The Cinematography of 2024’s Oscars Best Picture Category

If people are looking for inspiration in this year’s Best Picture Academy Award nominees, I expect we’ll be seeing a lot more black and white footage in the near future. Three of the five films include at least some monochrome material, and one is a black and white movie from beginning to end.

Blue blooded

There’s a lot of photochemical film in this year’s competition, but veteran cinematographer Edward Lachman, ASC, chose to shoot El Conde for director Pablo Larraín using the Alexa Mini LF, instead. Arri rushed out three monochrome Mini LF bodies specially for the production at a time when the company must have already been occupied getting Alexa 35 ready for the big time. It’s an interesting choice for a movie about a vampire, given the inevitability of spilt blood, but things become interesting when we realize that the blood used for El Conde was…blue?

The film is Lachman and Larraín’s first collaboration. Lachman’s work began in the ’70s at Harvard, the University of Tours in France, and a BFA in the allied subject of painting at Ohio University. His experience behind the camera reaches back almost as far, with productions including Last Embrace, with Jonathan Demme, as well as Far from Heaven, I’m Not There and Carol which garnered awards from the Cameraimage festival – as has El Conde.

It’s perhaps a sign of a properly mature set of tools that people are increasingly interested in historic techniques. As far back as 2011, cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman went all in on The Artist, which was shot in monochrome, without synchronized sound and 4:3 aspect ratio for a properly old-Hollywood presentation of a story set in that period.

Such an unusual approach didn’t hurt it at the 84th Academy Awards: The Artist won five, including Best Picture, although the cinematography award went to Hugo that year in a strong competition including The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, War Horse and The Tree of Life.

The Artist was shot fairly conventionally on Arri 435 ES cameras with Kodak’s Vision3 500T stock 5219 and Panavision Super Speeds. It did a good job simulating the halation of period film stocks, which lacked the black opaque backing of modern designs, provoking reflections which often made highlights glow.

Jarin Blaschke chose a more radical approach for The Lighthouse in 2019, using Panavision cameras with historic Bausch & Lomb lenses and Kodak’s already-crunchy Double-X monochrome stock 5222. The Lighthouse was even squarer at 1.19:1 and used an innovative approach involving saturated blue-green filters to alter the contrast of the image.

Blaschke’s filters demonstrate that monochrome doesn’t always react the same way to every color. Digitally, some programs take an average of the red, green and blue channels; others use the mathematics described in video standards to create monochrome from, mostly, green.

Either tends to look flatter than The Lighthouse, but anyone can play with this in software by isolating the red, green, or blue channels. Green is generally cleanest, red makes humans look bright, and blue is noisy because silicon sees blue least well—but it also looks a bit like The Lighthouse. It’s much like the historic monochrome (strictly, orthochromatic) look achieved back when film couldn’t see red light, hence the red lights in darkrooms and El Conde’s blue blood.

El Conde’s look relies on the behavior of the monochrome Alexa LF, and while it’s not really possible to accurately simulate those color-filtering tricks on an already-monochrome image, modern productions clearly have a huge amount of flexibility to change contrast in post. As Lachman himself puts it in this Vanity Fair interview, “Pablo had the idea that maybe blood shouldn’t be red just because that’s the way we see it. In black and white, it could look different, and we tested it with other colors and strangely enough, blue came out the best with the blood…”

The final grade is not the highest contrast black and white around, often shot under overcast or interior light filtered through gauze curtains. It’s an approach that seems appropriate to a production depicting the twilight years of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet depicted as a bloodsucking vampire.

A wider view

If there’s another theme in the cinematography Oscars this year, it’s the predominance of wide-angle lenses. El Conde does this, but Poor Things takes it to an extreme, with occasional shots deliberately using extreme fisheye lenses that render a circular porthole in the middle of the frame. Robbie Ryan, BSC, ISC, previously worked with director Yorgos Lanthimos (and Emma Stone) on The Favourite, which is very visibly the work of the same hand—though perhaps less so, because Poor Things is very adventurous, befitting a screen adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s equally adventurous novel.

