Gravity Soars above the field in an Awards Season with few surprises

Last year Awards Season was mostly about throwing caution to the wind. This year, all is well in Hollywood and its myriad of algorithmic prediction polls. Beginning in September with the Emmys and culminating on the first Sunday in March with the Oscars, the frontrunner, Gravity, took most of the honors home, despite a notable pass from the Academy on Sandra Bullock’s frame dominating leading role.

In the Best Cinematography field, Gravity DP Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC couldn’t be stopped, winning at the BAFTAs, the Oscars, and the American Society of Cinematographers Awards (ASC). Last year’s Life of Pi and Claudio Miranda, ASC may have set a precedent for allotting cinematography prizes for VFX-heavy spectacles, and this year that trend was solidified as an industry standard.

Accepting the ASC Award (two weeks before his Oscar), Lubezki said, “I share this with my friend and teacher [Gravity director] Alfonso Cuarón, [visual effects supervisor] Tim Webber and the visual effects team.” Lubezki went on to thank their computers as well, and additional collaborators, like Technicolor color grader Steve Scott. Upon winning the Oscar, the native Mexican DP, thanked the same group, adding in “the team of Framestore nerds that made this trip possible.”

The Oscar-winning VFX team from Gravity (L to R) Neil Corbould, David Shirk, Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence / Photo by Davis Barber / ©A.M.P.A.S.

Backstage, Cuarón shed light on the reverse engineering of Gravity’s process. “A conventional film has post‑production,” he said. “Visual effects are part of post and cinematography has very little relationship with visual effects. [But] here’s a film in which editing, visual effects and cinematography started two years before we began shooting in order to be able to integrate all those elements.”

Gravity’s VFX team at Framestore, led by Webber, Chris Lawrence, David Shirk and Neil Corbould, also took home an Oscar, ultimately giving the film seven Academy Awards (director, editing, cinematography, visual effects, original score, sound mixing and sound editing). Gravity also took home hardware – including Outstanding Models for the ISS Exterior, Outstanding FX and Simulation for the parachute and ISS destruction, best Virtual Cinematography and best VFX in a Live Action Feature – at the 12th Annual Visual Effects Awards in early February. This marks the ninth time the winner of the top category at the VES Awards has gone on to win the visual effects Oscar.

Disney’s CGI team from Frozen also left the VES Awards with smiles on their faces, winning the Animated Feature category for Outstanding Animation, Animated Character, Created Environment for Elsa’s Ice Palace, and FX and Simulation Animation for Elsa’s Blizzard, to name a few. Game of Thrones and PETA: 98% Human each won three awards in their categories. Surprisingly, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit only took home one award – Outstanding Animated Character in a Live Action Feature for the dragon, Smaug, designed by a team at Weta.

Science and Technology Council Chairman Richard Edlund (left) and Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs onstage at the Scientific and Technical Achievement Oscars / Photo by Jordan Murph / ©A.M.P.A.S.

Host Patton Oswalt set the tone by welcoming guests to the first annual Gravity awards: “We all know what’s going to happen tonight,” Oswalt quipped, “So just drink up and relax.” And true to fashion, even Bullock made a surprise appearance to present the VES Visionary Award to Cuarón.

As the evening began, VES Executive Director Eric Roth and Chair Jeffrey A. Okun spoke about the high level of integrity in the visual effects community. “This award requires a sense of seriousness and close observation,” said Roth. “By doing what we do,” Okun added, “our process has the most integrity of any awards show there is, bar none. When you are nominated, your work and your artistry have truly withstood the full rigors of a careful process. And if you win, you can feel that inner satisfaction of knowing that you truly deserved it.”

The event also honored John Dykstra – VFX Oscar-winner for Star Wars and Spider-Man 2 – with a Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by Douglas Trumbull.

John A. Bonner Medal of Commendation winner Charles “Tad” Marburg (left) and Peter W. Anderson arriving at the Scientific and Technical Achievement Oscars /Photo by Aaron Poole / ©A.M.P.A.S.

Oswalt also hosted the Film Independent Spirit Awards, the day before the Oscars, 12 Years a Slave, produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B, dominated as surely as Gravity did at VES, snagging trophies for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress and Sean Bobbitt, BSC, for Best Cinematography. The nod to Bobbit, as well as Guild DP’s Christopher Blauvelt (Low Down) win for Best Cinematography in January, reinforced the notion that producers and directors of indie films are seeing the value in using experienced union DP’s. However IndieWire’s Erik Kohn said, the “environment is designed to recognize autonomous creativity [yet] still wound up marginalizing it.”

The untelevised Scientific and Technological Oscars honors the (for real) geniuses behind most of the industry’s technological advances and breakthroughs, and was held two week’s prior to the Oscars. Unlike its big televised cousin, achievements given out at the Sci-Tech Awards need not have been developed or introduced in 2013. Rather, the awards are based on a proven record of significant value to the motion picture industry.

“One of the most interesting aspects of this industry is the coexistence of science and the art,” said post-production and distribution executive Charles “Tad” Marburg who was awarded the John A. Bonner Medal of Commendation for his service to the Academy. “To the world at large, they appear to be two disparate disciplines. However, I don’t think they are unrelated at all. You cannot have one without the other.”

