Oscars 2021: Best Cinematography Predictions

Bill Desowitz
·4 min read
 IndieWire The Craft Top of the Line
IndieWire The Craft Top of the Line

The cinematography race pits Joshua James Richards (“Nomadland”) against Erik Messerschmidt (“Mank”), Phedon Papamichael (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”), Dariusz Wolski (“News of the World”), and Sean Bobbitt (“Judas and the Black Messiah”). Of the five, only Papamichael has been previously nominated (for “Nebraska”). Although Messerschmidt won the coveted ASC award, Richards is the favorite for Chloé Zhao’s Best Picture frontrunner.

The momentum has been with Richards for “Nomadland” ever since he won Camerimage’s prestigious Golden Frog last year. In the recessionary road odyssey, the director’s go-to cinematographer offered a roving, naturalistic nod to Terrence Malick (with the Arri Alexa Mini), while capturing Frances McDormand’s journey through the landscapes of the American West in changing light. Magic hour was the time to capture her long walks alone (with the camera placed on the Ronin 2 gimbal).

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In David Fincher’s “Mank,” Messerschmidt recreated a Golden Age of Hollywood in black-and-white (with the RED Ranger Helium Monochrome, and using the Cinefade variable depth of field tool to emulate Gregg Toland’s iconic “Pan-Focus”). He struck a balance between retro and contemporary, taking advantage of the director’s efficient digital workflow to approximate the look of a movie made around the time of “Kane” in 1940 yet “photographed in Hi-Dynamic Range.” The absence of color forced the cinematographer to be more nuanced in his choices, and the most challenging sequence was the San Simeon moonlight stroll between Mank and Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), shot day for night, which required lots of post tweaking to not give it away.

In Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” Papamichael shot the courtroom scenes with the large-format Arri Alexa LF Mini to capture group shots and reactions, and shot the vérité riot scenes with two hand-held cameras. It immediately became clear to Papamichael that he needed to visualize Sorkin’s script in a way that wasn’t too static yet also provided editor Alan Baumgarten (“Molly’s Game”) with enough footage of the ensemble in the courtroom. It’s all about the rhythm and language of Sorkin’s script.

In Paul Greengrass’ “News of the World,” the post-Civil War road trip of healing and unification between Tom Hanks’ ex-Confederate captain and Helena Zengel’s 10-year-old orphan, Wolski chose a more classical approach than the director’s usual vérité style, shooting the duo in changing landscapes, but with smoother hand-held shots (using Alexa Mini LFs and Angénieux zoom). They discussed “The Searchers” but also “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” for its handheld shots. The different towns determined the look but it was all about restraint in following the two characters on their journey of self-discovery.

In Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah,” the true story of the FBI’s infiltration of the Black Panther Party and the killing of leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), Bobbitt visualized the degradation, oppression, and poverty in the Chicago community of the ’60s on the shoot in Cleveland. He shot with Alexa Mini LF. He also emulated the color saturation and high contrast of Kodachrome and Ektachrome stocks of the period, and keyed on the color green and built the palette around that.

Key Oscar Indicators

The Academy’s cinematography branch currently has 331 members, of which 287 are active and 44 are retired. The ASC currently has 415 active members in more than 20 countries. There are also 260 associate members from ancillary segments of the industry, and eight honorary members. In comparing Oscar winners with ASC winners, they have overlapped 11 times in the last 20 years.

In terms of “Mank’s” prospects as a monochromatic entry for Messerschmidt, it’s worth noting that Jarin Blaschke scored his first Oscar nomination last season for Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse.” The last black-and-white Oscar winner was director Alfonso Cuarón’s historic win for “Roma” in 2019, which split that year, interestingly enough, with ASC winner and Oscar nominee Łukasz Żal for Pawel Pawlikowski’s black-and-white “Cold War.”

Key Awards Dates

Saturday, April 10, 2021
Nominees and ASC Members Breakfast, Panel & ASC Open House

Tuesday, April 13, 2021
Final ASC polls close

Thursday, April 15, 2021
Final Oscar voting begins

Sunday, April 18, 2021
ASC Awards streamed live from the ASC Clubhouse in Hollywood, with plans for simultaneous in-person component TBD.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021
Final Oscar voting ends

Sunday, April 25, 2021
Winners announced at the 93rd Academy Awards (Oscars)

Contenders listed in order of likelihood to win. No film will be considered a frontrunner until we have seen it.

Frontrunners
Joshua James Richards (“Nomadland”)

Contenders
Erik Messerschmidt (“Mank”)
Phedon Papamichael (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”)
Sean Bobbitt (“Judas and the Black Messiah”)
Dariusz Wolski (“News of the World”)

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