Ryan’s credits begin in the early ’90s and include collaborations with Stephen Frears on Philomena and Ken Loach on The Angels’ Share, Jimmy’s Hall, Sorry We Missed You, and The Old Oak. Ryan’s best-known work includes Fish Tank, Slow West, American Honey, and The Favourite, for which he was previously nominated.

Since Poor Things, he has already worked with Yorgos Lanthimos (and Emma Stone and Willem Dafoe) again on the upcoming Kinds of Kindness. Given Ryan’s experience in social realism and Dafoe’s background in experimental theater, it’s a combination of people that more or less beckons exactly the sort of film Poor Things became.

Mixed media

The film mixes formats and looks freely. Director Lanthimos is a dedicated photochemical aficionado, and there’s color, monochrome, VistaVision, and conventional work on the Arricam LT with a list of lenses too long to repeat. There’s even a serendipitous shot, used in the movie, in which a dying camera battery resulted in a slightly slower film speed, lending a Frankensteinian reanimation shot a sort of undercranked twitchiness.

Monochrome scenes were shot on Kodak’s Double-X, like The Lighthouse, though without the adventurous filtration. Color materials included Kodak Vision3 500T 5219, which is a fairly conventional choice with some speed for interiors, and the company’s Ektachrome 100D reversal film 5294, which is unconventional. Ryan has said that the reversal informed the whole color palette, and Poor Things is certainly a contrasty movie embracing a kaleidoscope of color, something that demands a lot of control to avoid simply looking chaotic.

Cinematographers are usually well aware of the interdependence they share with production designers, and Poor Things built a huge number of enormous sets on sound stages in Budapest. Given Lanthimos’ predilection for very wide lenses, the sets had to be complete—no missing walls or ceilings here—and Ryan’s lighting mainly remained outside the windows. As a result, one of the most identifiable things about the film is perhaps its camera operating, which delights in allowing a wide-angle world to swing around the viewer in a way that belies the comparatively square 1.66:1 frame.

Much as many of the techniques used on Poor Things beckon the past (monochrome, reversal, the production design), combining them with modern techniques creates results that really couldn’t have existed at any other time. The result seems strangely appropriate to a production that takes place in a neo-Victorian, not-quite-steampunk world featuring both corsets and fluorescent tubes.

Master switch

Conjure up a trailer for Maestro and notice that it, too, features a squarish, occasionally monochrome frame that collaborates with costume, hair, and makeup choices to suggest a historic time frame. Still, it looks so different to Poor Things that the comparison tells us a lot about how different applications of the same techniques can sometimes be.

Unlike either El Conde or Poor Things, Maestro is a real world story, depicting the relationship of composer Leonard Bernstein with his wife Felicia Montealegre. It is directed by (and stars) Bradley Cooper with cinematography by Matthew Libatique, ASC.

Libatique’s education was almost prototypical for an American cinematographer, with sociology and communications at the California State University and a cinematography MFA at AFI Conservatory. Having been involved in shooting short films, and particularly music videos, since the early ’90s, Libatique became a regular collaborator with Darren Aronofsky after his memorable 16mm monochrome work on Pi. The two worked together on the hugely respected Black Swan. Maestro is Libatique’s third Academy Award nomination, after Black Swan and A Star Is Born, also directed by Cooper.

Bernstein himself had a life that involved some enormous performance venues, and the film revels in as many of those as it reasonably can, especially in its memorable Carnegie Hall opening. The photography changes with the years of Bernstein’s life. Just like Poor Things and El Conde, Maestro used Double-X for its monochrome sequences, but perhaps the most memorable are the color scenes, some of which seem intended to recall a mid-century National Geographic in their straightforward application of bright, clean photography.

The selection of Panavision’s PVintage lenses is easy to understand; the lenses are based on what was once called the Ultra Speed, and the company describes them as creating “characteristically smooth organic imagery.” Kodak’s Vision3 200T stock 5213 beckons a crisp image, but it’s a less straightforward choice.

As anyone who’s ever shot it will know, 200T can require an amount of light that’s slightly shocking to anyone used to thousand-ISO digital cameras (four times as much, roughly). On something as big and complicated as Maestro, particularly that opening sequence, 200T is a choice with real technical implications, even though those PVintage lenses are all under f/2, with the 50mm a lightning-fast f/1.0.

