From Mumbai to Gotham, 2008 was a winning year for cinematography

The five films nominated for the 2008 Oscars® for cinematography ranged from fantasies to reality-based dramas and a novel that was translated to film. One common denominator: The six nominees and eventual winner, Anthony Dod Mantle, BSC, DFF all share nontraditional backgrounds. Wally Pfister, ASC, Chris Menges, ASC, BSC, Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC and Tom Stern, ASC, AFC began their careers in the nonfiction arena shooting 16 mm news and documentaries. Claudio Miranda was a stage manager before he transitioned to working as a gaffer. Menges and Deakins shared a nomination for The Reader. It was the eighth nomination for Deakins and the fourth for Menges, who claimed top honors for The Killing Fields in 1984 and The Mission in 1986. Pfister also earned his third Oscar nomination for The Dark Knight. Stern, Miranda and Dod Mantle were all first-time Oscar nominees.

Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire)

Oscar winner Dod Mantle was born and raised in England, and notes that he was given his first still camera as a gift at age 25, and the streets of Mumbai was not his first experience with the sensory banquet that is India; Dod Mantle took hundreds of still pictures during a trip to visit his grandparents at their tea plantation in India. “I love film,” he laughs, “and will always have the stink of developer on my hands.”

Although he earned a bachelor’s degree as a still photographer, Dod Mantle was more drawn to the group dynamic of filmmaking. “I love the control over the frame I have as a still photographer, but I was drawn to the mechanics of motion pictures, as well as the social aspect,” he reports. “I enjoy people and I like actors, so it seemed like the appropriate habitat for me.”

His career began in documentaries, where he was instinctively drawn to films that had a balance between the political and the poetic. “I started to force narrative or dramatic ideas into documentaries,” the DP recounts, “and that led me to shooting dramatic features. I’m both pleased and surprised with the recognition for Slumdog Millionaire. It’s very satisfying. It’s a tribute to (director) Danny (Boyle) and to everyone who worked on the film.”

Wally Pfister (The Dark Knight)

Wally Pfister’s grandfather was a newspaper editor and his father was a writer-producer for ABC television news. During his youth, Pfister witnessed history in the making while his father was covering the launching of a NASA spacecraft at Cape Kennedy (aka Cape Canaveral) and other high-profile news stories. However, Pfister had another dream for his future: His main passion in high school was playing the guitar in a rock ’n’ roll band.

Working as a television news and documentary cameraman in Washington, D.C., in 1988, Pfister was assigned to cover the arrival of Robert Altman in the nation’s capital to direct the Tanner ’88 miniseries. Altman recruited him to play a TV news photographer in backgrounds of scenes and to work as a second unit cameraman. That whet Pfister’s appetite for nonfiction filmmaking. He applied to and was accepted at AFI, where he focused on cinematography. After graduation, Pfister worked on Roger Corman camera crews, which led to opportunities for him to shoot a series of ultra-low budget, independent films, including The Hi-Line, which a young independent filmmaker from England named Christopher Nolan saw at Sundance.

Was it destiny calling? Up to that time in his career, Nolan was shooting the films that he scripted and directed. He tracked Pfister down in Florida, where he was working as a camera operator on a Guild film. Pfister flew to Los Angeles to meet Nolan during a weekend break. That meeting led to their collaboration on Memento. They subsequently collaborated on Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige and The Dark Knight. Pfister earned Oscar nominations for the last three of those films, and presented the American Society of Cinematographers 2009 Board of Governors Award to Nolan earlier this year in recognition of the director’s commitment to making production values a main ingredient in his recipe for cinematic storytelling. In an eloquent acceptance speech, Nolan discussed his collaborations with his long-time creative partner, “I am a believer in alchemy and magic. … It’s not rational, and it is hard to explain, but magic happens when there is a true collaboration between a cinematographer and director.”

Visual alchemy is the hallmark of The Dark Knight, which recently passed the $1 billion mark at the global box office, making it the second most successful film in cinema history. One of The Dark Knight’s most astounding, striking elements is the large-screen IMAX® format Pfister embraced to help showcase the physical rather than visual effects-driven action sequences. The DP also revealed Batman’s soul to the audience by artfully lighting his eyes.

