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What is Cinematography?

An introduction to the most mystifying Academy Award

With David Fincher’s “The Social Network” sweeping the Golden Globes and Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech” pulling an upset at the Director’s Guild of America, early 2011 has rightly been dubbed by critic Pete Hammond “one of the most schizophrenic awards seasons in recent memory.” Given such a competitive field, any number of outcomes is possible at the Academy Awards on February 27. Even setting aside traditional heavy-hitters like “Best Picture” and “Best Directing,” many of the less-heralded awards are also hotly contested. One of the most exciting of these races is the fight for “Best Cinematography,” where rarely have all five nominees been of such similarly high caliber.

But what exactly is cinematography? Most moviegoers have only a vague notion of this key aspect of filmmaking, for which even Webster’s dictionary gives an unhelpfully nebulous definition: “the art or science of motion-picture photography.” To remedy this confusion, an Oscar primer is in order.

The cinematographer—also known as the Director of Photography, or “DP”—though one of the most obscure members of the production team, is responsible for all the visual elements of a film. He or she makes every creative choice related to composition, lighting, and camera motion—anything that audiences can see in a given shot. The DP determines everything from color to depth-of-field—how much of the shot is in focus versus how much is blurry—from zoom to the positioning of people and objects within any given frame.

Needless to say, this is no simple task. From choosing the lenses and film stock—will the film be grainy? lush?—to lighting the set and instructing the camera operator, the cinematographer is one of the movie director’s closest collaborators and as such DPs often accompany directors from project to project. Polish native Janusz Kaminski, for example, has worked on every Steven Spielberg film since “Schindler’s List.” With the right combination of creativity, technological savvy, attention to detail, and a touch of good fortune, DPs can produce visually stunning works—the finest of which receive Academy Award nominations for “Best Cinematography.” Who deserves to take home the statue this year? Let’s take a closer look at the competitors.

In “Black Swan,” DP Matthew Libatique paints the screen with rich lighting and a broad range of strong, emotionally charged colors. The rollercoaster psychodrama of the film is realized through a mixture of gritty steady-cam and handheld shots, while for the dance scenes, long takes with complicated choreography—for both actors and camera operators—give the movie a genuinely lyrical feel. But in matters of shot composition and its effect on audiences, one can question Libatique’s judgment. For one, there is the greatly overused shot of Natalie Portman walking with the camera behind her at shoulder-height, placing her distinctive ballerina hair bun in the center of the frame. The frequent recurrence of this shot, aside from its tediousness, overplays Portman’s identity as a ballerina, effectively shoving this element of her character down audience members’ throats.

Tedium poses no such difficulties for “Inception,” which inhabits a stylistic realm all its own. The exploratory, exhibitionist, and technological feel of the film’s dream world is contrasted with the warm, more earthy sensibility of reality in DP Wally Pfister’s impressive vision. Then again, are the film’s spectacular visuals really attributable to cinematography? Or are they the work of the movie’s special effects team? Perhaps Pfister is getting more credit than he deserves—although the aid of revolutionary visual effects didn’t prevent the Academy from rewarding DP Mauro Fiore for last year’s “Avatar.”

While “The Social Network” has been lauded more for its social commentary than its cinematography, one shouldn’t short change DP Jeff Cronenweth’s contribution. His choices of color palette lend an authentically New England look to a recreated Harvard, and his compositional choices make shots of the less-than-engaging activity of computer programming look like stylized art. However, there are moments when the film feels overly produced, for no discernible reason. Excessive use of green filters and extremely shallow depths-of-field do little to advance the story, and give the impression of stylization for the sake of being stylized.

“The King’s Speech” takes classical cinematography and turns it on its head, to great effect. DP Danny Cohen virtually abandons the traditional shot-reverse-shot style of conversation—heads are on the wrong sides of the screen, actors’ noses are pressed up against the frame line, backgrounds take up 80% of the screen—and this unsettling style perfectly captures the internal tension and discomfort of the film’s speech-challenged protagonist. Everyday occurrences and interactions are infused with awkwardness for audiences just as they are for the character.

While Cohen’s work is indeed impressive, it’s hard to argue with the mastery of eight-time-Oscar-nominee DP Roger Deakins in “True Grit.” His depictions of an undomesticated outback are nothing short of exquisite, while his subtle ability to set the mood with color is unparalleled. If there’s a favorite, Deakins is it—indeed, Tim Appelo of The Hollywood Reporter has argued that the film’s courtroom scene alone, where a craggy one-eyed Jeff Bridges is illuminated by a glorious spillage of sunlight, merits an Oscar.

In the end, it should come down to “The King’s Speech” and “True Grit.” What could tip the scales? Well, “True Grit” is Deakins’s ninth nomination—many of those coming from his prior collaborations with Joel and Ethan Coen—and the exceedingly talented artist has yet to take home the statue; a win for him would thus be both timely and well-deserved. On the other hand, Danny Cohen is a relative newcomer to cinema, with plenty of future opportunities to blossom and receive commendation. That said, in “The King’s Speech,” he demonstrates undeniable ingenuity and boldness in a limited environment—while Deakins had the gorgeous landscapes of the Midwest at his disposal, Cohen was largely restricted to indoor talking heads. How does one separate skill from setting?

Come February 27, it seems as though Oscar voters for “Best Cinematography” will have as many factors to consider as the DP does when shooting a film. And while the qualifications of the category and the merits of its nominees may be deconstructed, the ultimate winner remains as mysterious as ever. Hopefully, though, readers will now understand the accomplishment of the victor when he or she is crowned.

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