Life of Pi takes a huge slice of industry honors in our 2013 awards season wrap

Claudio Miranda, ASC accepting his Best Cinematography Oscar® from the cast of The Avengers / Photo by Michael Yada / ©A.M.P.A.S.

It’s fun when predictions about Hollywood’s seemingly endless awards season – beginning in September with the Emmys and culminating on the last Sunday in February with The Oscars – do not pan out. There isn’t predictability in the rest of the industry, so why keep it dull with the lauding of prizes on its artists and crafts-people?

In the Best Cinematography field, all eyes were fixed squarely on Skyfall, after Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC took home the ASC award, or, a close second in Janusz Kaminski’s historical (shot-on-film) Lincoln. No one was more surprised than Claudio Miranda, ASC, or his director, Ang Lee, when both were called to the dais for their VFX-heavy spectacle at sea, Life of Pi.

“This movie was quite a beast to make,” a visibly stunned Miranda offered. “It was a challenge, but when you are a cinematographer and you have your eyes and you go up and up and reach this thing, you get excited. I’d like to thank everyone that made this thing totally possible. The Academy…and…I can’t even speak. My wife, my daughters, everyone, thank you so much.”

Backstage, Miranda confessed he thought it would be Deakins’ night.

“I actually kind of thought he would have got it, but, you know, I did get the BAFTA so there’s always a little bit of chance it’s possible,” he grinned.

Life of Pi also took home an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. The moment was more ironic than celebratory; VFX Supervisor Bill Westenhofer received the statuette, and as he began to acknowledge the financial woes of Life of Pi’s main VFX vendor, Rhythm & Hues, an ominous Jaws soundtrack played him off stage.

Live ABC Telecast of The Oscars® from the Dolby® Theatre in Hollywood, CA, February 24, 2013. Photo by Darren Decker / ©A.M.P.A.S.

“It’s bad news that visual effects are too expensive and I’m aware of Rhythm & Hues” Westenhofer announced over the crescendo of music. Earlier that day, Rhythm & Hues employees and sympathizers had staged a protest at the corner of Hollywood and Vine with over 400 attendees. After contributing to Life Of Pi’s Oscar-winning effects, the company laid off a good chunk of its workforce and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Backstage in the Oscars Press Room, Westenhofer clarified his speech.

“What I was trying to say up there,” reported TheWrap, “is that it’s ironic that when visual effects are dominating the box office, visual effects are struggling. We’re artists, and if we don’t fix the business model we may lose something.”

Life of Pi was also among the top winners at the Visual Effects Awards held in early February, sharing that honor with Brave, which also received four awards. Life of Pi won for VFX in a VFX-Driven Feature, Animated Character in a Live Action Feature, FX and Simulation Animation in a Live Action Feature, and Compositing in a Feature. Brave took home the Animated Feature category awards for Animation, Animated Character, Created Environment, and FX and Simulation Animation.

“There’s a lot of change going on [in VFX],” said VES Executive Director Eric Roth at the Beverly Hilton. “It’s a climate with razor thin margins. Globalization is here. I urge industry leaders to share ideas, because there may be a way to invent a new model.”

The event also honored Ang Lee with the VES Visionary Award, presented by Dennis Muren, and Richard Edlund with the Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by Harrison Ford.

Jeffrey A. Okun, Chair of the Visual Effects Society, said early in the evening that, “each year, we put a spotlight on artistic achievements in visual effects that today more than ever define the experience of going to the cinema.”

ASC Lifetime Achievement recipient Dean Semler, ASC, ACS and presenter Angelina Jolie. Photo by Jessica Jewell.

The needle of that cinematic experience shifted slightly this awards season by the 2012 Sundance award winner Beasts of the Southern Wild. Although the widely seen micro-budget indie wasn’t honored in any of it’s four nominated sections at the Oscars, cinematographer Ben Richardson won a Film Independent Spirit award the day before.

“It’s been an incredible year,” the U.K.-born, Brooklynbased DP said after his win. “The nicest thing is that there’s something in the work that I did that people recognize has a certain quality to it, and they’re coming to me for that reason. It’s just delightful.”

Unlike most other seasonal honors, achievements given out at the Academy’s Scientific and Technical Awards [Sci-Tech] need not have been developed or introduced in 2012. Rather, the awards are given based on a proven record of contributing significant value to the motion picture industry.

The Sci-Tech Awards held a modest, yet chic affair at the Beverly Hills Hotel, two weeks prior to the Oscars. Nine teams, made up of 25 individuals who might well be considered behind-the-scenes geniuses, were honored.

Indie Spirit Award winner for Best Cinematography Ben Richardson with Beast of Southern Wild lead actress Quvenzhané Wallis at the Fox Searchlight Oscar Party. Photo by Todd Williamson.

“You’re magic has created the iconic imagery,” announced AMPAS President Hawk Koch during the ceremony, which was split into three acts to compliment three decadent courses of Fig and Pomegranate Salad, Côte de Beouf, and a Mousse Parfait. “Without science and technology, there is no art.”

Highlights included Sony Pictures Imageworks’ creation of Katana, a revolutionary new open-source VFX software, first used on Spider-Man 3, which allows artists to design and control the look and lighting of scenes in a scalable way; and an Academy Award of Merit to Cooke Optics Limited for the design, development, and creation of lenses that have helped define the aesthetic of motion pictures for the last century.