“When I look at a shot through the lens, I hear music in my mind,” Pfister smiles. “Films, like music, need a sense of rhythm that affects everything from composition to editing. I use the same part of my brain to play a melody that I use to make decisions about how to pan or tilt the camera. It’s about creating a beat or a visual rhythm.”

Claudio Miranda (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)

Miranda was born in Santiago, Chile, and raised in Los Angeles, where his father was an architect. He began his career in 1984 as a stage manager. He transitioned to working as a gaffer during the early 1990s with Harris Savides, ASC, Jeff Cronenweth, ASC, Dariusz Wolski, ASC and other cinematographers, and later shot numerous music videos and commercials, including a Heineken spot which earned the 2005 AICP cinematography award. Miranda lensed A Thousand Roads for the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., before launching his narrative film career in 2006.

“David (Fincher) and I didn’t want Benjamin Button to be overly flashy,” Miranda notes. “We wanted it to feel as real as possible. We referred to Andrew Wyeth paintings for the simplicity of framing, and the simplicity of what is in the frame. We often used smoky haze to evoke a period feeling. In the beginning, we created a slightly warmer look reminiscent of a time when streets were lit by gas lamps and electricity.

“As the time becomes more modern, we incorporated fluorescent lighting, and for a more depressing, modern day feeling, we sometimes used existing mercury vapor house lights. When possible, I lit the set first and then let the actors play within that light.”

Tom Stern (Changeling)

Stern was born in Palo Alto, California, where he was raised, with the exception of the three years that his family lived in France. During his youth, he took still pictures and experimented in the darkroom. At St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Stern agreed to shoot a friend’s movie. That experience inspired him to earn an advanced degree in film studies at Stanford University. After graduation, Stern was a gaffer and first assistant on medical, industrial and documentary films. He transitioned to working as a gaffer on narrative films shot by Robbie Greenberg, ASC and Bruce Surtees, ASC. Stern also worked with Haskell Wexler, ASC and Conrad L. Hall, ASC on many commercials and features.

“Conrad’s artistry was so rich that being his gaffer was kind of like being the bass player for a great maestro,” says Stern. “It was sort of a mind meld. After Conrad died, I quit working for about six months. I had a lot of thinking to do. That Christmas I got a call saying that Clint Eastwood wanted me to shoot Blood Work with him.”

Changeling was the seventh film he shot with Eastwood at the helm.

“We envisioned Changeling as sort of a cool jazz version of Day of the Locust,” Stern says. “Not that I have the talent of Conrad Hall, but that’s what I was attempting. Changeling has a rich, yet muted palette. There is directness to these images – they are sort of in your face. Maybe I was inclined to make things a little bit photojournalistic, but the story is about one woman’s agony and journey. The basic objective was to give the artists room to act.”

Roger Deakins & Chris Menges (The Reader)

Deakins was born and raised in Torquay, a small, seaside town in Devon, England. His mother was a former actress and amateur artist. He dabbled in painting during his youth, and enrolled in art school with a graphic arts major. Deakins discovered still photography in art school and subsequently studied at the National Film and Television School in London.

He spent the first seven years of his career shooting documentaries. His first job was documenting a nine-month journey onboard a yacht that was competing in an around-the-world race. Deakins went on to film documentaries of wars being fought in Rhodesia and Eritrea, and anthropological sagas in India and Sudan.

He transitioned into narrative filmmaking in 1983 when he shot Another Time, Another Place for Channel 4 in London with a director whom he had met in college. Deakins met Ethan and Joel Coen when they asked him to collaborate with them on Barton Fink that same year. That was his first U.S. film. Deakins moved to Los Angeles in 1991 after shooting Homicide with David Mamet. “(Director) Stephen Daldry asked me to read and discuss the script for The Reader with him,” Deakins says. “We agreed in our first conversation that 1.85:1 (aspect ratio) was right for this film because it’s an intimate story about two people who were both friends and lovers. My documentary experience taught me to trust my instincts and to work quickly and simply. We chose to use a single camera and to unobtrusively concentrate on the performances because much of the story is told by the expressions on people’s faces. I reluctantly left the film before we finished because I had another commitment, but I was comfortable because Chris (Menges) and I have similar backgrounds and tastes.”

