Cinematographer Watch

February 21, 2009

Tomorrow night cinematographer Roger Deakins will very probably be passed over once again by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The hardest working man in show business, Deakins has been nominated eight times for an Oscar and never won. Last year he was nominated twice, for the incredible double whammy of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (how could anybody see that film and not vote for it?) and the Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men and he still didn’t win. And this past Christmas, no less than three of the big prestige Oscar-bait releases—Revolutionary Road, Doubt and The Reader were all shot by Deakins. On The Reader, the film for which he’s nominated, he shares duties, and the nomination, with two-time winner Chris Menges (The Killing Fields, The Mission). I haven’t seen The Reader and have no idea why it has two cinematographers (it sure must be pretty), but Deakins and Menges are unlikely to beat fellow Brit Anthony Dod Mantle riding atop the Slumdog Millionaire juggernaut.

Deakins shouldn’t mind too much: not winning an Oscar is almost a badge of honor for great cinematographers. Gordon Willis, arguably the greatest living cinematographer, never won one. Astoundingly, he was never even nominated for the Godfather I and II, nor for Manhattan (finally snagging nominations, but no wins, for Zelig and Godfather III).

I have the feeling that I pay more attention to cinematographers than most, without any sure sense of to what degree any director of photography is the author of a film’s look. But I will often see a film purely because it was shot by a certain DP no matter who the director (with the occasional egregious exception, listed below as that dp’s skeleton in the closet). Below are my six favorite cinematographers working in Hollywood today.

Perhaps the confluence of Roger Deakins-lensed releases at Christmas is not surprising since these award-season films are all banked for the holidays (Revolutionary Road in fact was shot two summers ago). Deakins, the Coen Brothers’ favorite DP, has been working since 1975 and his career highlights for me include O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), Scorsese’s Kundun (1997) and House of Sand and Fog (2003). Last year, on top of that incredible double whammy, he also shot In the Valley of Elah. That film, Revolutionary Road and Doubt are not his most memorable work but they are all handsome and they have their moments (especially a gorgeously lit shot of nuns rising early in Doubt). And, as if he wasn’t busy enough, Deakins was also credited as a “visual consultant” on Wall-E and, I imagine, was responsible for some of the beautiful photo-realist shots of the abandoned planet. Next up for the 59 year old Deakins is his tenth film for the Coens, A Serious Man. Skeleton in the closet: Air America (1990).

Deakins was beaten out for the Oscar last year by Robert Elswit who won for There Will Be Blood (fair enough) and who also shot Michael Clayton in the same year. Elswit, who is just a year younger than Deakins, was nominated just once before, and deservedly, for his stunning black and white work on Good Night and Good Luck (2005). Elswit shot his first film in 1982 but didn’t really come into his own until he met Paul Thomas Anderson for whom he has shot all five features. Last year his only release was David Mamet’s Redbelt (some fine widescreen work) but he also shot the unreleased Kim Basinger/Charlize Theron vehicle The Burning Plain (directed by Inarritu’s screenwriter Guillermo Arriago). Next up for Elswit: Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity and Grant Heslov’s Clooney starrer Men Who Stare at Goats. Skeleton in the closet: Gigli (2003)!

Another cinematographer who had a banner year in 2007 was Harris Savides who shot Zodiac, Margot at the Wedding and American Gangster. The 51 year old Savides, who has not yet had a sniff at an Oscar, is forever in my pantheon for his stunning work on Gus Van Sant’s tracking shot trilogy Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003) and Last Days (2005) as well as James Gray’s The Yards (2000) and Jonathan Glazer’s underrated Birth (2004). He also shot many of Mark Romanek’s videos, most memorably Michael and Janet Jackson’s Scream, and Nine Inch Nails’ Closer. Last year he continued his association with Van Sant on Milk (but not the more adventurous Paranoid Park). Next up: lensing Larry David in Woody Allen’s Whatever Works. Skeleton in the closet: nothing too embarrassing, so I’ll have to go with Finding Forrester (2000).

