So, we come to the end of this particular series. We’ve covered a number of aspects of the creative input into film-making, including actors,
Darius Khondji – Seven
Seven has a unique visual aesthetic. Plenty of films have gone for the “always raining, always dark” approach, but contrast Seven with something like AvP: Requiem for a shining example of how hard it is to pull off effectively. And contrast is the word. Seven manages to achieve visual clarity despite it feeling like perpetual night-time and there is contrast in the gloom and shadows so that we can always see what is going on. The Pride victim is seen in something resembling the cold light of day, but Sloth, Greed, Gluttony and Lust all dwell squarely in the dark.
Khondji gets everything right here. it’s not just darkness, light and shade, it’s the framing, the establishing shots and the angles – whether the virtual aerial shot of Sloth, or the almost German Expressionist angles as John Doe stands over a stricken Mills in the rain swept alley. We feel the same weary despair as the characters, we share in their anxiety and melancholy, we can smell the stench of the fetid apartments through which the disturbing narrative plays out.
Khondji comes a little too close for comfort to being disqualified on account of the rest of his body of work and certainly there are others on this list who have hit the heights more often, but Khondji still has Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children, Panic Room, Funny Games and Midnight in Paris on his CV, which is frankly a good, robust repertoire by any standard.
Wally Pfister – Inception
Pfister has been Christopher Nolan’s go-to guy for years now, teaming up with him film in, film out from Memento up to the conclusion of The Dark Knight trilogy. He’s also managed to fit in Marley, The Italian Job (remake) and Moneyball, as well as his interesting but flawed directorial debut, Transcendence. He may well also be the only artist on any of these lists with a really solid background in soft-core porn, but there you go. It’s not about where you’ve come from, it’s the quality of the work in the here and now.
Although franchise films in general and comic book films in particular have tended to get themselves stuck in the “darker, grittier” rut, Pfister’s work on Nolan’s Bat-trilogy remains stand-out amazing. He delivers a consistently real-world aesthetic, with the dankness of Gotham showcased, alongside some Mann-esque cityscapes. Memento’s cinematography, as well as The Prestige’s deserve mention here too.
Memento’s shifts between monochrome and colour and capturing of Leonard’s disorientation is mainly down to Nolan’s direction and Guy Pearce’s assured performance but there’s enough credit to extend to Pfister’s lensing of the film too. Likewise with The Prestige, he captures the gloom and grime of Victorian London, but also juxtaposes that with the sci-fi like electricity of Tesla’s home, lab and inventions. The shot of the snow-covered, light-bulb lit field deserves a mention too – a beautiful shot amidst many.
Any of these would be deserving of top marks, but Inception gets the nod. Much of its appeal is down to technical virtuosity (the spinning corridor, the folding city), but the way in which each successive layer has its own style, its own palate, with crumbling buildings, driving rain, snow-clad retreats and water-deluged Japanese palaces has to be seen as owing a huge debt to Pfister’s vision and inventiveness. Yes, the accusation that Nolan is better at spinning a compelling yarn than he is at grabbing our hearts will persist (although Interstellar addressed that to a degree), but this is a work of visual splendour.
Roger Deakins – The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford
Deakins not only works on great films, he produces astonishing work on great films. Prisoners, Shawshank, Skyfall, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Fargo, 1984, The Big Lebowski, Barton Fink, Kundun – 12 times nominated for an Oscar (including the last four years on the trot), how has he never won?
Naturalistic, heightened, high-contrast, monochrome, desaturated – Deakins can do it all and can even make something as distressing and depressing as Prisoners look beautiful. But with The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (title, synopsis and plot spoiler all in one) Deakins took his considerable craft to another level. The night-time contrast of dense, dark woodland with a solitary lantern and a lamp on the oncoming train, barren panoramas, desaturated interiors, verdant exteriors. It is as gradual and measured a film as you could imagine, yet the story is told so beautifully, you are rapt rather than bored. There is so much to relish on screen.
It took something as monumental as There Will Be Blood to deny Deakins his already then long overdue Oscar, though Deakins possibly split his own vote by being nominated for No Country For Old Men the same year. When you are responsible for shooting two of the three best looking films that year, it is clear that we are dealing with an exceptional talent.
Gordon Willis – The Godfather Part II
Willis has much, and much variety to his CV. The Godfather Parts I & II most readily leap off his page on IMDB, but The Parallax View, All The President’s Men, Annie Hall and Manhattan all grab the attention too. There is (and this is meant in no way as any sort of criticism) a certain classicism to his approach, both in the framing and the colour palates. The Godfather Trilogy is fairly subdued and muted in its colours and of course Manhattan provides a beautiful monochrome milieu.
If you contrast it with (for example) Deakins’ approach to the backlit Shanghai-set fight in Skyfall, it’s easy to see a phenomenal contrast in styles, but Willis’s films remain beautiful works of art, the photography a perfect accompaniment to the virtuoso acting and script work it sits alongside.
Since monochrome used to be pretty much the only option going (like silence), it is easy to dismiss it as a gimmick or a simple option when employed in the modern all colour era. In the same way as The Artist used silence as a genuine story-telling tool, so everyone from Allen to Scorsese and Spielberg have used monochrome to phenomenal modern success, lending their films a certain something they would have not had in colour. Just look at the colourised version of It’s a Wonderful Life to see the difference it makes if you get a film in the wrong format.
Does that mean Manhattan gets the nod here? It’s certainly a tempting proposition, but The Godfather Part II eventually wins out. It is certainly not the only film to have used subtle colour tinting to differentiate between story strands (Soderbergh’s Traffic did this to superb effect) and of course The Godfather Part II is such a towering achievement in every conceivable way that it winds up making you feel like every element is better than it really is. having said that, the photography is lush, evocative and beautiful and whether it is the lakeside house, Cuba, the immigrant ghettos of New York or anywhere else, Willis makes it look so beautiful.
Ernest Haller – Gone With The Wind
“Monumental enough to be beyond criticism” was an observation once attached to GWTW, though these days we all seem to be a bit more determined to re-assess even classics as treasured as this one. It is as epic, dramatic and sweeping a film as you could hope for and drags far less than many of its 4-hour peers, but it is certainly not flawless.
KKK sympathies lurk beneath the surface and Scarlett O’Hara’s entitled petulance does wear a little if you’re not in the right frame of mind. Having said that, its cinematography is definitely a wonder to behold. Even this close to the birth of Technicolour, the colours and contrasts are vibrant and beautiful, the framing and staging of the burning of Atlanta, or the sunset silhouetting of Scarlett all leave a lasting impression and set pieces are shot beautifully.
Haller won Best (Colour) Cinematography at the Oscars that year, but was far from a one hit wonder. Jezebel, Mildred Pierce, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Lilies of the Field all garnered him Oscar nominations, even if his equally accomplished work on Rebel Without a Cause, Captain Blood and The Roaring Twenties garnered less awards attention. Such diversity of genre, style and colour all mark Haller out as a versatile and seasoned photographer and although GWTW may feel like an obvious choice, that doesn’t make it the wrong one.
Janusz Kaminski – Schindler’s List
Spielberg tends to stick with trusted collaborators and Kaminski has been one of his reliable go-to guys for years. As with the Nolan/Pfister connection, it is easy to preoccupy ourselves with Kaminski’s work for Spielberg (and we can populate a handsome list indeed with their combined efforts), but he has a life outside of Spielberg too.
From the affecting monochrome palate of Schindler’s List to Amistad, Munich, Lincoln and Saving Private Ryan’s desaturated, muted colours, through Minority Report’s eye-catching blue hues and Catch Me If You Can’s vibrancy, Kaminski has lent a distinctive visual style to many a Spielberg film. But there is Jerry Maguire, The Diving Bell & The Butterfly and The Judge too. Admittedly those films don’t necessarily have the same eye-catching visual aesthetic as Kaminski’s work with Spielberg, but hopefully a satisfactory case can still be made for him having a life of his own apart from the BFG, Bridge of Spies, Ready Player One and Tintin.
