Life of Pi

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.

Gravity

Gravity


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.

Birdman

Birdman

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.

 

8 Essential Book-To-Screen Adaptations Every Screenwriter Should Watch

When in screenwriting school, you’ll likely at some point discuss the process of adapting fiction for the screen, which we’ve talked about at length in this space. This time, we’re going to look at some of cinema’s best examples of big screen fiction adaptations.

There are, of course, more incredible book-to-screen adaptations than we could possible hope to list here, so for the sake of brevity we’ve excluded the blockbuster franchises we all know and love—namely, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. We’ve also excluded adaptations from the works of Philip K. Dick and Steven King, which could fill lists all on their own!

So, without further ado…

8 Essential Book-To-Screen Adaptations Every Screenwriter Should Watch

No Country For Old Men (2007)

Book: Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name (2005)
RT Film Score: 86%

One of two entries on this list based on a Cormac McCarthy novel (See The Road) and the first of two hat-tips to The Coen Brothers (True Grit), No Country For Old Men is a powerhouse in terms of both the performances therein and the moody, grim vibe spun carefully throughout. A modern day Western par excellence.

Life of Pi (2012)

Book: Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2001)
RT Film Score: 87%

After languishing for a decade in development hell, Ang Lee finally did justice to the superb Booker Prize-winning book of the same name (and we can’t imagine anyone else who could have done quite the same job.) If you get the opportunity to watch it in 3D, do so. As well as being a great example of a book—not least one that was widely considered ‘unfilmable’—but it’s also a better example of the third dimension used to great effect.

The 39 Steps (1935)

Book: The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)
RT Film Score: 98%

While only loosely based on the source material, The 39 Steps is not only one of the finest thrillers ever made but also helped cement a lot of ‘Hitchcockian’ elements which would come to define the director’s career and put him on the world stage. Numerous further adaptations have followed over the decades, including a hit Broadway play.

Matilda (1996)

Book: Matilda by Roald Dahl (1988)
RT Film Score: 90%

There are a number of Roald Dahl adaptations we could have included here (the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for one) but Matilda was the surprising hit that is worthy of a special mention. For everyone wondering what happened to the adorable child star Mara Wilson (who also did an amazing job in Mrs. Doubtfire and Miracle on 34th Street), she quit acting shortly after Matilda and is now focusing on writing fiction herself…and thus, the circle is closed.

Forrest Gump (1994)

Book: Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump (1986)
RT Film Score: 72%

So great was the success of the Forrest Gump movie that it has almost eclipsed the fact that its origins lay in literature. Forrest Gump is a uniquely charming cinematic gem and one of the best movies of the 1990s. To say this endures as one of Tom Hanks’ finest performance in a filmography as impressive as his is a high accolade indeed.

The Road (2009)

Book: The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
RT Film Score: 75%

In amongst a slew of post-apocolyptic movies released around the same time, The Road snuck in on limited release but ended up becoming an essential watch. Stripping back the usual high-budget flair of the genre, this Cormac McCarthy adaptation concerns itself solely with how the unspecified ‘event’ has ravaged the emotions of the two protagonists. The result is a very grim and highly charged movie, which doesn’t pull its punches.

True Grit (1969 & 2010)

Book: True Grit by Charles Portis (1968)
RT Film Score: Original 90%, Remake 96%

A superb book that went on to produce not just one, but two excellent slices of Western cinema. Both the original (which earned John Wayne his only Academy Award) and the 2010 Coen Brothers’ remake featuring a great performance by Jeff Bridges are well worth watching, regardless of whether or not you think you like Westerns.

Babe (1995)

Book: Dick King-Smith’s The Sheep-Pig (1985)
RT Film Score: 97%

A cutesy family movie with talking animals and an oversaturated color palette? On paper, it should have been absolutely atrocious, but thanks to its pitch-perfect handling and the amount of heart poured into it from every department working on that movie, it ended up being an unadulterated delight…

… the sequel, not so much.

Got any personal favorite book-to-screen adaptations that we haven’t mentioned here? There’s certainly many more that we could have covered here—drop your suggestion down in the comments below!

 

Best Cinematography: Looking At Life of Pi

Scene from Life of Pi

Life of Pi is a beautifully shot film that exists somewhere in between the worlds of fantasy and adventure. Adapted from the Yann Mantel novel of the same name, about a young Indian teenager stuck adrift on a raft with a tiger, hyena, orangutan, and zebra, it was considered for years to be utterly unfilmable. Pi finally found its intrepid director in Ang Lee, who decided to shoot digitally and shoot 3D, and the result was a colorful, amazing visual experience that looked nothing like anything that came before it.

Life of Pi won the most Oscars in 2012, including Ang Lee for Best Director and Claudio Miranda for Best Cinematography. Chilean-born American cinematographer Miranda was the first Chilean person to win an Academy Award. In addition to Pi, Miranda has worked frequently with David Fincher, including shooting The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the first movie nominated for the Cinematography Oscar that was shot entirely in digital.

Life of Pi contains a bevy of advanced special effects shots, with a good deal of the movie, including co-protagonist Richard Parker the Tiger, generated by computers. Claudio Miranda had the difficult task of photographing much of a film that didn’t exist in reality, yet capturing its epic essence in a way that would match the unbelievable CGI being prepared.

Miranda succeeded, marrying the film’s photography and special effects in a seamless way that let each enhance one another. At the production’s heart was a massive tank of water used to replicate the ocean-set scenes. Built inside an abandoned airport, the 1.7 million gallon behemoth was the world’s largest self-generating wave tank. Miranda himself had a hand in its construction, making sure it was built around the lighting needs of his crew. A giant door was even created to allow the actual sunset to light the tank every day at dusk, allowing the indoor ocean to be shot during the magic hour.

Life of Pi underwater shot

The money and effort spent on the tank underlines how important the ocean setting was to Life of Pi. For many shots of the film, the frame would be almost entirely water. As such, Ang Lee decided to shoot the film in 3D, a technology still unproven and not as well-respected at the time, when Avatar had yet to been released and revolutionize the medium. By adding depth to the image, Lee felt the power of the ocean and the subtleties of its movements could be more accurately captured.

Because of the prominence of both actual and digitally created water, lighting was especially important to Miranda and the cinematography crew. It was also especially difficult to the particulars of the shoot. With waves and water moving constantly, any light would reflect and refract in every direction. In a wide flat ocean, with nothing else but the occasional bioluminescent plankton, the sun was the film’s chief source of diegetic light—a huge ball of fire with nothing to obstruct it—constantly dominating the image.

Deferring to his director of photography, Ang Lee asked Miranda to choose the camera the crew would use to shoot the film. Miranda eventually decided to use the Arri Alexa for its high contrast range. Using the Alexa, the crew could create subtleties and grades of shade and light despite the sun’s overpowering presence.

A sunlit scene from Life of Pi

Miranda also used an open shutter for most of the film, allowing more light into the camera for each frame. The result is a smoother more natural look, closer to the way we see the world with our human eyes. This made it easier for the audience to watch the moving water for an extended period of time and allowed them to follow the images in the fast-cut, chaotic action setpieces. The last thing Ang Lee wanted was for his audience to get seasick while watching his film, and a wide-open shutter was a smart way to prevent that.

While many of Life of Pi’s most remarkable images were animated in a computer, they would have felt false and out of place if not for the efforts of Ang Lee, Claudio Miranda and the cinematography team to photograph everything in a seamless, logical fashion. By combining both the magic and science of the movies, the filmmakers behind Life of Pi manage to make fantasy come to life.

The whale scene in Life of Pi