Should the Oscar for Best Cinematography Be Split into Two Separate Categories?

OscarWe've talked quite a bit about online petitions lately. First it was Kentucker Audley satirically urging independent filmmakers to give up their dreams for the greater good of the film industry. Then, in the wake of the Sarah Jones tragedy, it was a petition to have her recognized during the "In Memoriam" segment at Sunday's Academy Awards. And now, fellow No Film Schoolers, we have another petition to unleash on you, a petition to split the Oscar for "Best Cinematography" into two separate categories. Read on to see what all of the fuss is about.

Traditional cinematography vs. computer-driven cinematography. This is the issue at hand. It's something that I have talked about extensively in a previous post, so I'll just do some paraphrasing of the arguments both for and against creating a distinction between the two.

In one sense, it’s an entirely technical matter. Films like Gravity and Inside Llewyn Davis (both nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography) were created in two vastly different ways, and therefore it isn't prudent to judge their images by the same standards. On the other hand, however, it can be argued that the method and technology don’t particularly matter as long as the images have the same effect on an audience. In the end, it's about utilizing the tools of cinematography (whether physical or digital) to tell the story.

Here are the trailers for those two films, in case you haven't seen them enough already.

Personally, I fall into the first camp, the one in favor of creating a distinction between traditional and virtual cinematography. And now that a heavily CGI-reliant film has taken home the Best Cinematography Oscar for 4 out of the past 5 years, the fine folks over at HowToFilmSchool do as well. In attempt to effect change in the industry and the way it views cinematography, they have created a petition which asks the Academy to split the Best Cinematography Oscar into two separate categories.

Here's what the petition says in full:

Too many times has a film which uses a large number of computer generated images won the award for Best Cinematography. As film making, cinematography and CGI continues to evolve, so should our appreciation and understanding of the various aspects of modern cinematography. 

In no way are we saying that the past winners are undeserving, but we strongly believe that proper credit is not being given where it is due. 

The award should be divided into conventional live action photography and another for CGI based photography in order to give cinematographers the recognition they deserve. 

We'll leave it up to the judgement of the Academy on criteria and how the awards should be divided, but we strongly believe that any film which uses a large number of green screen elements, composites and multiple CGI sequences should be in it's own category.

I have no doubt that the petition itself can reach the 5,000 needed signatures, especially with a little bit of love and sharing from you, dear NFS readers. However, what happens after this petition reaches the Academy is entirely up in the air.

The problem lies in the fact that many films rely on a combination of both traditional cinematography and digital compositing these days, which means that the Academy would have to draw a very distinct line between the two in order to create separate categories. How this would be accomplished is an interesting quandary because it would likely involve deriving a very specific percentage for each film based on the amount of digital assets that it contains. After that, the question becomes where the line between the two is drawn? Should films with higher than 50% be considered virtual cinematography, or 70% or 10%? No matter where the line exists, it is certainly going to be arbitrary in some way, which makes the process all that much more difficult.

Honestly, this is a complicated issue, and I have doubts that we'll see a distinction between traditional and virtual cinematography any time soon. However, if you'd like to see this issue make its way to the Academy for consideration, make sure you take 30 seconds to sign the petition. Who knows what might happen at next year's awards.

What do you guys think about this issue? Should the Academy split the award for Best Cinematography into two separate awards, one for traditional live-action cinematography and one for virtual cinematography? If there should be a split, what would be the ideal way to determine which category any given film should fall into, especially considering that many films combine both elements? Let's hear your thoughts down in the comments!


Your Comment


I agree that they are two different things and should be awarded separately. Gravity is a superb achievement, but most of the majesty of the images is computer-generated. In many scenes, Sandra Bullock's face is the only filmed element, with everything else painstakingly created by a team of CGI specialists over a period of months. It's brilliantly done, but it's a different skill set from traditional cinematography.

March 6, 2014 at 7:38PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Andrew Trigg

It seems to me most of the debate is between the typical digital vs. analog camps.
I don't think it needs to go there. For instance, please think of your favorite three movies from a cinematography perspective. Would they, or would they not hold up if they were nominated this year? I think you would agree that they would. Right?
What we are seeing is a shift to the new stylings of cinematography, do to the ever changing art of film-making. Personally I believe cinematography is the ability to make a scene look fantastic, as subtlety or in your face as possible.
Let us take Citizen cane vs. Gravity for shits and giggles. Which one has the best cinematography?
Exactly ;)

March 6, 2014 at 8:01PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


I don't think analog vs digital cinematography is currently a relevant distinction anymore (when films shot digitally and films shot with film stock are both nominated and although most people have preferences, no one seems to be debating it in terms of one taking away from the other.) The issue is more than analog or's real physically lit cinematography vs virtual cinematography.

March 8, 2014 at 12:29AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Daniel Mimura

To me, considering this question expresses one thing: not a clue what cinematography is all about.

And if we add to it the level of absurdity reached in the comments..

March 8, 2014 at 2:46AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


If the setting was the exact same, would a cinematographer light an actor differently in a set built to mimic the setting or a digital set which will mimic the setting later in post?
And if lighting the setting is important or artistically relevant too, would a good cinematographer be less caring of a digital shot than a live action shot?