With Schindler’s List, Kaminski not only started a relationship with Spielberg that endures to this day, he arguably crafted his greatest success in cinematography. Minority Report has a beautiful and impersonal sterility to it and Saving Private Ryan’s over-cranked but bleached beach landings take some beating too, but Schindler’s List is simply a masterpiece on every front.
Consider the framing of children in a latrine, thirsty, exhausted prisoners on a train, a camera silently panning across a courtyard as a murdered man lies prostrate, showers springing to life in a dark room and a solitary girl, in eye-catching red, slowly moving along a conveyor belt. The film is of course profoundly important and affecting, but the photography must be acknowledged as a key part of its success. From the documentary-like viscera of the extermination of the Krakow ghetto to the anonymous framing of Goeth’s eventual hanging, it is a triumph at every point.
Michael Chapman – Taxi Driver/Raging Bull
If you’ll forgive the pun, the one-two punch of Taxi Driver & Raging Bull is pretty much all that anyone would need on their CV to be in with a chance of featuring on one of these lists. Legitimately two of the very finest films of the past fifty years, Scorsese and De Niro were in the middle of around two decades of near-faultless collaboration (Mean Streets, King of Comedy, Goodfellas and Casino all arose from the same period) and gave us these two as the high water mark of very, very high water.
Michael Chapman lensed both films, but it was not simply a case of Scorsese bringing out the best in him. Of course The Fugitive, Doc Hollywood, Evolution and The Lost Boys are (to put it mildly) a rung or two down the ladder from his Scorsese collaborations, but The Last Detail, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Rising Sun contain excellent DoP work for which Chapman deserves credit. He may have risen to prominence through the New Hollywood era, but he has stuck around since and continues to deliver sold work. Bridge to Teribithia may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if nothing else it is handsomely and effectively shot.
Emmanuel Lubezki – The Tree of Life
The best cinematography Oscar three years in a row? Now you’re just getting greedy Mr Lubezki. That the three films in question are so wildly different in genre, tone and style (The Revenant, Birdman and Gravity) is simply more to Lubezki’s credit. When you then factor in The Tree of Life, Children of Men, Sleepy Hollow, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Ali and The Assassination of Richard Nixon (with left field efforts like The Cat in the Hat in the mix too) we see eclecticism, versatility, talent to burn – in short all of the attributes that qualify for a list like this one.
And it’s not simply a case of being able to desaturate the palate and brighten up the reds (as for Sleepy Hollow), or make it all look depressingly grimy (Children of Men). Lubezki is a master of achieving the right colour grade and “feel” for a film, but as the primary person in control of the camera work, we’re also looking for virtuosity in angles, widescreen photography, composition. Think of the long tracking shot at the end of Children of Men, of the way in which the woods are captured in Sleepy Hollow, or the blank unforgiving expanses of Gravity, or the stark beauty of Tree of Life’s early compositions.
Lubezki has collaborated with Tim Burton, Terrence Malick, Michael Mann, the Coens, Alejandro Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón, directors all renowned for their authorial style and distinctive visual aesthetics. As with any other DOP collaborating with top-drawer directors, this will always be to their credit – the best directors get to work with the best cinematographers and will stick with someone they know they can trust. Lubezki has been so consistently brilliant for so long now, that this choice is harder than any on this list, but Tree of Life takes it in the end.
The Revenant reveled in its golden hour sheen, Birdman and Gravity took elaborate technical exercises but rose above them to be so much more and countless other efforts by Lubezki are powerful and beautiful, but Tree of Life is just so rich. Malick of course seemingly cannot get enough of sunlight glimpsed through trees and nature in close up, but even city-scapes or the simplicity of children playing in the garden is shot through with care and an eye for the transcendent.