They say a picture says a thousand words – so a moving picture must have a hell of a lot to say. Cinematography is often one of the aspects of filmmaking to slip past your average movie-goer. That’s not to say it goes unnoticed; it’s just that most people are simply unaware of the spell being cast upon their eyes by the director of photography.
The practice of envisioning, framing, lighting and staging a shot is an incredibly monumental task. We’re spoilt with the sheer magnitude of beautiful looking films produced today, and with new technology constantly introduced, the sky truly is the limit. There’s a massive selection of genius cinematographers, but here are five of the best currently working behind the camera.
Good Night, and Good Luck
There Will Be Blood
Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol
Perhaps the most important trait to have as a director of photography is the ability to adapt with ease to whatever might need to be visualised. Robert Elswit has that locked down, effortlessly gliding from low budget independent comedies to high profile action extravaganzas. He’s known for collaborating well ahead of production with the film designers to nail down the look of a film, and for giving actors plenty of space and time in a shot in case improvisation is required.
Since the 80’s Elswit has worked with a huge variety of directors, which has no doubt led to his resourceful manner. His slick, shiny gloss is easily spottable in spy flicks Tomorrow Never Dies, Salt and The Bourne Legacy, and his creative eye for places to stick a camera has stunningly captured the insane stunts undertaken by Tom Cruise in the two most recent Mission: Impossible films. That same polish transcends to thrillers like The Town and Nightcrawler, and helped achieve the gorgeous black and white contrasts of George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck. But his best work is in his collaborations with the brilliant Paul Thomas Anderson, of whose entire filmography (save The Master) he’s served as cinematographer for. Clearly it’s here he’s learnt most of his lessons; the masterful tracking shots and perfectly symmetrical imagery are now an Anderson staple, looking no better than in Elswit’s Oscar-winning There Will Be Blood. Elswit is next heading into the Indonesian jungle for the Matthew McConaughey adventure Gold.
There might not be anyone alive who captures history quite like Robert Richardson, no matter how twisted or surreal his collaborating director is spinning it. Richardson’s work could be considered experimental, especially given the sheer photographic range and progression he’s shown since his early work in the mid-80’s, but it’s his daringly bold risks that have earned him three Academy Awards and allowed him to frequently collaborate with some of the finest auteurs in the business – and amazingly, keep his own voice while doing so.
Richardson carved a name for himself alongside Oliver Stone in his very best years, envisaging the thick green jungles of Vietnam for Platoon and the steely courtrooms of JFK, as well as accentuating the psychedelic music trip of The Doors and the hyperkinetic brutality of Natural Born Killers. His shift from gritty realism to cartoonish ultraviolence came with his pairing with Quentin Tarantino for Kill Bill. He is responsible for the significantly different look in Tarantino’s new films compared to his old ones – look no further than Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained. And his period pieces with Martin Scorsese are possibly Richardson’s most avant-garde, but there are no historical epics out there that look quite like The Aviator or Hugo.
Richardson is the perfect fusion of old and new; an innovator of the way we view history. Forever unpredictable, it’s exciting to think of what he can still bring to the medium – he just resurrected the forgotten 70mm Ultra Panavision for The Hateful Eight, and will return to the 1920’s with Ben Affleck next year for Live by Night.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Life of Pi
Unlike the other directors of photography on this list, Chilean cinematographer Claudio Miranda doesn’t have a large and prolific filmography dating back a few decades behind him – but that’s what is all the more impressive about his work. While it takes most DoP’s a dozen or so films to hone their skill, Miranda has completely come into his own in a mere handful of projects, proving himself a master of seamless CGI environments and scooping up a slew of awards – including an Oscar – by only his fourth feature.
Starting as a gaffer for David Fincher on Se7en, The Game and Fight Club, he made history when Fincher promoted him to cinematographer for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; nominated for the first Oscar-eligible feature to be filmed entirely digitally. Since then his specialty has become realising computer-generated worlds. While Joseph Kosinski’s films have lacked narrative substance, both Tron: Legacy and Oblivion are absolutely breathtaking domains to be lost in. But his masterpiece is easily Ang Lee’s visionary Life of Pi. Despite being filmed in a simple shallow pool against a blue screen, Miranda’s vision showcased a most beautiful survival-at-sea tale in all its horror and wonder, and proved once and for all that it is possible to feel strong emotion towards something made entirely by computer.
He’s yet to match the pure imaginative quality of his award winning effort, but as long as his digital designs continue to drop jaws, the future is bright for Miranda. Following last year’s Tomorrowland, his keen eye will be seen again with Kosinski for something a little different – the upcoming Granite Mountain, based on the true tale of the men who fought the Yarnell Hill Fire.
The Assassination of Jesse James
British-born Roger Deakins is perhaps the best known professional cinematographer today, but surprisingly he’s still yet to be awarded an Oscar for his colossal impact – despite a whopping thirteen nominations, including two in one year for the gorgeous post-modern Westerns No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James. This could simply boil down to bad luck; he’s often overshadowed by a more buzzed-about picture, particularly rivalled in recent years by the man of the moment Emmanuel Lubezki.
Deakins’ range spreads across an array of different genres, but his name alone immediately conjures up masterful images of shadowy figures against desolate, dangerous landscapes, as evidenced in these shots. He’s the Coen Brothers go-to guy, having worked with them twelve times. He’s also a regular for Sam Mendes, with whom he delivered by far the best-looking Bond film Skyfall, and Denis Villeneuve, whose harrowing thrillers Prisoners and Sicario might not have had quite the same edge if not for his eye for green-and-grey tinted dread. Not content with sticking to live-action however, he’s also served as visual consultant on some of the most sumptuous animated features to grace the screen, including WALL-E, Rango and both How to Train Your Dragon movies.
Up next he’ll be stretching his talents to a new realm again with Villeneuve’s highly anticipated Blade Runner sequel; it’s simply mouth-watering to think of the potential Deakins has in sci-fi. And surely it’s only a matter of time until his four decades of influence on the industry are given the recognition warranted by the Academy.
Tree of Life
Nicknamed “Chivo” by his peers, Emmanuel Lubezki now holds the record of earning three Academy Awards back to back, and for once it’s safe to say that these are well deserved. Hailed as a true innovator of the medium, Lubezki is acclaimed for his extensive and unbroken tracking shots.
Chivo has worked with some of the best in his career – Tim Burton (Sleepy Hollow), Michael Mann (Ali) and the Coen Brothers (Burn After Reading) – but his best work by far has come through his regular collaborators, Terrence Malick, and fellow Mexicans Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu. With Malick, he’s visualised the dream-like philosophical ponderings of To the Wonder and Knight of Cups, and the awe-inspiring conceptualisation of the beginnings and meaning of existence in The Tree of Life. He’s envisaged most of Cuarón’s films, most impressively his genius sci-fi thrillers – the criminally underseen Children of Men and the exhilarating 3D space rollercoaster Gravity. And most recently he’s teamed up with Iñárritu, delivering the seemingly uninterrupted single take of Birdman and possibly the most devastatingly beautiful reflection of nature ever seen in film with The Revenant.
The films Chivo selects are always divisive in opinion (and what art isn’t?), but there’s simply no denying the effectively orgasmic imagery he’s gifted the world of film. Next he reteams with Malick for Weightless, a tale of obsession and betrayal against the music scene in Texas.
Images courtesy of Dendy Films, Paramount Pictures, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Universal Pictures, Hoyts Fox Columbia Tristar Films, Roadshow Films, Twentieth Century Fox, Guo Films Distribution, Sony Pictures & Icon Film Distribution