Do DPs move themselves the illuminating devices? No! Not even the camera most of the times! They design the lighting schemes for each shot and then the lighting and camera department minions do the hard work... With digital shots it's the exact same thing, the DP designs the lighting schemes and then the digital department minions do the hard work... and that's why I personally think that two awards make no sense.

And by the way, I find it quite offensive for a digital artist's work to be called COMPUTER generated image, when it is ARTIST-USING-AN-SPECIFIC-TOOL-(A-COMPUTER-IN-THIS-CASE) generated image, like any other... A computer can't generate shit without an artist behind... The same as a camera can't generate a film by itself either. Language is important.

Are live action shots made by a DP ID(+/-S)ICDGI? Iluminatin-Devices (+/- Sun) and Image-Capturing-Device Generated Image? Fuck no...

A piece of art is a piece of art despite of the tool used, and if you are a good cinematographer you would do an Oscar-worthy shot despite the medium and the tools. Many animated films (hand drawn and digital) have far better cinematography than many nominated for cinematography films, and there's no bitching nor Best Cinematography for an Animated Film Oscar.

Oscars award results, not techniques... Or they should at least. Like it or not, the cinematography behind Avatar, Inception, Life of Pi and Gravity are great results, the best of their years? not what it is being debated here...

If there is any mistake, my apologies, I'm not a native english speaker.

March 8, 2014 at 8:33AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Interesting...but I feel there already *are* two awards categories; one for cinematography and one for VFX. The problem comes, I think, when both are given for the *same* images. Especially when the most dramatic and award-worthy ones are CG. And it's when the bulk of the images are synthetic that it feels like a slap in the face. It isn't that a DP isn't doing a great job; it's just that he/she is largely dependent on the guidance of the VFX supervisor (especially for interactive lighting, which is what makes it all fit together in post) when on set. Once principal's done, the DP IS NOT sitting at the effects house, directing lighting or anything else. That's all on the supe and the lead animators. CG isn't a tool for the DP to use; they're a tool for the screenwriter and director to tell the story; just as the DP's images are. So they are separate. But giving an Oscar to the DP for Life of Pi, when he was basically looking through the lens at a blue screen and a boat, is just not right. Those gulp-factor skies, eye-popping animals and raging storms were all done when the DP was on to his next film. The images in "War of the Worlds" aren't that way because Janusz Kamiński masterminded their creation, they're that way because Dennis Muren's genius guided them through principal and post. Beautiful CG images don't happen because the DP grabs a different tool out of his/her bag; in effects-heavy shows it means they've just created the scaffold to hang them on. Best to give credit where it's due; when the DP's played a relatively minor role, give it to the VFX category and leave it at that. Don't do both.

March 8, 2014 at 10:52AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


What's next? Best acting award for a CGI performer?

March 9, 2014 at 7:51PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Andy Serkis.

June 6, 2014 at 10:37PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


The main poblem I see is how to draw the line. What about "The Grand Budapest Hotel". I have seen a Making-Of presented by the CGI/SFX Company involved. The film is an incredible blend of obviously "artificial" pictures, highly stylized on location shooting in Germany and almost ALL shots were digitally polished, completed, and so on. FOllowing the idea to split the award, in which category should it be nominated then?
50% of a "real live action" film material nowadays is digitally modified. At least. Colours re-adjusted, things cut out, light changed - and the future will bring just more and more of this, so the distinction will make less and less sense.
It doesn't matter, whether a film is silent or with sound, black & White or in Colour, 2D, 3D or whateverD, shot on analog or digital equipment. The Director of Photography decides, what to do and why to get the result he has in mind.

The main distinction is between having the money to get the tools to get the result and not to have the money. But hey, these are not artistic awards, anyway. It is a big busieness celebrating itself. Who cares?

March 10, 2014 at 12:22AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Daniel Danzer

I agree that the result is the same, but as a Digital Film / VFX double major, I do understand first hand how different the process is. It's very different to face the challenge of lighting a scene within a given scenario vs. Having the luxury of digitally altering the environment to meet the desired look. Ex: "add a vanilla sky" vs. "Hurry or we'll lose the light!". Plus the decision_making process has a lot more people involved. You can't compare a gaffer to a digital artist (not to say anything bad about a gaffers, those guys are awesome in their own skill!...but it is different). I think that by keeping it in the same category the academy is undermining the resourceful and creative problem solving skills of a traditional cinematographer.

March 10, 2014 at 9:39AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Whatever man. The Oscars are just a popularity contest within a very small and specific group. Most people who are academy voters don't really even take their job seriously when it comes to voting for the "best", what ever that's supposed to mean.

I do wish people would stop talking about films in terms of their “greatness,” whatever that means. There should be the films, and by obvious extension the people who made them, that are interesting because of this and that, and films that are less interesting because of this and that.

June 6, 2014 at 10:36PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


I'd say this is true for any awarding festival. I do both cinematography and color post… I've never seen an award for color correction. I'm sure post production saved cinematography in many award winning films...

June 7, 2014 at 8:21AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM