The Academy Awards: Our Favorite Cinematography Wins of Last 10 Years

Life of Pi

Life of Pi

While the acting and Best Picture awards typically dominate the buzz and conversation leading up to the Academy Awards, the cinematography category often has — quite literally — the showiest nominees. While typically the director has a say in how a film will look, as well as how specific shots will be laid out, their director of photography is usually the one tasked with creating this look.

Lighting, camera angles, camera movement, focus, and depth of field are just some of the choices a film’s cinematographer will make, with or without the director’s input. They will also have a say in the types of film stock and camera equipment used on set. All of these decisions culminate in a film’s final look, which is why it’s the director of photographer who will take home the Oscar when a film wins the Academy Award for Best Cinematography.

While all of the nominees made the short list because of their unique, harrowing, complex, or gorgeous looks, here are just some of our favorite wins from the past decade:

Life of Pi – Claudio Miranda

Ang Lee adapted the novel Life of Pi and perfectly captured its otherworldly tale of a young man trapped in the middle of an ocean with a tiger. The movie is bright, colorful, and larger than life. In addition to taking place mostly on water, it incorporates magical islands and neon-infused skies, making it one of those films that should be illegal to watch on your phone. This deserves the 4K widescreen TV treatment at the least. No wonder it managed to beat out cinematography legend Roger Deakins’s outstanding work on the James Bond smash hit, Skyfall, as well as the other nominees in 2013.

Check out Life of Pi co-star and New York Film Academy alum Vibish Sivakumar here

Life of Pi

Life of Pi

La La Land – Linus Sandgren

Another colorful entry in this list is 2016’s La La Land, though the backdrop was less ocean fantasy and more theatrically artificial Los Angeles. But by combining traditional filmmaking techniques with modern sensibilities, Sandgren managed to put the audience in the world of writer/director Damien Chazelle’s making. La La Land earned multiple nominations and was a certified hit that left smiles on lots of faces.

La La Land

La La Land

Gravity – Emmanuel Lubezki

With nearly the entire action thriller taking place in space, you’d think there wouldn’t be much to shoot outside of star Sandra Bullock in an astronaut suit — but that’s partly why Lubezki’s work on Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is so impressive. By using outer space as negative space, Lubezki was able to capture a loneliness and isolation on levels rarely seen in cinema. Conversely, by using the bright blue Earth as a massive, larger-than-life backdrop in certain shots, the film never lost its sense of place, even as Bullock drifted aimlessly into a black nothingness.



Birdman – Emmanuel Lubezki 

Lubezki won a second consecutive Oscar for his work on Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, a film comprised of several long, complicated takes edited together to look like a single, continuous shot. This technique was used to some extent in Lubezki’s previous film Gravity, as well as Children of Men, but it was here where he really mastered the technique, transforming it from a mere gimmick into a statement about acting, theatre, and filmmaking in itself.



The Revenant – Emmanuel Lubezki

Emmanuel Lubezki appears frequently on this list because he became the first person to ever win three Academy Awards for Best Cinematography in a row, a distinction that shows just how brilliant he is behind the camera. His third win came for The Revenant, again directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, and again filled with seemingly endless one-shots. Even more impressive was that The Revenant used only natural lighting and was shot nearly entirely outside in the wilderness on very cold days. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, The Revenant manages to be one of the most gorgeous looking films of the last decade.

The Revenant

The Revenant

Who will win this year’s award? Could it be Roger Deakins for his expansive work in Blade Runner 2049? Or Dan Laustsen’s grimy fairy tale noir look for The Shape of Water? Or maybe Rachel Morrison, the Black Panther cinematographer and first ever woman nominated in the category for her work on Mudbound? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

Interested in studying cinematography and taking home an Oscar or three yourself in the future? Check out New York Film Academy’s cinematography programs here.


The Evolution of Space Movies

Screenshot 2017-07-11 10.15.11

July 20 marks the 48th anniversary of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon — prompting the well known quote, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” But that wasn’t the first or last time that space played a major role in motion pictures.

Today, we’ll look at some significant moments for space in film, beginning with the New York Film Academy itself.

In celebration of the 48th anniversary and the launch of JSWT, here’s a list of space movies in Hollywood and how they’ve evolved over the years.

“Apollo 13” (1995)

Ron Howard directed the 1995 docudrama space adventure, “Apollo 13,” featuring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise and Ed Harris. The film dramatizes the 1970 mission for American’s third Moon landing. Astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise aborted the mission, after an on-board explosion left the astronauts without most of their oxygen supply and electric power.

“Apollo 13” was considered a technically accurate movie—Howard sought NASA’s assistance in astronaut and flight controller training for the cast. Howard even had permission to film scenes aboard a reduced gravity aircraft to give a more realistic feel to the movie.

The movie was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won awards for Best Film Editing and Best Sound.

“Mission to Mars” (2000)

“Mission to Mars,” directed by Brian De Palma, takes place in 2020 when a manned Mars exploration mission goes wrong. An American astronaut, played by Gary Sinise, coordinates a rescue mission to save those who were on the exploration missions.

The film employed special effects that involved the NASA spacecraft and Martian vortex, which were created by various digital effects companies. More than 400 technicians were involved in the production of special effects, which ranged from visuals to miniatures, and animation.

“Gravity” (2013)


What happens when a space shuttle is destroyed after mid-orbit destruction? Director Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 movie, “Gravity.” Sandra Bullock and George Clooney portray two American astronauts who are stranded in space and can’t return home because of their damaged space shuttle.

The cinematography, musical score, Bullock’s performance, visual effects, and the use of 3D all contributed to the critics’ positive reviews. “Gravity” received 10 Academy Award nominations and won seven, and was awarded six BAFTA Awards.

