Circuit Tech: Cinematography contenders from the first half of 2016

Last week, I discussed the potential visual effects contenders at next year’s Academy Awards ceremony. This week, we focus on the men and women (crossing my fingers for the latter) behind the camera who are responsible for a film’s initial visual takeoff. Truth be told, we only have a handful of legitimate threats in the category from January through June, but never underestimate the power of an awards campaign that drills into viewers the significance of a cinematographer’s influence on a memorable scene. With that, it’s time to start surveying the first half of 2016 for some future Emmanuel Lubezki’s in the making.

Since many in the Academy have argued for a separate category for VFX-driven films with cinematography mostly comprised of effects upon retouching, I think it’s only fair to divide the contenders in this manner. The three most strenuously shot and noticeably cinematic films that were CGI-heavy from the first half of 2016 are Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War and The Jungle Book. BvS’s Larry Fong, an Academy inductee in 2012, is a perennial favorite of director Zack Snyder, akin to Steven Spielberg’s frequent use of Janusz Kaminski. Ever since presenting his vivid, pulpy and visceral palette in 2007’s 300, Fong has become the go-to cinematographer for transposing the feel of a comic book onto film. Unfortunately, the haphazard editing in BvS undercuts Fong’s adept eye for capturing the DC Universe’s gritty milieu. There are some tremendous sequences in BvS that, when isolated, are every bit as stunning as past nominated VFX-enhanced cinematography. Yet the passionate scorn for this film is too much for Fong to overcome. BvS has been met with such vitriol for its laughable script and clunky execution that Fong is tragically absorbed into that negative outlook by association. I do hope some members of the branch recognize Fong’s mastery of balancing the intimacy of Batman and Superman’s rivalry with the impressive scale of their battle arena.

the jungle book cinema

As for Captain America: Civil War, Trent Opaloch – Neill Blomkamp’s regular DP as well – has been a Russo favorite for two films now. Marvel seems to have one visual note when it comes to its movies, but we have to make an exception in this instance thanks to Civil War’s awe-inspiring airport showdown. Sure, it’s heavily reliant on the VFX team to nuke the hell out of that sequence with effects galore, but Opaloch has to be commended for juggling so many characters in an enormous amount of space. Next up in the DP’s pipeline are parts one and two of the third Avengers sequel, Infinity War. Having played a huge hand in arguably the best scene of the year so far, I do hope the Academy reviews Opaloch accordingly when combing through the 2016 film slate.

However, if a film from the first half is going to “Avatar” their way into the coveted lineup, it will be Disney’s The Jungle Book, which is already a surefire bet for several tech nods. Cinematographer Bill Pope’s spellbinding ability to immerse us in Rudyard Kipling’s very own animal kingdom is nothing short of astonishing. That sequences in the beginning when Mowgli is dashing through the dense jungle with his wolf cub pack offers the kind of cinematic gratification you can only get from someone extremely talented behind the camera. A previous BAFTA-nominee for his groundbreaking work in the original Matrix, Pope is a pioneer in his field who oddly enough has yet to be acknowledged as such. Perhaps next year that will change.

the neon demon 2

As for the independent films that have been met with applause for their cinematography in the first half, you really have to begin with A24’s trifecta of Krisha, The Witch and The Lobster. Trey Edward Shults’s debut stunner features some of the best long-takes in recent memory which personify the never-ending tension amongst family. Inexperienced with shooting features, Drew Daniels’s work on Krisha will likely be remembered by the time the critics groups have their final say for the year. As for Robert Eggers’s wondrously haunting The Witch, DP Jarin Blaschke’s creepy window into colonial America is as unsettling as it is seductive to surrender to. There’s a portrait elegance to The Witch’s cinematography that elicits as much fear as it does reverence for its vastness with so little to work with, setting-wise. Don’t count either of these two newbies out now that A24 is a company to be reckoned with in the awards community. Lastly, Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster has been a sleeper hit and critical favorite right from its initial festival launch. Thimios Bakatakis uses the lens to morph Lanthimos’s dystopic vision into an eerie cinematic reality, entrancing the viewer at all times without blemishing the character-driven narrative at hand. Could the level of respect for Lanthimos – a former Oscar nominee – trickle down to his collaborator? We shall certainly see in the months ahead…

Finally, we have to end with the strongest contender of the year and the only one whose inclusion would make history. Yes, I am talking about Natasha Braier’s stupendous camerawork in The Neon Demon. Nicolas Winding Refn is a mad scientist when it comes to filmmaking, so kudos to Braier for even churning out whatever oddball concoction of a creative smoothie is in his mind into something sumptuous enough to consume. Braier’s use of negative space, for instance, is flawless and only further emphasizes the giant vacuum of voyeurism in which these objectified models remain trapped in. In conjunction with the apt neon lighting and satanical filtering, Braier’s deftness in establishing mood scene after scene is second-to-none this year. There is no better argument to hand out the first female cinematographer Oscar nomination than Amazon Studios’ The Neon Demon.

Here are my top five rankings for the cinematography contenders from the first half of 2016:

1. Bill Pope for The Jungle Book

2. Natasha Braier for The Neon Demon

3. Drew Daniels for Krisha

4. Jarin Blaschke for The Witch

5. Trent Opaloch for Captain America: Civil War

Well folks, there you have it. Please feel free to add any contender that I might have overlooked in the comments section, or else feverishly encourage your fellow readership (which could include an Academy member that might be reading this article) to seek out cinematography from the first half of 2016 worth commemorating by year’s end. Have at it, readers!