Tuesday, February 19, 2013

On Life of Pi and the matter of Virtual Cinematography

With Life of Pi all but sweeping the year's cinematography awards, and expected to take the Oscar on 24 February as well, I'm struggling to make peace with the odd idea of virtual cinematography being honoured over traditional lensing. I appreciate the need for virtual cinematography and certainly admire its results - the visual awesomeness of Avatar, Tron Legacy and Life of Pi is undeniable - but where is the line between Cinematography and Visual Effects?

There's no doubt that Life of Pi is the visual movie event of the year, but to see the prize for best lensing go to a digitally manufactured product is odd. In the past few years, it has been the Academy's preference: Avatar winning for an almost entirely virtual world in 2010, Hugo (with its virtually filled in cityscapes) beating the jaw dropping photography of Tree of Life in 2011. It could be that both those films were simply more popular than their contenders, but it's interesting how easily the Academy has embraced the reliance on CGI in this most essentially cinematic craft.

The acting fields are notoriously resistant to motion-capture performance (Andy Serkis, in particular, has been repeatedly snubbed for his groundbreaking work as Gollum, King Kong and Caesar in The Lord of the Rings / The Hobbit, King Kong and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, respectively), even though the primary work is done by an actor and only digitally adapted in post-production (much like the seascapes of Life of Pi). Somehow they still see Gollum and Caesar as a Visual Effects achievement, rather than an acting one. Any arguments about unfair disadvantages from digitally "enhanced" acting count just as strongly against virtual cinematography.

Of course, digitally enhanced cinematography isn't a new phenomenon. Back in 2001, Bruno Delbonnel was one of the first to use computers to enhance the hues and tones of his footage in post-production for Amélie. But is it cheating, or at least an unfair advantage? Perhaps it doesn't matter. Perhaps it's just how the industry is changing. When it comes to complex, effects-driven 3D films like Avatar or Life of Pi, digital enhancement is a fairly logical extension of the filming process, but when it comes to handing out little gold men for the year's best representation of the Cinematographer's trade, what are Cinematographers awarded for? Lighting? Composition? Movement? Visual metaphor? Mood? Technical dexterity or innovation? Getting the right angle on a gorgeous landscape? Of course it depends from film to film. So when a film and story like Life of Pi is so reliant on the poetry of its visuals, a cinematographer who rises to the occasion, with or without the help of computers, to deliver what his director envisions is one worth awarding (although I'd argue we'd be falling over ourselves in a whole different way if he did it without the computers).

So if the visual design and execution and effect is what we're awarding, regardless of how the cinematographer got there, why not recognise some of the incredible landscapes created by Pixar in recent years? The great (Oscarless) Roger Deakins, for example, consulted on the "cinematography" of Wall-E, advising the technical team on effective lighting and realistic camera movement (to create a more immersive cinematic experience with all the authentic bumps and shakes of a real camera). There's no denying the visual beauty of a film like WallE, or the technical brilliance of the underwaterscapes in Finding Nemo (which go to great pains to capture the light and shade of an ocean backdrop). So what sets WallE apart from Life of Pi, or even Avatar, where a large chunk of the film is digitally animated?

While we're at it, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland won an Oscar for its Production Design, even though much of the execution was digital. Burton Produced Nightmare Before Christmas, on the other hand, features iconic, influential sets as tangible as the chair you're presumably sitting on, only miniature. But what did it contend for at the Oscars? Visual Effects. Once again, WallE features impeccably designed sets, but you'd barely see it contend for them. And while inserting a photo-real (for back then) Gollum into an actual real life background will win you a Visual Effects Oscar, placing animated fish into a photo-real (if mildly stylised) ocean backdrop will not even get you nominated. But perhaps I am splitting hairs.

So what's the distinction? Does it only count as cinematography or production design if it features at least some real actors? Perhaps the distinction is the real collaboration between two worlds - it's okay that Avatar or Life of Pi were largely finished on computers, because they started on real sets, with real cameras, even if just for the bones of the eventual visuals. For Pixar, it's all computer. Perhaps that is a fair distinction.

On Oscar night, both Claudia Miranda and the Visual Effects team will pick up Oscars for their respective contributions to the film's astounding visuals. And power to them. Digital enhancement is here to stay and, if it  ups our movie going & movie making experience, let's embrace it (even if it means Roger Deakins goes home empty handed, again).

While we're at it, let's take a look at some of the good old-fashioned camera work that was overlooked by the Academy this year, after the cut:

Early in the year, when the critics groups started doling out their awards, it seemed that the Oscar would come down to Mihai Milaimare Jr's nuanced period details and striking imagery for Paul Thomas Anderson's enigmatic The Master and Greig Fraser's haunting, edgy work for Kathryn Bigelow on Zero Dark Thirty. But that soon changed when Life of Pi came on the scene and Claudio Miranda took over. Both men got left in the cold.

Incidentally, Greig Fraser also provided memorable visuals for Snow White and Huntsman (one of the few things to admire about the film, other than Charlize Theron's outfits & some of the fantastical visual effects) and Killing Them Softly. The ZDT snub is most smarting, and likely due to the controversial torture scenes which he dared to shoot. As if this is the first film to depict torture or imply that the US engaged in it. If ZDT is based on first hand accounts, and the US really is innocent of all "advanced" interrogation charges, blame the soldiers who gave the information, not the filmmakers who depicted it. Be that as it may.

Ben Richardson did some of the year's most memorable work, albeit on a small, often handheld scale, with Beasts of the Southern Wild. The film exceeded expectations at the Oscars but sadly missed out on three key nominations: Supporting Actor for Dwight Henry (how?!), Benh Zeitlin's score (one of the year's best) and cinematography (more understandable, given the alternatives).

The Academy also apparently decided Wally Pfeister has now been praised enough, and snubbed his third Batman effort. This is the first of his five collaborations with Nolan not to result in a nomination. Fair enough, I guess. He should have won for The Dark Knight, but won for Inception instead.

Moonrise Kingdom is Robert D Yeoman's seventh colaboration with Wes Anderson (if you count Hotel Chevalier). At some point, the Academy needs to acknowledge his contribution.

Robbie Ryan for Wuthering Heights. If there's one thing Andrea Arnold's re-imagining of Emily Bronte's classic novel certainly is, it's gorgeous - getting under your skin with it's intimate, deeply feeling cameras. The film didn't make much of an impact awards-wise, but Ryan's remains some of the year's best camera work.