A Cinematographer’s Lens: On This Year’s Oscar Nominees

By Michael M. PessahMarch 10, 2024

A Cinematographer’s Lens: On This Year’s Oscar Nominees
FOR US CINEMATOGRAPHERS, who are directly responsible for turning directors’ visions and actors’ emotions into moving images through light and lenses, the Oscars are always a rewarding moment. But tonight’s Best Cinematography nominees are an extraordinary group for extraordinary times. Despite shuttered movie theaters, the rise of streaming series, and technological disruption, these films are, considered as a group, among the most innovative, exquisite, and, well, avant-garde visual achievements to be short-listed in the history of the Academy Awards.

That these big-screen achievements happened at a moment when moviegoing itself seemed to be threatened is inspiring but, given the history of our art form, unsurprising. A quick look in the rearview mirror shows that many of the greatest leaps in cinematography have come during times of transition.

The very first Oscar for cinematography was given to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans in 1929. This F. W. Murnau film is considered the pinnacle of silent film photography, yet it was made under the looming threat of the talkies, which would soon upend the industry and force filmmakers to refashion not only the audio component but also the visual construction of their movies.

Counterintuitively, some of the finest examples of black-and-white cinematography were produced during the era of Technicolor, when the monochrome format was often seen as on its way to obsolescence. Rebecca (1940), Citizen Kane (1941), and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) are among the period’s masterpieces whose use of chiaroscuro and adventurous camerawork are an assertion of the advantages of black-and-white film.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the deterioration of the studio system created an opening for a wave of iconoclastic filmmakers to reinvent the visual dynamics of American cinema. Working with their cinematographers to adopt ideas from foreign films, cinéma vérité, and counterculture psychedelia, American New Wave films such as The Graduate (1967), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), and Badlands (1973) became instant classics, looking like little else the world had seen before.

Three decades later, when it seemed that digital technology was threatening to replace the film cameras that cinematographers had long relied on, we answered with movies that pushed analog photography to new heights by using special processing and lensing techniques. Amélie (2001), City of God (2002), Lost in Translation (2003), Man on Fire (2004)—all were striking answers to the suddenly urgent question of “why shoot film?”

Which leads us to this moment. During the pandemic, the experience of seeing a movie was challenged as theaters locked their doors, many remaining closed to this day. Our national attention shifted to the small screen, as we binged high-quality and high-budget series at home. Teenagers turned their attention instead to the online influencers whose self-filmed content was frequently more compelling than the corporate offerings aimed at them by mass media.

It all seems like a recipe for a timid and impoverished cinema. And yet, look at this group of 2023 nominees: each is visually fearless, filled with unforgettable imagery. Four of them—Oppenheimer, Maestro, Killers of the Flower Moon, and Poor Things—originated on film. Four of them featured black-and-white cinematography. Each cinematographer’s approach was distinctly unconventional. For Maestro, Matthew Libatique freely switched between aspect ratios and engaged in a feisty conversation with the lighting conventions of midcentury cinema. In Oppenheimer, Hoyte van Hoytema turned an IMAX camera onto the landscape of the human face, studying its fault lines as if they were grooves in the New Mexico desert. In El Conde, Edward Lachman used a new Arriflex monochrome digital camera, adopting the latest technology to bring a crisp purity to the film’s Grand Guignol imagery. And for Poor Things, Robbie Ryan threw together a relentlessly eclectic range of techniques, including Ektachrome, black-and-white stock, and bold use of zoom and fish-eye lenses.

One can’t help but notice that these films also feature a clever upcycling of earlier technologies. For example, VistaVision, a format most closely associated today with Alfred Hitchcock, was crucial in Poor Things. Rodrigo Prieto worked with Panavision to create lenses for Killers of the Flower Moon that evoke the John Ford films the picture references—a visceral reminder of how cinematographic technology develops in an additive way. We’ll happily utilize dizzying drone shots, but we’ll also rely on a camera being pushed along on a sled—just as we did 100 years ago.

Looking back through Oscars history, it’s difficult to find, even in the most celebrated eras of cinematography, a cohort of films so inventive. Take the year 1970, for example: yes, the brilliant Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid took home the Academy Award, but it won over rigidly conventional efforts like Marooned and Anne of the Thousand Days.

But why all the reinvention now? As mentioned, cinematographers have been inspired to create their best work when the form itself is challenged. Is it because these are moments when we are tempted to throw caution to the wind and make a case for the indispensability of cinema? At a time when a child can easily create a beautiful 4K film using nothing but a cell phone, is there an even greater urgency for us cinematographers to push our medium forward?

Whatever the cause, this raft of groundbreaking films bodes well for the future of our craft and for filmmaking writ large. Whenever the vitality of the feature film has been challenged, it has spurred great invention and ingenuity in the next generation—the past refitted for the future, the old made new again.

LARB Contributor

Michael Pessah, ASC, is an active cinematographer and a lecturer at the American Film Institute Conservatory. He has lensed Emmy-nominated projects for the past three consecutive years, including Scandalous, which was released on the big screen by Magnolia Pictures. He is a member of the American Society of Cinematographers and serves on the National Film Preservation Board at the Library of Congress.


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