Christopher Nolan – who has shot film on all his projects, including the upcoming Interstellar – presented an Academy Award of Merit that honored all those “who built and operated film laboratories for over a century of service to the motion picture industry.” He continued: “This unprecedented award will serve as a permanent reminder of the fine work of these men and women. This recognizes the first 100 years [of motion pictures]. I’m very excited about the next 100 years.”

A notable moment from the evening involved Peter Huang, Chris Perry, Hans Rijpkema and Joe Mancewicz’s and the Technical Achievement Award for their Voodoo application framework for developing character animation toolsets.

“This is for Rhythm & Hues,” they said, “whose names aren’t on this award. Thank you for your decades of hard work.”

Other awards were given to the team who developed the ASC CDL technology – a unification of color correction principles for use on- and off-set, to the inventors of the ILM Plume system that simulates and renders fire, smoke and explosions, to Ronald D. Henderson for the development of the FLUX gas simulation system, to the creators of the spherical harmonics-based efficient lighting system at Weta Digital, to HoverCam, ZBrush, Monte Carlo, Pneumatic Car Flipper, FILMBOX, Flying-Cam SARAH, Zeno, and Mudbox.

The Hollywood Post Alliance (HPA) Awards were held last November at The Skirball Center, in the hills above Los Angeles. They honor outstanding contributions in post-production of feature films, TV series and commercials over the last two years.

Colorist David Cole, from 2012 Oscar winner Life of Pi, won the Outstanding Color Grading prize, while the Outstanding VFX award went to last summer’s Pacific Rim (see www.icgmagazine.com/wordpress/2013/10/10/color-by-numbers/). Argo received both the Outstanding Editing and Outstanding Sound awards.

In the Television category, HBO’s Game of Thrones won for best VFX and sound, while Castle took home the award for Outstanding Color Grading and Breaking Bad won for Outstanding Editing. Editing systems pioneer AVID received a Charles S. Swartz award from the HPA for its contribution to the field of post-production. AVID President and CEO Louis Hernandez, Jr. accepted on behalf of the company.

Local 600’s “Oscars” (the 28th Annual ASC Awards), were held at the Grand Ballroom at Hollywood and Highland two weeks before the real Oscars party in the very same room. As noted, Lubezki took home the top prize for Outstanding Cinematography for Gravity. He’d previously won for The Tree of Life (2012) and Children of Men (2007), and was also nominated in 2000 for Sleepy Hollow. Traditionally, the ASC selects five nominees, but a three-way tie this year boosted that number to seven, with Sean Bobbitt, BSC for 12 Years a Slave, Barry Ackroyd, BSC for Captain Phillips, Philippe Le Sourd for The Grandmaster, Bruno Delbonnel, ASC, AFC for Inside Llewyn Davis, Phedon Papamichael, ASC for Nebraska and Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC for Prisoners, also nominated with Lubezki.

For the first time, the ASC presented a Spotlight Award, “to recognize outstanding cinematography in features and documentaries typically screened at film festivals, internationally or in limited theatrical release.” Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski – who called their first feature “our little Ida” – took that prize home with pride. Ida had made critical waves at Sundance this year after a worldwide fest circuit run and its black-and-white, non-traditional framing style of cinematography was lauded.

Other awards were given to Jonathan Freeman, ASC (for HBO’s Game of Thrones), who won in the one-hour television episodic category, Jeremy Benning, CSC received the TV movie/miniseries award for National Geographic Channel’s Killing Lincoln (which happened to have been producer Tony Scott’s last film before his tragic suicide in 2012), and Blake McClure wrapped it up by claiming the half-hour television episodic category for Comedy Central’s Drunk History.

Lifetime Achievement honoree Dean Cundey, ASC admitted to having “LMOD: Light Meter Obsessive Disorder,” and spoke of the first time he saw an issue of American Cinematographer as a freshman in high school. “Those [were the] magicians of movies…[that] did everything to inspire and ignite my dream,” said the Southern California native and DP of such memorable films as Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Back to the Future (1985) and Jurassic Park (1993). “I would actually prefer [if this award could] not to be called the Lifetime Achievement Award. It sounds so… final. Maybe something more like the ‘Semi-Lifetime’ or ‘Halfway Lifetime Award.’”

Richard Rawlings, ASC after receiving the ASC Career Achievement in Television Award / Photo by Rene Macura

Richard Rawlings, ASC received the Career Achievement in Television Award, Producer John Wells was honored with the Board of Governors Award, and Edward Zwick – who earned an Academy Award for Shakespeare in Love and a nomination for Traffic – presented the International Award to Eduardo Serra, ASC.

“No one is more promiscuous than a cinematographer,” Zwick chided in his introduction to Serra, a two-time Oscar nominee for The Wings of the Dove and Girl with a Pearl Earring. “He goes from one love affair to another. Some are passionate, others fraught and turbulent. Some even become like marriages with all the complexities of love, fidelity, ambivalence and the passage of time. Each relationship, especially when it is an intense one, as only such collaborations in this craft can be, not only mark a chapter in his life, but more significantly, a milestone in his artistic journey.”

By Valentina I. Valentini