“Interstellar” (2014)

“Interstellar” is a movie focusing on the survival of mankind—a team of astronauts travel through a wormhole to find a new planet that can sustain human life. The science fiction film was directed, co-written, and co-produced by Christopher Nolan. The movie’s cast included Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Bill Irwin, Casey Affleck, Ellen Burstyn, John Lithgow, and Michael Caine.

The film was shot on 35 mm in anamorphic format and IMAX 70 mm in Alberta, Iceland, and Los Angeles. Extensive practical and miniature effects were used in the film, and Double Negative created additional effects.

“Interstellar” won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, and was nominated for Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Production Design.  

“The Martian” (2015)

Matt Damon portrays a stranded astronaut in the 2015 film, “Martian,” directed by Ridley Scott and based on Andy Weir’s novel, “The Martian.” The film follows Damon, whose character is presumed dead and left behind on Mars, and struggles to survive while others attempt to rescue him.

Twenty sets were built on a soundstage in Budapest, Hungary, and Wadi Rum, Jordan was also used as a backdrop for filming. The movie won a Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture and nominated for seven Academy Awards.


Did you know the New York Film Academy has worked with NASA?

In 2014, the New York Film Academy collaborated with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to help raise awareness for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

NYFA, NASA, and Northrop Grumman used visual storytelling to give the audience insight into the development of JWST. The telescope is scheduled for completion and launch in 2018 — and JWST will replace the famous Hubble Space Telescope. New technology will allow scientists to continue studying galaxies, the formation of stars and planets, and the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

Do you have a favorite movie about space? Let us know below! Learn more about filmmaking at the New York Film Academy.

The Best Cinematography: Looking At Gravity

A wide shot from Gravity

This is the first in a new series looking at the best cinematography in movies both old and new.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is one of the rare, lucky movies to have its own distinct look shared with no other film. In 2014, it won (among many other awards) the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. One look at the space-set thriller and anyone can see there are several reasons Gravity won and earned this accolade.

Gravity was shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, a director of photography who has worked with a wide array of varied first-rate directors, including Terence Malick, Tim Burton, Mike Nichols, Michael Mann, the Coen Brothers, and most recently with Alejandro González Iñárritu for the critically acclaimed film Birdman. Lubezki has also worked previously with Cuarón for the compellingly shot Children of Men. Gravity is just another example of how well the two filmmakers from Mexico City work together.

With an incredible amount of computer FX shots and faithfully recreating the look of zero-G space, Gravity took over four years to make, a true work of passion of and artistry rarely seen in modern-day blockbusters. Lubezki and the cinematography team had to overcome the challenge of making Gravity’s setting—the black void of space—both interesting to look at while also overpoweringly empty. Shooting nothing is harder than shooting everything, and for the film to work it was essential it sold that space was indeed an eternal expanse of nothingness. Fortunately for the filmmakers and the audience, Gravity achieved this in spades, and is perhaps the most successful attempt at transporting a mass audience to outer space.

George Clooney and Sandra Bullock in Gravity

One of the clever ways the film faithfully interprets an infinite darkness is by using perspective. Most of the action is set in front of the background of all backgrounds—the planet Earth. In Gravity, Earth is a huge contrast to the stark void of space, a gigantic ball of bright colors and life, encompassing the characters and the setpieces in its shadow, at times threatening to swallow the frame whole. At the same time, it is just tantalizing out of reach for the stranded astronauts of the narrative, essential to selling the tension and thrills of the movie’s plot.

Along these lines, Cuarón used his penchant for long takes—including a very lengthy take that opens the film—to capture the environment in three-dimensional place, giving the audience a firm idea of how all elements in the film physically relate to one another. Typically, long takes are feats of acting and technical prowess, such as Cuarón and Lubezki’s lauded shot in the climax of Children of Men. Here, with a camera not bound by gravity, and a digitally created set somewhat easier to maneuver around, the long take is instead used as a tool to guide us through the film’s setting and prepare us for the disorienting action ahead.

Lighting also proved key to recreating the look of the cosmos. In space, there is no atmosphere or water vapor to reflect and refract particles of light. All light from the sun and spacecraft are direct and unfiltered, a unique look rarely as realistically portrayed as in Gravity. By using 1.8 million individual LED lights, the film was able to make space look more like space, even on a subconscious level the audience may not fully realize, which furthers the immersion into the world of the movie. Most cinematographers have to deal with a dozen or so lights for a typical film set—using nearly two million was another laborious yet innovative method that sets Gravity’s look apart.

Sandra Bullock in Gravity

Gravity isn’t all space, however. For the scenes set within various spacecraft, the filmmakers composed claustrophobic yet warm shots—contrasting with the cold expanse outside the ships. The framing of the movie in these scenes adapted to the cylindrical structures of the spacecraft, utilizing circles several times. Together, these choices helped sell a key moment in the film that represents Sandra Bullock finding sanctuary in the womb.

The very last setpiece of the film differed from the rest as well, taking place back on Planet Earth. While most of the movie is shot digitally, the Earth-set scene is photographed on 65mm film, giving it a more organic, vital feel. A desert lake was carefully chosen to represent the planet, bringing earthy tones of brown and green to a movie that was practically black-and-white for its entire running time. Representing both the dawn of man and simply a character’s completed journey back home, the ground is framed for most of the scene, focusing on Sandra Bullock’s legs and feet as she takes her first steps. The muddy earth becomes the new foreground, contrasting the planet Earth’s haunting ethereal place as the background for the bulk of Gravity, and visually bringing the entire film full circle.

Sandra Bullock at the end of Gravity