Paranoid Park was shot instead by indie cinema’s best-known cinematographer Christopher Doyle (with his current collaborator Rain Li). Forever in the pantheon for his work with Wong Kar-wai, the 56 year old Australian Doyle (another Oscar snubee) has worked mostly in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand and only sporadically in Hollywood (starting with Van Sant’s Psycho in 1998 and including M.Night Shamalayan’s Lady in the Water in 2006). His only other 2008 film was the Sundance entry Downloading Nancy which opens in the spring, unless you count Ashes of Time Redux (1994/2008). Next up: Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control. Skeleton in the closet: Jon Favreau’s Made (2001).

For me the most innovative cinematographer currently working may be Emmanuel Lubezki. Best known for his work on almost every Alfonso Cuaron film (except the Harry Potter one which was shot by Alan Parker’s favorite Michael Seresin) and thus responsible, among much else, for the celebrated tracking shots in Children of Men (2006), the 44 year old Mexican-born Lubezki (a four-time Oscar nominee) also did jaw-dropping work on Martin Brest’s Meet Joe Black (1998), Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999), Michael Mann’s Ali (2001) and Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005). I recently caught up with his terrific work on Lemony Snicket’s a Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) and last year he shot the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading (Roger Deakins no doubt being too busy). Next up: the year’s most anticipated film Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Cuaron’s A Boy and his Shoe. Skeleton in the closet: The Cat in the Hat (2003) (no kidding).

On Ali, Lubezki replaced Michael Mann’s regular dp Dante Spinotti. The 65 year old Italian cinematographer shot every Mann film from Manhunter (1986) through Last of the Mohicans (1992), Heat (1995) and The Insider (1999) and will forever be in my pantheon for those films (Heat especially) as well as for Ermanno Olmi’s stunning Legend of the Holy Drinker (1988) and The Secret of the Old Woods (1993). He also shot Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997) (winning one of his two Oscar noms) and Wonder Boys (2000) but his star has fallen recently in my eyes since he became Brett Ratner’s dp of choice (ironically, he shot Ratner’s Manhunter remake Red Dragon in 2002). In 2008 his only releases were the throwaway Ewan McGregor/Hugh Jackman thriller Deception and the Greg Kinnear windshield wiper inventor biopic Flash of Genius. Next up: the next Narnia chronicle (if that ever happens) and, most importantly, a welcome return to Michael Mann, after three films away, with Public Enemies. Skeleton in the closet: Hudson Hawk (1991).

Keeping this list to DPs working in Hollywood and currently on top of their game, I haven’t touched living legends like the 68 year old Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist, 1970) whose last major films were the two Exorcist prequels in 2004; the 72 year old Michael Ballhaus, Fassbinder’s DP who started working with Scorsese in the 80s and whose last film was 2006’s The Departed; the 78 year old Vilmos Zsigmond, (McCabe & Mrs Miller, 1971) who is still working, having recently shot Brian de Palma’s 2006 The Black Dahlia and Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream (2007); and the aforementioned Gordon Willis, now retired at 77, whose last film was Alan J. Pakula’s The Devil’s Own (1997). Nor have I mentioned European greats like Agnes Godard (a rare woman in this boy’s club) and William Lubtchansky. And though I don’t much care for the overbearing look of Slumdog Millionaire, tomorrow’s surefire Oscar winner Dod Mantle should also be recognized for his work in Denmark with Lars Von Trier (Dogville) and Thomas Vinterberg (Festen). But if there is any other cinematographer that you think deserves to be in this pantheon, please point me in their direction.

Postscript Sunday February 22: Since I mentioned what a boy’s club cinematography is, I was pleased to see Maryse Alberti win the Independent Spirit Award last night for The Wrestler (besting Harris Savides for Milk). Resolutely indie (twice winning at Sundance and the Spirits) the French-born Alberti is best known for her documentary work (Crumb (1994), When We Were Kings (1996), Taxi to the Dark Side 2007)) as well as her association with Todd Haynes on Poison (1991), Dottie Gets Spanked (1993) and Velvet Goldmine (1998). She was also the first woman ever on the cover of American Cinematographer magazine.



