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How Do You Judge Great Cinematography? Fandor Studies the Visuals of the 2014 Oscar Noms

The GrandmasterWhat qualifies as great cinematography to you? The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have certainly run the gamut in their nominations for Best Cinematography; the group of honored films consists of a diverse selection of stories told by some of the most talented DPs of our time, which makes one wonder — what does the “best” cinematography look like anyway? Fandor has put together yet another compilation of footage from this year’s Oscar nominees in cinematography in an effort to dissect, break down, and study each of their visual artistry.

Everyone has their own criteria when it comes to judging cinematography that vary based on their own personal tastes, as well as how much importance is put on certain factors. Furthermore, the definition of what constitutes cinematography has become more complicated with the advancement of CGI and visual effects. So really, there isn’t a be-all end-all in defining great cinematography, but Fandor provides a few factors to help us think more critically about the art form: technical mastery, originality and innovation, and artistry and vision.

Those up for the Best Cinematography Oscar include The Grandmaster (Philippe Le Sourd), Gravity (Emmanuel Lubezki), Inside Llewyn Davis (Bruno Delbonnel), Nebraska (Phedon Papamichael), and Prisoners (Roger A. Deakins), and as one would suspect given the wide array of cinematographers, the look and feel of each of these films is quite varied. For instance, two films that highlight technical mastery, according to Fandor, are The Grandmaster, which boasts stunning, almost surrealistic, highly detailed visuals, and Gravity, which makes its mark with its long, continuous shots.

Check out the selection of footage from Fandor below. They’ve taken the liberty of removing each film’s soundtrack and adding their own helpful commentary, but they suggest muting the video all together and just — watch. That’s a great way to study cinematography anyway!

And just for kicks, here’s Fandor’s video from last year that takes a critical look at the 2013 Best Cinematography Oscar-nominated films.

Be sure to check out Fandor’s article. They’ve provided great observations about the aesthetics of each film, as well as scoresheets (from 1 to 5) on how well each film performed in the given criteria.

How do you measure bad/good/great/crying-in-a-pool-of-your-own-splendor cinematography? Which film, not already nominated, would you have nominated for the Oscar this year? Let us know in the comments below.

Link: Oscars 2014: Video Evidence, Cinematography — Fandor


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  • Lubezki will win it going away.
    Not this year Roger, not this this year.

    • Lubezki doesn’t deserve it though, Gravity was all special effects, no real camerawork. The whole film was just special effects and not much more.

      • Daniel Mimura on 02.11.14 @ 4:45PM

        I disagree. I agree 100% that describes Life of Pi and that didn’t deserve the win (don’t get me started on the smeary >180° shutter video look)…but Lubezki at least deserves a technical achievement oscar for the lighting cube used on that film to make interactive lighting that plays across the actors faces. I hate LED lighting for the most part, but this is rethinking how it can be used. And the biggest thing for cinematography is lighting faces. In a rear way, that’s the main thing he had to work with b/c most of the other stuff is fake.

  • The “Grandmaster” looks the most integrated. Of course, there, visuals are the story. I liked “Anna Karenina” from 2012 for the same reasons too.

  • “Gravity” is VFX, not cinematography.

    • That doesn’t make sense. Just because there’s heavy use of VFX doesn’t take away from visual impact of the composition, lighting etc.

      • Then they need to create a new hybrid category, because “Gravity” is a whole different animal than a film like the “The Grandmaster”.

        • THIS ^^^

          • Exactly. The academy just needs to open up to cg films more instead of turning the cold shoulder because the art is created with a DIFFERENT TOOL. The computer doesn’t make art, artists make art.

            No we don’t need a new category, but people (including VFX artists) need to start understanding that if the cinematographer is the one who originally conceived the look, give the man the award. If Weta Digital is the one who originally conceived the look, give those sups responsible an award. Most people down the pipeline after, live-action or digital, are just copy machines who re-create the preconceived look anyway. It’s not that complex.

            On a similar note, If the academy is considering nearly completely CG films for best cinematography, why don’t they do the same for best actor/actress/supporting (ie Andy Serkis).

        • CGI or not CGI the use of lighting is the same. Because most of the light in the set was virtual (because the set was virtual too) doesn’t mean that Gravity has no cinematography… or not as much as other films.
          Read about the making of gravity in the American Cinematography number of november 2013 and you will know how much work Lubetzky has done to light the character in the right way to best integrate factual shots with the virtual ones.

          A lot of people think that a DP in a virtual enviorment doen’t has much work to do… but if you read about the whole work it has to be done to shot and mix that images and to have that movie, I will change your mind.

          Film and digital are different… but no one discuss the fact that photography with film and with digital is the same. Avatar was mainly digital animation, why to give an oscar for the photography?…

          As we say in Italy: here we are talking if angels are male or female…
          I think Gravity and The Grandmaster are two great films both with great photography. Let’s see who will win

        • Daniel Mimura on 02.11.14 @ 5:06PM

          I’ve been thinking this ever since Life of Pi won best cinematography. (What???). They need to somehow change it. They used to have two different Oscars for color and B/W. They should probably do it again, so people like me don’t get pissed that they give the Cinematography Oscar to a bunch of vfx people.

    • Tell that again to Academy Award winning movie Life of Pi. Cinematography, baby, cinematography. Deal with it or gtfo.

    • Tell that to Avatar which won best cinematography in 2010.

      This is what Roger Deakins said about it:

      I think that to make any kind of judgment between such a diverse group of films is rather impossible. ‘Cinematography’ is changing and the purists are in a minority. Even the seemingly classically shot “White Ribbon’ was shot on colour stock and manipulated digitally to create the look of the picture you see. That is a long way from how Greg Toland created images for ‘Citizen Kane’ or Subrata Mitra for ‘The World of Apu’. Would it be possible to judge the cinematography in those three films in competition?

      It is not being dismissive to say that it is the work that counts and you are your own judge.

    • There are very different workflows and levels of involvement of the Cinematographer in “Life of Pi” compared to “Gravity”. I don’t think a blanket rule can be applied to VFX heavy movies.

    • David Dearlove on 02.3.14 @ 4:50PM

      Please, in future, think before you say something as silly as that.
      It’s like saying a statue isn’t art because it’s not a painting.

  • Grandmaster was frustrating because it seemed like 85% close ups. While having striking visuals, it had very little spatial context provided. Why shoot a Kung Fu movie without spatial context? It looks totally contrived.

    • But that was exactly the point. Did you really think Wong Kar Wai was going to make just any ol’ fung fu movie?? Visually, the man is all about conveying intimacy, proximity, tactility and texture. He wanted to create a visceral experience with this fung fu movie, and I think his cinematographer did an absolutely brilliant job. Honestly, I really didn’t like it as a film. Wong Kar Wai has never been big on a plot, but with this being a (really) loose bio-pic he had to create a lot of plot points to drive the story, and I don’t think he was able to pull it off at all. Also, the score was horrible. But just because his storytelling and music choice was flawed doesn’t mean the cinematography wasn’t brilliant. Visually, this film wins by a landslide for me. Gorgeous imagery.

  • Will win Gravity, for the technique. But for the mastery and greatness, The GrandMaster is playing in another league. Sadly the story is nothing special.

  • Where’s Samsara? The most amazing shots I’ve seen this year by far…

    • No vfx compositing, no nothing. Just reality captured in 70mm. Shame it’s not even nominated.

    • +1

      I went to another city to see Samsara on a 4k screen (couldn’t find it in 70mm). The visuals were breathtaking. I still like Baraka more but the shots of Mecca alone were worth the admission price.

      • Daniel Mimura on 02.11.14 @ 5:18PM

        FYI, the reason you didn’t see it in 70mm is b/c Ron Fricke didn’t want you to see it that way. His opinion was that 70mm film is still the best shooting format (for him), and that digital projection surpassed the film projection.

        I’ve noticed that highlights tend to flicker on film and don’t with digital projection.

    • As awesome as Samsara was, it was released in 2011. Too early for this year’s awards :-)

  • King of Punk on 02.3.14 @ 8:45AM

    Are we judging the work or the result ?

  • Amine Ghaba on 02.3.14 @ 9:33PM

    I don’t for this year but I thought that The Social Network had a way more beautiful image than Inception. Even though Inception was shot on film et TSN digitally, I loved the way each TSN frame was composed . Fincher knows how to tell a story visually, for instance, the only moment when you have a shoulder shot is at the party part when Timberlake moves to see the cops are coming, fincher did it to show that Timberlake character was intoxicated. And the way the camera makes some transitions between the past and the present, it move down to up in the lawyers room like it comes back from a burried souvenir and the sound does the same with an echo. It is very elegant, I think that will be my criteria, Elegance and smoothness

  • CGI, VFX, robots, rig, dolly, crane or real – somebody have to move that camera and choose best framing etc. Somebody is responsible for whole look, otherwise it will look like piece of shit. Cinematography is shifting, but basically it is still about the same – great picture. Only few people had great eye, only few. It doesnt matter if you move real or virtual camera.

  • Btw Oscars are NOT about best film, actors or cinematography. Its just about bussines, hype, big show and money. Its heavily biased and judged by people 60 years old who barely seen even all of the nominated movies and in some categories (like best costumes) only few people decide who will won! Its pure joke, but people believe to it.

  • Wow, I love The Grand Master’s cinematography.

  • Really, Nobody mentions “Her”?

  • whether its special effects to not, some body has to hold it all together!! #gravity.