So it’s not surprising that Libatique chose to switch to Vision3 500T 5219, which is roughly 1 ⅓ stops faster than 200T, for many of Maestro’s interior scenes. Maestro also mixes aspect ratios depending on the time period, beginning in 1:33:1 and expanding to 1.85:1 after Felicia’s death.

Although technically great, it would be hard for anyone to object to the idea that Maestro targets a wider, more mainstream audience than Poor Things or El Conde. How Academy members might react to that is hard to predict, though Cooper and co-star Carey Mulligan are both nominated, as is Cooper again for the writing, and the film itself for a total of seven awards. It has enjoyed similar success in BAFTA nominations and reviewed well with both the National Board and AFI. The heady combination of Bernstein’s music and Libatique’s photography seems well placed to succeed both during awards season and as a piece of popular entertainment.

At scale

Killers of the Flower Moon somehow manages to best those numbers, being nominated in no less than ten categories. As one of Martin Scorsese’s projects, that’s no huge surprise (it’s his tenth nomination). For literally years, though, it was not quite clear in which awards season the film would qualify, with a protracted development period which began as early as 2016.

It was three years before Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC, became involved, although he had previously worked on Scorsese’s films The Wolf of Wall Street, Silence, and The Irishman. Prieto’s credit history bulges with A-list titles for other directors, perhaps most famously for Alejandro González Iñárritu on Amores Perros.

Production would be disrupted by both the COVID-19 pandemic, and by funding problems, but Killers of the Flower Moon eventually shot between April and October 2021. Possibly the key takeaway is sheer scale: beyond the lengthy period of principal photography, enormous exterior sets were constructed and vast numbers of extras hired. This was a big show, to the point where Paramount had become skittish about the $200M spend and Apple had to step in with some iPhone money.

Killers of the Flower Moon is another Oscar-contending production shot on film—in the main. Most of it was shot on Arricam ST and LT cameras using Panavision T-series anamorphics and Kodak’s 250D film 5207 for day exteriors, with the faster 500T 5219 used at night.

However, Prieto also used Sony Venice to cover some particularly low-light situations. These are choices which seem fairly straightforward: a wide frame is easy to understand given the clear story need to capture the terrain of the Great Plains in a way that’s at once spectacular and naturalistic, though the T-series, which are by default designed to be fairly clean, were reportedly modified somewhat for a less modernistic image.

What makes the difference here is exactly how these tools were applied. Killers of the Flower Moon is a downright gruesome story. Set in Oklahoma in the early 1920s, the film is based on David Grann’s book of the same name, about a series of murders, mainly of indigenous Osage people, who owned rights to extract oil which prospectors would rather have had for themselves.

Scorsese approving a shot on the set of Killers of the Flower Moon. Image © Apple
Scorsese approving a night shot using the Sony Venice. Image © Apple

The film could be seen as deliberately playing with potential audience expectations of, or tropes defined by, the western movie genre. Either way, it’s probably a story about the different perspectives of people with different experiences, and Prieto’s cinematography was designed to emphasize that.

Scenes involving the oil prospectors, their families, and their acquaintances were processed in a way that Prieto describes as approximating the Autochrome process of the early twentieth century. The result is perhaps rather indirectly Autochrome-inspired, although it is certainly well separated from the more naturalistic appearance of scenes involving Osage people and their circumstances.

Prieto also chose an old Petzval lens—dating from much the same period as the story itself—in a deliberate attempt to show certain scenes as they might have been photographed at the time, with softness and aberration around the edge of frame.

Much has also been said about the use of camera movement in Killers of the Flower Moon, though the techniques used are straightforward, if expensive. It’s an upscale production at the top of the range of major motion pictures, and the option to put a Technocrane on a track and achieve spectacular swooping camera moves goes almost without saying. What makes it special is the way those moves, and what they show, relate to the story.