Other awards were bestowed upon the inventors of the Post Space Deformation (PSD) technique – allowing CG characters to move and act in lifelike ways, the PDI/DreamWorks team for the Light system, Wavelet Turbulence software, Key Grip Richard Mall for The Matthews Max Menace Arm, The Tissue Physically–Based Character Simulation Framework, the Imagineer Systems Ltd. team for Mocha, and the team from Anton/Bauer, Inc. who designed and created the CINE VCLX Portable Power System – a high-capacity battery.

Life of Pi VES award winners (l-r) Donald R. Elliot, Bill Westenhofer and Guillaume Rocheron. Courtesy of Bobby Quillard/ Visual Effects Society

Early season standouts included The Hollywood Post Alliance (HPA) Awards in November, which honored outstanding contributions in post-production of feature films, TV series and commercials over the last two years. Hollywood’s 2012 summer blockbuster The Avengers took home the Outstanding Compositing prize and 2011’s The Iron Lady grabbed the Outstanding Color Grading prize. Hugo and The Adventures of Tintin received the Outstanding Editing and Outstanding Sound awards, respectively.

In the Television category, HBO’s Game of Thrones won for color grading and Downton Abbey, Grimm and NCIS: Naval Criminal Investigative Service left with the rest of the TV honors. Ray Dolby, the inventor of the noise reduction system Dolby NR, received a Charles S. Swartz award from the HPA for his contribution to sound recording and image technology.

Closing the loop for ICG Magazine.com and Local 600 members were the 27th Annual American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) Awards, held at the Grand Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland two weeks before the Oscars. As noted, Deakins took home the top prize for Outstanding Cinematography for Skyfall, but wasn’t able to attend, as he was on set for the latest criminal drama from director Denis Villeneuve.

“I’d like to think that [Roger] would thank his wife if he were here,” joked Deakins’ wife, James, who accepted the award on his behalf. Deakins has previously won ASC Awards for The Shawshank Redemption (1995) and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2002), with eleven total nominations over his celebrated career. He shared this year’s nominations with Seamus McGarvey, ASC, BSC (Anna Karenina), Danny Cohen, BSC (Les Misérables), Claudio Miranda, ASC (Life of Pi), and Janusz Kaminski (Lincoln).

Balazs Bolygo, HSC (for Cinemax’s Hunted) and Kramer Morgenthau, ASC (for HBO’s Game of Thrones) tied in the one-hour television episodic category; Florian Hoffmeister won the TV movie/miniseries award for PBS’ Great Expectations, and Bradford Lipson claimed the half-hour television episodic category for FX’s Wilfred.

Sci-Tech Honorees: Front row (left to right): actor Chris Pine, Academy President Hawk Koch, actress Zoe Saldana and Science and Technology Council Chairman Richard Edlund.

Second row: Richard Mall, Bill Taylor, Dr. Philip McLauchlan, Les Zellan, John-Paul Smith, Allan Jaenicke and Steve LaVietes.

Third row: Simon Clutterbuck, James Jacobs, Dr. Richard Dorling, Dr. Markus Gross, Theodore Kim, Ross Shain, Daniel Wexler, Jeremy Selan and Joe Murtha.

Back row: Nickson Fong, Matt Cordner, J.P. Lewis, Drew Olbrich, Lawrence Kesteloot, Doug James, Nils Thuerey, William Frederick, Jim Markland and Brian Hall. Photo by Richard Harbaugh / ©A.M.P.A.S.

Surprise guest Angelina Jolie walked on stage to gasps and excited claps to present the ASC Lifetime Achievement Award to Oscar-winning Dean Semler, ASC, ACS who has nearly 70 feature credits and has worked with Jolie often in the last decade, including her directorial debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011).

“A film can be shot without an actor, even without a director,” Jolie said. “But a film cannot be shot without a director of photography… we would all quite literally be in the dark. There is nothing more sacred on a film set than trust. Dean inspires and earns the kind of trust that we all dream of, and because of that, artists often do their best work when they’re working with him.”

The ASC International Award was presented to Robby Müller, NSC, BVK by director Steve McQueen and actress Nastassja Kinski, who accepted the award on the ailing Müller’s behalf. The Career Achievement in Television Award went to Rodney Charters, ASC, CSC, who thanked all the engineers he’d ever worked with and talked about embracing the changes in the industry and in the DP’s craft.

“A critical change has occurred in our industry since the days when Kodak was the name on everything at my family’s studio,” Charters shared during his acceptance speech. “I’ve embraced the change earnestly, and I want to thank all the engineers and visionaries who are giving us the new technologies. We must salute everything that Kodak and Fuji have done for us over the past century. I miss those boxes and cans — they were so useful. In time, we may find them returning as little tanks of DNA after Kodak reinvents storage.”

Curtis Clark, ASC, who was honored with The Presidents Award, echoed Charters. “My career has followed dual, but complementary paths that combine the creative practice of cinematography with an exploration of its technical foundation, both photochemical and digital,” Clark stated. “I’ve always felt the need to understand the technological underpinnings that enable the art of cinematography to be practiced to its fullest potential. In this respect, I’ve taken my inspiration from the 15 founding members of the ASC, who in 1919 formed the ASC in part to address the technical challenges of their day so they could more effectively practice their cinematographic art. They established a great tradition that has continually reinforced the ASC’s leadership role over the past 93 years in advancing both the art and technology of cinematography.”

By Valentina I. Valentini