Best Cinematography is one of the most closely watched technical categories at the Oscars, due largely to the fact that it’s often so difficult to predict. Indeed, since 1986, when the American Society of Cinematographers first started handing out prizes, only 11 of its winners went on to triumph at the Oscars:
1990: Dean Semler, “Dances with Wolves”
1995: John Toll, “Braveheart”
1996: John Seale, “The English Patient”
1997: Russell Carpenter, “Titanic”
1999: Conrad L. Hall, “American Beauty”
2002: Conrad L. Hall, “Road to Perdition”
2005: Dion Beebe, “Memoirs of a Geisha”
2007: Robert Elswit, “There Will Be Blood”
2008: Anthony Dod Mantle, “Slumdog Millionaire”
2010: Wally Pfister, “Inception”
2013: Emmanuel Lubeszki, “Gravity”
This year, the ASC went as expected witih Lubezki again, this time for “Birdman,” and he is the clear frontrunner at the Oscars as well. However, there’s a wealth of riches in this category, so let’s take a look at each contender and their chances of winning:
Emmanuel Lubezki, “Birdman”
His work on “Birdman” showcases the same kind of technical prowess that won him his trophy for “Gravity.” The Mexican-born D.P. is know for his stunning long takes, and “Birdman” is a culmination of that, employing an ever-moving camera and clever editing to help create the illusion that the entire film was done in one continuous shot. It’s little wonder that our experts are almost unanimously picking him to win, with odds of 1/10.
Funny considering how for years the academy seemed dead-set on keeping the man known as Chivo out of their club: it took five unsuccessful bids — for “A Little Princess” (1995), “Sleepy Hollow” (1999), “The New World” (2005), “Children of Men” (2006), and “The Tree of Life” (2011) — before Lubezki was finally welcomed into the winner’s circle, and after nabbing his fourth ASC award (the others were for “Children of Men,” “The Tree of Life,” and “Gravity”) it seems almost certain he’ll be greeted with open arms once more.
Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski, “Ida”
If there’s anyone that can upset Lubezki in this race (at least, according one expert), it’s this pair for their combined work on Foreign Film-frontrunner “Ida.” Black-and-white is a rare thing these days, and the duo takes full advantage of the opportunity to shoot in what many consider to be the soul of cinema, playing with light and shadow to create hauntingly poetic images. Standing in their way, however, is the fact that no black-and-white film has won this award since “Schindler’s List” (1993), and that in all 86 years of Oscars history, only four foreign language films — “Cries and Whispers” (1973), “Fanny and Alexander” (1983), “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000), and “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006) — have been rewarded for their Cinematography. Kas and Lenczewski are currently ranked in second place with odds of 20/1 (thanks in large part to that sole Camp Lubezki dissenter), yet their nomination may have done more to help boost the visibility of “Ida” in the Foreign Film category than anything else.
Robert D. Yeoman, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
It’s hard to believe this is his first Oscar nomination considering the unique visual landscape he has created with director Wes Anderson over the course of nearly twenty years and seven feature films. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” finds the duo breaking new ground with their use of various aspect ratios to help convey the story’s many time periods, in addition to their trademark wide-angle lenses, bright colors, and off-kilter framings. The film is expected to sweep through the tech categories — with wins for Costume Design, Makeup & Hairstyling and Production Design all but certain — so Yeoman could go along for the ride. He’s currently ranked in third place with odds of 33/1, and if it weren’t for Lubezki, he might’ve been ranked in first.
Dick Pope, “Mr. Turner”
He received his first Oscar nomination for “The Illusionist” (2006) and is back again this year for “Mr. Turner,” his ninth collaboration with director Mike Leigh and his most visually stunning work to date. Pope creates lush, romantic landscapes for the film to rival the paintings of its subject J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall), yet he’s currently ranked in fourth place with odds of 100/1. Voters have gone for this kind of traditionally beautiful lensing in the past, yet as of late they’ve leaned towards rewarding more effects-driven — i.e. technically challenging — achievements. If “Mr. Turner” weren’t being overshadowed by “The Grand Budapest Hotel” in the Costume and Production Design categories, perhaps Pope would be more of a force in this race. As it stands now, he’ll have to remain content with another trip to the ceremony.
Roger Deakins, “Unbroken”
And now we arrive at the perennial Oscar bridesmaid. Deakins has received a staggering 12 nominations — for “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994), “Fargo” (1996), “Kundun” (1997), “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000), “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001), “No Country for Old Men” (2007), “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007), “The Reader” (2008, shared with Chris Menges), “True Grit” (2010), “Skyfall” (2012), “Prisoners” (2013), and now “Unbroken” (2014) — without a single win. And that shut-out is despite three ASC Awards (for “Shawshank,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” and “Skyfall”) and three BAFTAs (“The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “No Country,” and “True Grit”).
“Unbroken” finds the veteran D.P. doing his typically masterful work, and he’s clearly overdue, yet there’s been a real lack of support for the film, and he’s ranked dead last with odds of 100/1. No doubt, Deakins will have several future opportunities to compete, and may very well win one day. Yet like everyone else in this category, he picked a bad year to go up against Lubezki.
For those of you keeping score, the Best Picture winner has also won Best Cinematography a total of 25 times (in years when the award was split between Black-and-White and Color films, I’ve noted which film won which prize):
1939: “Gone with the Wind” (Ernest Haller and Ray Rennehan) (Color)
1940: “Rebecca” (George Barnes) (Black-and-White)
1941: “How Green Was My Valley” (Arthur C. Miller) (Black-and-White)
1942: “Mrs. Miniver” (Joseph Ruttenberg) (Black-and-White)
1951: “An American in Paris” (Alfred Gilks, John Alton) (Color)
1953: “From Here to Eternity” (Burnett Guffey) (Black-and-White)
1954: “On the Waterfront” (Boris Kaufman) (Black-and-White)
1956: “Around the World in 80 Days” (Lionel Lindon) (Color)
1957: “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (Jack Hildyard)
1958: “Gigi” (Joseph Ruttenberg) (Color)
1959: “Ben-Hur” (Robert Surtees) (Color)
1961: “West Side Story” (Daniel L. Fapp) (Color)
1962: “Lawrence of Arabia” (Freddie Young) (Color)
1964: “My Fair Lady” (Harry Stradling) (Color)
1966: “A Man for All Seasons” (Ted Moore) (Color)
1982: “Gandhi” (Billy Williams and Ronnie Taylor)
1985: “Out of Africa” (David Watkin)
1987: “The Last Emperor” (Vittorio Storaro)
1990: “Dances with Wolves” (Dean Semler)
1993: “Schindler’s List” (Janusz Kaminski)
1995: “Braveheart” (John Toll)
1996: “The English Patient” (John Seale)
1997: “Titanic” (Russell Carpenter)
1999: “American Beauty” (Conrad L. Hall)
2008: “Slumdog Millionaire” (Anthony Dod Mantle)
We bring this up to make the point that this category doesn’t necessarily predict Best Picture: in fact, oftentimes the winner isn’t even nominated in the top category. So while a win for Lubezki is a good sign for “Birdman’s” chances of taking the gold (ditto Yeoman’s for “Grand Budapest”), it doesn’t quite seal the deal.
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