is.

The American Society of Cinematographers offers this definition: "a creative and interpretive process that culminates in the authorship of an original work of art rather than the simple recording of a physical event. Cinematography is not a subcategory of photography. Rather, photography is but one craft that the cinematographer uses in addition to other physical, organizational, managerial, interpretive and image-manipulating techniques to effect one coherent process."

That is a little more informative, but even that does not say what it really is.

Here is a little bit of my understanding. The cinematographer (sometimes called the director of photography) holds a very important role in a film's production. While the director is responsible for the flow of the story and the elements in a given scene and the performances, the cinematographer is responsible for the shooting of the scene. He must have an intimate knowledge of the cameras being used and the different lenses, along with their effects. He also needs to be involved with the lighting team to get the effect right.

This is sort of how I define the art/role. Also, wherever I say "he" can also be "she." Art knows no boundaries.

All right, let's move forward and take a look at the five nominees. Alphabetically by film, they are: Avatar: Mauro Fiore; Das weisse Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte: Christian Berger; Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: Bruno Delbonnel; The Hurt Locker: Barry Ackroyd; and Inglourious Basterds: Robert Richardson.

I should mention a few films that should also be recognized: The Road: Javier Aguirresarobe, Public Enemies: Dante Spinotti, and Where the Wild Things Are: Lance Acord. All three were fantastically shot films. I know there were those who did not like the digital photography of Public Enemies, but I think it really looked good.

Now that we know the players, let's try to order them in a meaningful manner. I will discuss each title’s merits and how I think the awards might play out. It's not like we'll know the order aside from number one, but I will give it a shot anyway.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: Bruno Delbonnel

I must admit to being a little surprised to see this film here. I remember it looking pretty good on the big screen but would not call it anything particularly special. This being true, I just revisited the trailer and was struck by who very cool some of the shots were. This would be a good example of a film whose cinematography is disguised by the story that surrounds it. There is nice use of washed out colors and wide shots. Bruno Delbonnel does some nice work with the integration of special effects. This has to be considered the dark horse. It also deserves a revisit by me. Delbonnel also worked on the Beatles jukebox musical Across the Universe, another film that looked great.

Inglourious Basterds: Robert Richardson

I love this film and firmly believe it will stand the test of time and will only grow in esteem in years to come. That said, I do not feel that it will walk away a winner here. In fact, I think it is a long shot in most categories with its best chance likely to be for its screenplay. Still, the film has a distinctive look, a look that is generally attributed to the director. The cinematographer should not be left out of the equation. This film has some great looking sequences, such as in the theater towards the end. Overall, though, it is not one I really see as a winning film in this category. For what its worth, Richardson is a skilled cinematographer. This is his sixth Oscar nomination (he has won two), but has done better work in my estimation.

Das weisse Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte: Christian Berger

Known in America as The White Ribbon. I have not seen the Michael Haneke-directed film, but the trailer gives a glimpse of some striking black and white photography. I look forward to seeing the film. That said, I cannot comment on the whole work, but it looks like Christian Berger did some nice work. It has a classic feel to it and I would not be surprised if some of the Academy voters are attracted to the old school look. As much as I liked the look of the trailer, which features some very nicely composed shots as well, I do not think it will win here. I do, however, think it has a shot at winning Best Foreign Language Feature.

This is where things get a little complicated. I feel the next two films are easily the top contenders and the award could go either way. I predict that whichever film get it will be the one having a big night.

The Hurt Locker: Barry Ackroyd

This is a very dynamic looking film. I understand they had hundreds of hours of footage from four crews. They were working on a low budget and used a lot of cameras to get a lot of scene coverage with fewer takes. Shot on Super16mm and digital video, the footage blends seamlessly and captures a lot of detail in each scene. Barry Ackroyd did a superb job of capturing the intensity of the action on film. The film features some great high speed work (for slow motion sequences). The end product is a fine looking film that looks more expensive than it is. Ackroyd has had a long career and has worked on films such as United 93 and the upcoming Green Zone.

Avatar: Mauro Fiore

Again, this could go either way and at least at the time of this writing, I am voting for the cultural phenomenon. I cannot imagine this film was easy to work on. First, the project has been in development for years, a fact that cannot be ignored. Beyond the time issue, Mauro Fiore had to deal with the extensive effects work; he would have had to be in there with the team to make sure everything looked right and the look was consistent. You have a good deal of live action and computer-created footage to blend together, not to mention the 3D! The end result is a simply stunning accomplishment that cannot be ignored. He worked with all manner of elements and combined them in a work that is really one of the most visually stunning films I have seen. Will this add up to a win? It will probably be close, but I think so.

Who will win? I do not know. We all get to find out on March 7, 2010.

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