In fact, Menges was born in Herefordshire, England, and raised in London, where his father was the music director for The Old Vic Theatre. Menges was fascinated by cameras and still photography during his youth. He was mentored in cinematography during his teens by Allan Forbes, a neighbor who was a filmmaker from America.

Menges began his career working on a weekly documentary television series. He spent 18 months in the jungles of Burma during two different trips, beginning in 1966. The film he shot documents a brutal battle for control of the land by different ethnic groups who were pushed into the same territory when the British army controlled the country.

Brian Probyn, one of the cinematographers whom he assisted on documentaries, helped Menges make the transition to narrative filmmaking. He was a camera operator on Probyn’s crew when he shot Poor Cow for director Ken Loach. Menges earned the first of some 50 narrative film credits for cinematography for Kes in 1969 with Loach at the helm.

“I received a call from Redmond Morris, the line producer for The Reader,” Menges says. “He told me that Roger (Deakins) had to leave after shooting for 32 days in Germany because he had another commitment. He told me what the story was about and part of the fascination for me was that my grandfather came to England from Germany to teach music students to play the violin. I also like working on films where I can learn about our history and things that happened which made us who and what we are today.”

History lessons aren’t always pleasant. Menges has vivid memories of visiting a former concentration camp in Eastern Poland for a scene that was set in April 1940.

“That was an incredibly awful experience,” he says. “It was impossible to be there without crying your heart out. The poor souls suffered so badly.”

THE INDEPENDENT SPIRIT AWARD WINNER

Maryse Alberti claimed top honors in the 2009 Film Independent’s Spirit Award cinematography competition for The Wrestler. It was an encore performance for the cinematographer, who claimed top honors in 1999 for Velvet Goldmine and a 2005 nomination for We Don’t Live Here Any More.

“I had never met (director) Darren (Aronofsky),” she says. “I think he sent me the script for The Wrestler because of my documentary background. In our first conversation, we spoke about shooting in documentary style.”

Alberti has earned an eclectic blend of nearly 60 narrative film and documentary credits since 1985, in addition to shooting many 30-second stories, aka commercials. Her nonfiction film credits include Crumb, which won the International Documentary Association Award in 1994, Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2006, and Taxi to the Dark Side, which won the Oscar in 2008.

Her career (so far) is like one of those classic Mickey Rooney movies where impossible dreams come true. Alberti was born and raised on a farm in southern France. She saw her first movie when she was 19 years old on the first leg of her journey to the United States. After arriving in the country, Alberti worked as an au pair for a family that lived in a New York City suburb for several months.

She took her first pictures with a Kodak Instamatic camera while hitchhiking across the country. Alberti began her career as a still photographer on low-budget independent films. She segued into working as an assistant cameraman on documentaries that took her to Central and South America, China and the Soviet Union.

Alberti earned her first cinematography credits for documentaries during the second half of the 1980s. She shot her first narrative film, Poison, in 1991.

Alberti and Aronofsky quickly decided to compose The Wrestler in 2.4:1 aspect ratio, while shooting with a handheld Super 16 camera to give the actors maximum freedom to spontaneously follow their instincts. Their timing was perfect. The new 12-pound ARRI 416 camera had just come on the market. Most of the film was shot with a single camera. The exception was wrestling scenes, when Alberti had a second camera in the ring.

“There was no video village,” she says. “Darren was always by my side while we were shooting. That allowed us to make quick, intuitive decisions.”

The Wrestler attracted fans to the box office, and earned accolades from critics. Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei earned Oscar nominations for their roles. That doesn’t happen without artful cinematography that is in perfect tune with the performances.

By Bob Fisher and David Heuring