By Yuri Neyman, ASC
An Interesting Year For Cinematography - The Year 2019.
Director Alfonso Cuarón won the Oscar for Best Cinematography for "Roma".
The last time this happened, when a director won the Best Cinematography Award, was "The Devil Is a Woman" - a 1935 film directed and photographed by the very famous classical director Josef von Sternberg. The film won the Award for Best Cinematography at the Venice Film Festival in 1935.
"The Devil Is a Woman" was remarkable for how von Sternberg pursued a largely monochromatic design for this black-and-white film, his idea being that this made the sets easier to light and emphasized the few splashes of color. Lucien Ballard, ASC was formally an original cinematographer, but received no credit.
The ASC preferred the opinion of ASC members and bestowed The Best Cinematography Award to Łukasz Zal, PSC for "Cold War" with its dramatic black-and-white photography, and considered by most cinematographers as the most visually arresting film of 2018.
Camerimage (the most well known International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography), where "Roma" and "Cold War" both were in competition, went for "The Fortress" and awarded cinematographer Ji-yong Kim, KSC with the Golden Frog for his exquisite lighting in this historical drama about China's 17th century invasion of Korea.
Often cinematography awards are influenced by fancies of quirkiness, inabilities to separate quality imagery from the film content and from its politics, and a variety of other influences that have a pinch of naivety regarding what is cinematography.
We are all cinematographers now. Using any camera we can afford - Panavision, Alexa, Red, Sony, Canon, GoPro, iPhone - we are now producing myriads of images. You may think it is great time for cinematography...
Is it? It is a good question.
The easiness of making digital pictures can lead to the mistaken conclusion that images are no more than just the registration of reality, and the cultural richness and experience of the previous generations of cinematographers, photographers, graphic artists and painters do not need to apply.
All mentioned films are winners because each of them represent a different style, and they are winners in their own styles - "Roma" in its "true to life" documentary style, "The Fortress" in its ornamental, baroque-like richness of color and Caravaggio style of lighting, and "Cold War" for its richness of classical BW photography.
Modern cinematographers must master not only various techniques and technologies, but also with a variety of artistic styles.
All styles are good except boring and non-expressive!
And the concept of "Expanded Cinematography"® taught in G.C.I. teaches how to find your own style, cherish it, polish it, and then how to use the technology to make it expressive and supportive to the ideas of the script.
Oscar for Best Cinematography in the Age of Instagram
by Yuri Neyman, ASC
Resurrection of the Black and White Documentary Style
If Cinematography is Art, then it must be judged as such and therefore be subjected to the Theories of Art Evolution, i.e. to the periodic changes of its style, elements of style, and perception of styles! What was "in style" a few years ago may no longer be "in style" today.
Therefore Roma winning the Oscar Award for Best Cinematography is a logical and predictable event in accordance with the principles of evolution in visual arts.
After 10 years of Visually Embellished and Ornate types of visual styles dominating and prevailing in film imagery (best symbolized by "Avatar" and others)...
The new style has arrived, less showy and more functional, bare and minimal from a "traditional" photography point of view, and it is here to stay for a certain period. What we call in our Expanded Cinematography® Analysis of Styles as "Ascetic Style" is very well presented and seen in Roma, the latest Oscar Winner.
From the beginning of the cinema the separation, contrast and even clash between Méliès and Lumière types of imagery were evident.
Méliès represented a more Visually Embellished and Ornate type of visual style and Lumière represented an "Ascetic, or Functional Imagery Style".
The change of dominant visual styles is happening constantly, roughly every 10 years.
The "Ascetic Style" of Roma came after the Baroque-like ornate styles of the period 2009-2018, which followed the less visually aggressive but still decorative styles in 1998-2008, and before that the more predominant "Ascetic, Functional Imagery Style".
Roma repeated the trend in the same way as Dziga Vertov with his similar "Ascetic Style" of imagery in Kino-Pravda, which first arrived in the 1920's after the beginning of the dominance of often decorative styles of staging and lighting seen in D. W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein films.
Then the same Ascetic trend resurrected as Cinéma Vérité in 1950's-1960's as a substitute, alternative, and counter to the ornate imagery of the 1940's (most notably seen in "Beauty and the Beast").
Then again after the decorative, Baroque-like Styles of the 1970's and 1980's...
...appeared Dogme 95 in the late 1990s...
Now predictably 20+ years later - as Roma's Visual Asceticism, which won the hearts and minds of the public at the recent Oscars Ceremony!
While this does not mean that films will not be made using different styles of visuals, at Global Cinematography Institute we teach our students the ability to examine styles and breakdown their characteristics.
Obviously each film is shot with a script that requires a very individual and artistic approach, and in the age of "Ascetic Films", Baroque style films will appear unexpectedly / expectedly. Yet here we are talking about prevailing trends in the visual grammar of films.
A modern cinematographer, aspiring to express script ideas in the most artistic and suitable style for the script, whom we in GCI often call the "Expanded Cinematographer" or Director of Images, should be able to mold the style of a film to what the script, director, and producer call for - all while maintaining the visual style and matching the script and integrity of the visual ideas in the future film.