Suffice to say that Michael Bay flies his camera around because it’s dynamic and exciting, whereas Scorsese does so because, well, the nature of the beast is that it’s hard to appreciate without watching them in context, so see it in full. All three and a half hours of it.

Explosive results

Chances are most of the people reading this have already seen Oppenheimer; the financial results suggest that more or less everyone between here and Tau Ceti has. Hoyte van Hoytema, ASC, had already shot Tenet, Dunkirk, and Interstellar, representing three of Christopher Nolan’s increasingly enormous slate of increasingly enormous movies, and was nominated for the Academy Award for his work on Dunkirk.

As such, he’s more than used to dealing with 65mm and IMAX cameras to capture scenes of epic grandeur. And, because this is the 2024 awards season, a separate timeline shot on monochrome Double-X.

Of course, there’s a pretty significant difference between 35mm Double-X and the same stock used in 5- or 15-perf 65mm cameras. It’s odd to describe a monochrome image as spectacular in a world where HDR OLED displays exists in people’s homes and cinema is still objectively dimmer than most home TVs.

Even so, I was lucky enough to see Oppenheimer projected from 70mm celluloid in a well-appointed auditorium. As we’ve seen in several of this year’s contenders, good black and white is a skill all its own, although as Ansel tells us, the proper allocation of light and shade is something that informs all photography. Watch Oppenheimer, then put a black and white LUT in your monitor, and make sure your frame is still that interesting.

It’s almost redundant to point out that Nolan is dedicated to getting everything in camera, so that 70mm print was (depending on the process of reducing 15-perf IMAX to the 5-perf print) a mere three few copies away from the photochemical materials that were on set when the film was shot.

Perhaps more importantly, the film completely avoids obvious CGI (Poor Things doesn’t, incidentally). That’s certainly welcome, and in-camera effects techniques are seductive because they make it seem that the hugely spectacular results we see in films like Oppenheimer are the sort of thing that can be achieved by a sufficiently ingenious group of indie filmmakers in a garage.

Which is more or less true, as was shown by William H. Baker’s YouTube video in which a sufficiently ingenious group of indie filmmakers do just that, producing a recreation of several key effects from Oppenheimer that could be described as pixel-for-pixel—if only Oppenheimer had been made of pixels rather than film grains. What’s more difficult to duplicate is the rest of the film, which, like most Nolan productions, is based on a gigantic production design effort.

In-camera techniques continue through the whole movie, with classic cloud tank effects, falling glitter, whirling reflections, and scattered pyrotechnics used to illustrate Oppenheimer’s thought process. Dissociated background effects were created by projecting a photograph of a scene onto that scene, and microscopically disturbing the projection. Cillian Murphy, in the title role, has described watching Nolan clamber into position with various contraptions to create these effects—and marveled at the ability to watch them happening on set.

Despite the vast implications of the events it depicts, Oppenheimer is a more intimate film than something like Interstellar. It deals mostly with people, not black holes, and as such the big 65mm frame is perhaps even more important. One of the reasons people like large-format cameras in general is because they allow for more depth of field control on wide lenses and in facial closeups in enclosed environments. Van Hoytema’s work on Oppenheimer does a lot of this, stacking faces in corridors and offices and selecting a subject with both focus and light.

Oppenheimer is an example of the sort of filmmaking that seems to be keeping cinema alive at the moment. It’s easy to chortle at the realization that four out of the five productions up for awards this year use monochrome images at least in part, but the more profound realization is perhaps that they’re all real.

Yes, there’s CGI in Poor Things, but it was shot on film on huge sets using an eclectic selection of lenses and film stocks. El Conde was shot digitally, but the gentle look of the monochrome image, and the reality of what’s happening in front of the camera, might encourage people to think otherwise.

None of that is cheap, and we wouldn’t usually expect the Academy Awards to feature too many cheap films. Still, if all this black and white makes people think more about composition, blocking, framing, and lighting in depth, that’s fantastic—because those techniques work at every level.

Phil Rhodes

Phil Rhodes is a cinematographer with over 20 years' experience in just about every area of production and post. He stopped working behind the camera because he was tired of eating lunch from a magliner, and has spent much of his time since lamenting that the food is the best part of on-set work.