Making Oscar®-Winning Imagery

Published on website: February 23, 2010
Categories: Feature Films , Richard Utley , The StoryBoard Blog
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“There are moments of truth in filmmaking that are a fleeting and delicate thing, but it is the stuff that touches the soul.”
— Haskell Wexler, ASC

Barry Ackroyd, BSC (The Hurt Locker), Christian Berger, AAC (The White Ribbon), Bruno Delbonnel, AFC, ASC (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), Mauro Fiore, ASC (Avatar) and Robert Richardson, ASC (Inglourious Basterds) are the 2010 Academy Award® nominees for cinematography. This year’s nomination is the sixth for Richardson, who earned Academy Awards for JFK and The Aviator. Delbonnel’s nod is his third, and Ackroyd, Berger and Fiore are celebrating their first nominations.

An Oscar® nomination is an extraordinary achievement. There are generally around 300 eligible films each year that were shot by some of the most talented cinematographers in the world. The nominees are chosen by their peers in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and their work sets the contemporary standard for artful storytelling with images.

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In 1929, the first Oscar for cinematography was presented to Charles Rosher, ASC and Karl Struss, ASC, who collaborated on Sunrise. George Barnes, ASC, was nominated for The Devil Dancer, The Magic Flame and Sadie Thompson. Rosher, Struss and Barnes all captured images on black-and-white Kodak film.

From 1939 through 1966 there were separate categories for color and black-and-white movies. Nearly all of these cinematographers chose Kodak films for their palettes.

Kodak has enjoyed a special relationship with cinematographers dating back to the dawn of the industry. In 1887, George Eastman perfected technology for coating a light sensitive emulsion on a transparent celluloid base. Rolls of film were loaded into the first Kodak snapshot cameras in 1888.

Maybe it was destiny calling. That was the same year Thomas Edison was beginning to develop a projector that would enable consumers to watch short films. He assigned W.K.L. Dickson the tasks of designing and building a camera and projector, and producing the first short films. After Dickson saw a demonstration of the new Kodak still camera at a photography fan club meeting, he told Edison they were in business. Edison asked Kodak to provide the film in 35 mm in width with four perforations on each side.

Dickson began experimenting with filming short stories at the Black Maria studio that Edison opened in Orange, New Jersey, in 1893. He used a length of trolley track to “dolly” the camera closer to subjects for close-ups and further away for longer shots. That was beginning of the evolution of a visual grammar for telling stories with moving images.

There have been countless milestones along the way. Charles Lang, ASC earned an Oscar in 1934 for A Farewell to Arms, which featured the legendary actress Helen Hayes in a leading role. Lang wanted her beauty to “sparkle” on movie screens. He took the back off the camera and replaced it with an amber filter, which enabled him to pre-visualize what the images would look like when they were recorded on black-and-white film. Lang used a combination of backlight, hair light and soft light on her face. He also personally ground a glass filter, which was used along with “bits” of gauze on the camera lens to soften the look and make Hayes’ face sparkle on the screen.

The Technicolor format was first used in 1917. Two strips of Kodak black-and-white film were loaded in a camera. One strip was sensitized to red light and another strip to green light. After the negative was processed, dyes were used to add the colors.

Technicolor upgraded the system to three strips in 1932. Ray Rennahan, ASC and Ernest Haller, ASC won the first Oscar for a color film in 1940 for Gone With the Wind. Gregg Toland, ASC took top honors in the black-and-white cinematography competition for Wuthering Heights.

In 1950, Kodak provided cinematographers with an alternative to using the relatively cumbersome Technicolor cameras with the introduction of the first color negative film. That was around the time television was giving potential movie audiences the option of watching free entertainment at home.

Hollywood countered in 1952 with the first 3-D movie. Bwana Devil was a hit at the box-office. Approximately 40 movies were produced in 3-D format in the 1950s. House of Wax, a horror movie photographed by Bert Glennon, ASC and J. Peverell Marley, ASC attracted a lot of fans to cinemas in 1953. Burnett Guffey, ASC won the Oscar that year for his black-and-white cinematography for From Here to Eternity. Loyal Griggs, ASC claimed top honors in the color film category for Shane.

The studios began production of another 20 films in 3-D format but most of them were finished and released in traditional 2-D format after attendance waned. Oscar-winning cinematographers for color and black-and-white films during the 1950s included Robert Surtees, ASC for King Solomon’s Mines, The Bad and the Beautiful and Ben-Hur; Robert Krasker for The Third Man; William Mellor, ASC for A Place in the Sun and The Diary of Anne Frank; Alfred Gilks, ASC and John Alton, ASC for An American in Paris; Boris Kaufman, ASC for On The Waterfront; Milton Krasner, ASC for Three Coins in the Fountain; Winton Hoch, ASC and Archie Stout, ASC for The Quiet Man; James Wong Howe, ASC for The Rose Tattoo; Joseph Ruttenberg, ASC for Somebody Up There Likes Me; Lionel Lindon, ASC for Around the World in 80 Days; Jack Hildyard for The Bridge on the River Kwai; Sam Leavitt, ASC for The Defiant Ones; and Joseph Ruttenberg for Gigi. They are all classic movies that the cinematographers chose to shoot on Kodak film.

Hollywood’s brief flirtation with 3-D movies was followed by a hot romance with blockbuster films produced on 65 mm film and projected in 70 mm print format. More than 60 movies were produced in 65 mm format on Kodak film during the next decade, including some Oscar winners. Russell Metty, ASC won an Academy Award for Spartacus in 1961; Freddie Young, BSC won for Lawrence of Arabia in 1963 and for Ryan’s Daughter in 1970. Almost all of the other 65 mm films were favorites of fans and critics.

A new wave of talented cinematographers from nations around the world earned Oscars during the past half century. The short list includes Conrad Hall, ASC; Haskell Wexler, ASC; Sven Nykvist, ASC; Nestor Almendros, ASC; Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC; Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC; Freddie Francis, BSC; Chris Menges, BSC; Philippe Rousselot, ASC, AFC; Janusz Kaminski; John Toll, ASC; John Seale, ASC, ACS; Russell Carpenter, ASC; Peter Pau, HKSC; Andrew Lesnie, ASC, ACS; Russell Boyd, ACS; Dion Beebe, ASC, ACS; Guillermo Navarro, ASC, AMC; and Robert Elswit, ASC.  

Postscript: Leon Shamroy, ASC and Ruttenberg have earned the most Oscars for cinematography with four each. Shamroy is tied with Lang for the most nominations with an amazing 18 each.

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