  1. On the European list, I think Sabine Lancelin might deserve a nod, even though her string of excellence is barely 10 years old.

  2. Pin Bing Lee for all of his work with HHH, but also for “In the Mood For Love”.

    Dion Beebe for “Collateral” and “Miami Vice”, but also for “In the Cut”.

    Steven Soderbergh, as Peter Andrews, especially for “Che” and “Solaris”.

    All your choices are great, but I thought John Toll shot “The Burning Plain”?

  3. Dave, I’m ashamed to say I had to look up Sabine Lancelin only to discover that I had just seen a film of hers the night before. As much as I love Oliveira’s films, his cinematography always seems somewhat transparent or rather straightforward, if you know what I mean. The cinematographers I name above seem to add an extra layer to their director’s visions. Mind you, The Captive does not look like other Chantal Akerman films, and Philippe Grandrieux’s Sombre is all about the cinematography so you may well have a point.

  4. David, it seems that both Toll and Elswit shot The Burning Plain. As with Deakins and Menges on The Reader it begs the question did they work together? Or did one take over from the other? Toll himself seems to be the master of the burnished epic, winning Oscars twice for Legend of the Fall (1994) and Braveheart (1995) and also shooting The Last Samurai (2003). He is Cameron Crowe’s DP of choice and gets kudos for Vanilla Sky (2001) as well as for Malick’s Thin Red Line (1998).

    You’re right about Soderbergh, indeed. For Solaris especially (I haven’t seen Che yet), but also for Traffic and Bubble and the Ocean films.

    Dion Beebe is certainly a talent, though like Toll he often favors that expensive look the Academy relishes (winning an Oscar for Memoirs of a Geisha three years ago, and nominated for Chicago in 03). Collateral and Miami Vice, however, are impressive milestones in digital cinematography, and it begs the question of whether Michael Mann (who comes up so often in my list) is very savvy at picking great cinematographers or whether he really knows what he wants and knows how to get it.

    The list of great cinematographers outside Hollywood would be long, but, yes, Pin Bing Lee would be very near the top, not only for his work with Hou Hsiao-hsien (which, since he has shot nearly every HHH film, is inseparable from that of his director) but also for Tian Zhuangzhuang’s sublime Springtime in a Small Town. On In the Mood for Love however, how much is his work and how much is Christopher Doyle’s?

  5. Yeah, Toll only really seems at home when he has big rolling landscapes to shoot. The Thin Red Line is a study in different shades of green and quite beautiful. Maybe they split The Burning Plain into exterior and interior crews….

    The only Beebe I really like are the Mann films and In the Cut (which I bet was what attracted Mann). Mann is tough on collaborators, from what I’ve read, and he is obviously rigorously controlling of how his films look, but it can only do a DP’s reputation good to be associated with films as visually distinctive and stylish as his are. Even if his next two films are as generic as Rendition and Land of the Lost.

    Didn’t Doyle fall out with Wong Kar Wai on the set of In the Mood For Love over the protracted shoot? And Lee was brought in to finish the film, leaving Doyle as more of a visual consultant than an actual Director of Photography. Which is similar to the role he played on Infernal Affairs, where he basically established the lighting scheme and the overall look, then allowed Yiu-Fai Lai and Wai-keung Lau to actually shoot it all. And strangely enough, it’s basically a Mann rip-off in visual terms…

  6. Thanks for your comments regarding Gordon Willis and certainly the observation of the boy’s club. In the grander picture of Hollywood and movie making it truly has evolved into one big club. A social scene where the importance of showing up at parties and who you mingle with tends to overshadow the true talents of movie making.

  7. I might add Darius Khondji and Wally Pfister to your list.

  8. If anyone has any doubts about Emmanuel Lubezki’s work on Michael Mann’s ALI, they should check out David N.’s series of screen grabs here: http://onedeadfish.blogspot.com/2009/03/ali.html. Even better than I remembered.

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