From digital to 65mm, the year’s most acclaimed cinematographers worked across a wide range of styles and formats. John Hazelton reports.

Cinematographers have always had plenty of creative options - as many as their imaginations could muster - when it came to turning writers’ and directors’ concepts into images on screen. But these days directors of photography have an even greater range of technical and format options from which to pick. And it was a combination of artistic and technical choices that helped produce some of this year’s most impressive work in the field.

Digital cinematography has been gaining currency for several years and in 2012 it was used on several leading awards contenders. Roger Deakins shot digitally for only his second time on Bond film Skyfall [pictured], a fact that seemed to give the format an important stamp of approval.

After trying out the ARRI Alexa digital camera on 2011 sci-fi thriller In Time and being impressed with the colours and saturation he achieved, Deakins - nominated for this year’s Oscar and Bafta cinematography awards as well as the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) prize - suggested the format to Skyfall director Sam Mendes.

“I think what sold it to Sam was how sharp the actors’ eyes appear with the Alexa, as opposed to on film,” says 10-time Oscar nominee Deakins. “There’s a sort of clarity and I think that’s something he latched onto.”

Greig Fraser - winner of this year’s New York Film Critics Circle best cinematographer award - used the Alexa on action drama Zero Dark Thirty, primarily, says the Australian DoP, because it “was clearly the best format to use for the ending sequence [a recreation of the night-time raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan compound].”

Tests for the sequence in the California desert revealed “the darker we went the more claustrophobic and scary it felt,” Fraser adds.

For daytime exteriors digital may not be better than film, Fraser concedes, “but they are now so close it would take a very keen eye to spot the difference”.

Film still has its supporters, of course, and three of this year’s five nominees for both the ASC award and the cinematography Oscar were shot on celluloid.

British ASC and Bafta nominee Danny Cohen says he and director Tom Hooper tested several formats - including the Alexa - for Les Misérables and ultimately chose to shoot the period musical on 35mm film.

“The decision we made was purely an aesthetic one,” Cohen stresses. “For a period film there was a richness, a real texture and patina about a filmed image.” Cohen worries that film is being displaced because studios favour digital, which is generally less expensive than celluloid. “Every format has a place and can work for a specific story,” he insists. “We lose [film] at our own cost because it’s part of the palette.”

For period drama The Master, director Paul Thomas Anderson and Romanian DoP Mihai Malaimare Jr chose not only celluloid but, for 85% of the film, the 65mm format that had its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s with films such as Vertigo and Lawrence of Arabia.

The idea, explains Malaimare - who won the National Society of Film Critics award for his work on the project - was to use 65mm “in a totally different way than it was used before… mainly for close-ups and portraits”.

Though the format is expensive and leads to an extremely shallow depth of field, Malaimare suggests it has a real future - thanks in part to the imminent introduction by Panavision of a 65mm-equivalent digital camera.

“It is something you cannot forget,” Malaimare says. “You want to do it over and over again.”

The 3D decision

One vintage format that has already re-established itself is 3D and this season’s awards contenders confirm the format is being used on more ambitious projects by cinematographers who are refining the once gimmicky technique.

On literary adaptation Life of Pi, DoP Claudio Miranda - winner of this year’s BFCA Critics’ Choice cinematography award and an Oscar, Bafta and ASC nominee - already had his work cut out dealing with the film’s mostly sea-based action. Shooting in digital 3D added to the practical challenges but allowed the capture of unique imagery.

The trick, Miranda suggests, is “to make sure the 3D has a script to it. What makes things really beautiful in the movie is that you had things that maybe weren’t so beautiful. If you’re always hitting really hard, people get used to it.”

On The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, DoP Andrew Lesnie was shooting not just in digital 3D but also at 48 frames per second, not the usual 24.

The higher frame rate, says Lesnie, was used “to make the 3D experience a more enjoyable one, to make it more immersive”. The result was “staggering detail… It was like looking at old 65mm epics where you can read the detail in every extra’s face, and it’s a wide shot.” Lesnie sees 3D as “a precursor to a future holographic style of storytelling, where an audience will enjoy an experience similar to theatre-in-the-round”.

In the independent sector, format options are sometimes limited by cost considerations. But DoPs from two of this year’s most acclaimed indie films say their choice to shoot in the vintage 16mm film format had as much if not more to do with aesthetic considerations.

Robert Yeoman - nominated for this year’s Independent Spirit cinematography award - says Moonrise Kingdom director Wes Anderson wanted to use 16mm in part to ensure easy mobility during the quirky comedy’s woodland shoot.

But Yeoman says the director also “felt 16mm had a quality that would lend itself to the story in a worthwhile way. The movie is set in the Sixties and he wanted a throwback to that time.”

Cost was certainly a factor on Beasts of the Southern Wild, the breakout indie drama, budgeted at less than $2m, which picked up four Oscar nominations. Film was preferred over digital because the project was shot in humid and often watery conditions, says DoP Ben Richardson, who won Sundance’s dramatic cinematography award and is also up for the Independent Spirit prize in the category. And 16mm was less expensive and more mobile than 35mm.

In addition, says Richardson, “a big part of it was wanting to combine the aesthetics of an art film with the energy of a Die Hard. To my eye there’s something about the way film, if you don’t put too many filters and controls in front of it, is very organic and close to the way we perceive the real world.”

Combined with a minimalist lighting scheme, the 16mm format created what Richardson feels is an increasingly prevalent naturalistic feel.

“That is really part of the way people are thinking at the moment,” suggests the cinematographer. “But it’s interesting how it means such different things to different people. To me it meant not going in for any exaggerated or theatrical-style lighting. Keeping everything grounded in naturally occurring lighting situations.

“What I was calling it by the end was ‘expressive naturalism’. Which to me meant seeking out, enhancing or if necessary completely recreating the beautiful happy accidents that happen in the world. That moment where for 10 minutes of the day the light streams through a corner of your room and puts a beautiful golden swish across the wall. We scheduled as much as possible to encourage those things.”