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What Does 2016 Oscar Nominated Cinematography Look Like?

This video will play one minute from each of the five films nominated for Best Cinematography. Audio from the films will be removed in order to better judge the effects of the cinematography. A commentary track will take the place of audio—but try playing the video with no sound to judge for yourself the quality of the cinematography in each film.

The Hateful Eight was shot on 70mm film, a super-widescreen format that is well suited for exaggerating distances between things on screen. It’s suited for compositions that have a long element like this horse train, and it also extends the depth of field, so that when one character draws closer to another, they still seem well separated. Most of the film takes place inside one giant room, which gets explored through different camera techniques, like a circular dolly around a table, and a lateral dolly across a wall. These movements help to shape the shifting dynamics among the different characters. In one shot, a narrow-focus lens is used to create a dramatic contrast between foreground and background, and then a rack focus is used to switch between the two planes. Techniques like this transform a single room full of people into a vast landscape of intrigue.

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An early scene in Sicario is shot in broad daylight with a flat color palette, bringing an ordinary quality to the extraordinary showdown that’s taking place, making it seem more realistic and believable. At the same time, a slight overexposure creates a feeling of the sun glaring over this scene, which adds to the sense of aggravation and tension among the characters. And forward camera movements ratchet up the tension. But the most expressive camerawork is seen in the dusky scenes marked by strong blues and dark clouds. It’s amazing how much nuance and texture can be captured in these dark conditions. They strike a tone that’s both ominous and strangely glamorous, similar to the film’s depiction of the war on drugs. Gritty realism gives way to a dark romanticism, as the looming shadows swallow up the last traces of light.

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The most memorable scenes in The Revenant consist of virtuoso long takes that can go from an extreme close-up to a wide shot of chaotic fighting and back to a close-up. This is made possible by a wide lens with deep focus capturing every detail on screen, whether near or far. This long take demonstrates the immersive physicality of the camerawork, and the extent to which Leonardo DiCaprio’s vigorous performance is matched by that of the cameraman. It’s amazing how coordinated they are despite the difficult shooting conditions, though the camera also pulls away to get its own perspective.

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The sweeping camerawork in Mad Max: Fury Road plays with an extreme contrast between what’s near and what’s far, as we see in shots where deep focus creates a strong sense of foreground and background. There’s an almost constant sense of movement, not just because of the cars, but because of the camera, which often pushes forward, intensifying the action. The shots are constantly negotiating the spaces between people, setting up a distance before collapsing it. The action sequences feature an exhaustive amount of coverage from different angles, switching from shooting from the front to from behind, but almost always pushing forward. Extreme close-ups of the actors bring human investment into the spectacle, but they just as readily switch back to an extreme wide shot surveying the entire scene. And then the wide shot zooms in on the action. This constant swinging between near and far creates a kind of rhythm that holds our interest throughout the nonstop action.

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In Carol, one close-up catches the single strands of Cate Blanchett’s hair, and the detailed outline of her lips. It illustrates the fetishistic quality of the camerawork, found in its many close-ups and insert shots filled with texture. One scene plays with shallow focus and blur effects to create a dreamlike quality, reflecting Rooney Mara’s character getting carried away in a blissful moment.

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Even an ordinary bar conversation gets strange treatment with an extreme overhead shot, cutting to a two-shot from a side angle that’s more conventional but still open, as if from some unseen voyeur. Who’s point of view is it supposed to be? There’s a feeling of the characters being watched from different angles. Maybe it reflects their paranoia as closeted lesbians in the 1950s? Or maybe it’s another case of fetishizing. Whatever the case, it’s refreshing, fascinating and utterly gorgeous.

Kevin B. Lee is Chief Video Essayist at Fandor. He has made over 250 video essays exploring film and media.  Follow him on Twitter at @alsolikelife.

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