By Mandi Bierly
February 24, 2013 at 09:52 PM EST

Leading up to tonight’s Oscars, set out to take a closer look at four categories that moviegoers may mistakenly think of as “technical.” After tackling Film Editing, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing, we conclude with Cinematography, with insights from Anna Karenina’s Seamus McGarvey and Life of Pi’s Claudio Miranda. (Django Unchained’s Robert Richardson, Lincoln’s Janusz Kaminski, and Skyfall’s Roger Deakins complete the category.)

The cinematographer may be in charge of how to technically achieve the shots on a film set — lighting, camera movement, and framing — but what he and the director are really collaborating on his how to tell their story creatively and emotionally. “What mood do you feel when you watch the movie?” says Life of Pi‘s Claudio Miranda, who was previously nominated for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. “When you look at the movie, I don’t want you to think about me, I want you to think about the scene. It’s very important to me that you don’t think this is a fantasy-reality play. You need to believe this. I feel like if I’m too fake with lighting, you’ll be taken away and not immersed in the story. When I’m lighting a set, I go, ‘Am I there? Am I there yet? Am I there yet? Am I there yet? Am I there yet?’ And then I’ll let go when I say, ‘Okay, we’re here. We can work with this.'”

Making moviegoers feel like they’re adrift on a boat with Pi and Richard Parker obviously presented challenges. “We had an amazing tank that we built and I helped design. We knew we were going to be inside there shooting for 2.5 months, so it was worth it to be able to do anything we want. On all these kind of scenes, we had an idea of what the weather would be like. In that tank, I can create storm clouds, nightfall. We had curtains that I can block out [light], doors to open and let in real sunlight,” Miranda says. “So lighting-wise, [the movie] had a big ebb and flow. There’s high noon, which is kind of harsh and crisp, and then it gives way to maybe like the beautiful golden light, like in the scene where the sun comes up and there’s that beautiful music that comes along with it. Pi throws the can out and it only goes so far, and then it ends with him going to the tiger, and the tiger does this little growl, and Pi backs up, and then he starts talking to God at that moment. It’s a very beautiful scene, but it’s also beautiful because there is an ebb and flow of not so much beauty beforehand. If it was all that, it wouldn’t be that special.”

Of course it’s the special scenes that moviegoers remember best about Pi. While Miranda and director Ang Lee looked at a watercolor painting for inspiration for the painterly sky in the scene described above, Miranda looked for real references for the most magical scene.

Miranda: There was a point when Ang and I went, in the middle of the night in southern Taichung, diving in the ocean in a bay that was phosphorescing. That was kind of our inspiration for the whale scene at night, and how that looked and how that felt and how the phosphorescence kind of went around your hand. As you shook your hand, the [phosphorescent plankton] get more excited and they become a little brighter. We played around with that in the movie. It ends up lighting the scene a little bit more. Being with Ang, in the middle of the night in an ocean just whacking away at phosphorescence — I just thought that was a pretty stunning moment.

Another scene that was special to him was the candlelit scene. “I really wanted the candles to light the whole scene. I decided with the crew, and I said, ‘There should be at least 50,000 candles on camera to cover the space. To last the night, they bought over 120,000 candles to keep what we see going. We had 2,000 people lighting. I don’t care what anybody says, when you’re there, you go, ohmygod, it is a beautiful spectacle. You walked away from that night, like, Ah. (Contrast that to one of his favorite scenes in Benjamin Button: “I like a room where people can walk around freely. I don’t like lighting people in a box, where they can’t move. There was one scene in Benjamin Button, when he’s saying goodbye to Mr. Oti, when I just put a light bulb in the middle of the whole scene, and I said, ‘Let’s just try this bulb in the middle, and let’s just let it be the bulb, and let it be what it is: Let it blow out, let it be horrible, let it be this, but this is the scene.’ I love that moment.”)

Lee also wanted to use 3-D as a storytelling point, with where the actors are placed. “There’s the scene where the ship sinks, and the ship is on the inside of the screen and Pi is floating a little bit outside. It’s kind of like a separation — this is his life going away,” Miranda says. “So when I lined it up, we put him in the audience-plane side of the screen and the ship was on the opposite side. We play different aggressions, like if an actor is being aggressive, we’ll put him towards screen as well. We wanted to play 3-D as a story point because it’s another way to make you feel the story.”

NEXT: Anna Karenina’s Seamus McGarvey on the beauty of elaborate Steadicam shots and simple close-ups

Anna Karenina cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, who started working on the Joe Wright film three days after he finished Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, never wants you to notice cinematography for its own sake. “Cinematography really should be about shepherding the story through in the most creative and appropriate way for the script,” he says. But asked to talk us through a scene in Anna Karenina — which earned him his second Oscar nomination after Wright’s Atonement and forced him to work in a more theatrical, bold mode than he’s used to once Wright decided to make the Russian aristocrats’ world literally a stage in an auditorium, he knows precisely which one to point to:

McGarvey: There is a scene that in mind coalesces cinematography in that it’s about camera movement, it’s about lighting change, it’s about the choice of angles, and it’s about looking at the characters and what the camera is saying about them. Joe and I had talked about a shot that would be, within the same shot, objective, then migrate into a subjective point of view, and then back again to objectivity. We shot the shot of Vronsky [Aaron Taylor-Johnson] leading Anna [Keira Knightley] onto the ballroom in the auditorium and igniting the frozen dancers as they pass them by with their burgeoning love. The camera follows them around, and it was quite a long take of this dance that was specially choreographed for us by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, but the camera swirls around Anna as she’s lifted up into the air, and within that move, as the camera circles them round and round, we evacuated all the extras and dancers from the auditorium — there must have been about 200 of them — in the space of 5 seconds. And then as the camera pulls back from them again, I make a light cue so that they end up in a spotlight. I think the close-up portion of the shot allowed us to get into Anna’s mind, and the staging of it — evacuating all the people — showed them alone in their love. But then as the camera pulls back again and you see them in the spotlight, suddenly the lights dim up again and people start migrating back into the frame. We did that all with a single Steadicam take. That’s an example of how cinematography can help tell a story wordlessly, with movement and working with the actors…. We do a lot of rehearsing for a shot like that. I think Joe gets quite excited by it. It is like a performance, really. And what it does is it really focuses everybody together because they know that it’s not just a 30-second take with a line. Everyone is dependent — from all the technicians, from us on the camera, to all the actors, to the electricians that are cueing lights. It becomes a real clockwork dance. I get very focused and excited when we do those shots. Joe is so adept at doing that. The [Beach at Dunkirk] shot in Atonement had a similar sensibility in terms of the staging of it and the way the camera becomes an onlooker and protagonist in one shot. I still get nervous looking at that because that was on a terrifying scale with like a thousand extras. So much could have gone wrong. But that was three takes.

While Wright is known for those “elaborate, kind of kaleidoscopic and carousel-like shots that are ongoing,” McGarvey says they’re not what he’s most proud of in Anna Karenina. “I think the things I’m proudest of are the simple, humble close-up. When you’re working with actors as good as Keira Knightley and Jude Law, there’s nothing greater than lighting an actor’s face and seeing the landscape of their face expressing emotion silently. I think it’s a powerful tool that is unique in cinema. Close-ups don’t exist in theater. I think the film camera comes into its own when you photograph an actor’s close-up.”

He has two favorites: “One is Jude Law, when Anna comes back and he’s lit very, very dimly. His eyes are in shadow. I was terrified when we were shooting it, because I thought, God, have I gone too dark on this? And Joe was great, he just encouraged me to do it. I like it because it’s expressive. Jude’s performance is really kind of on edge, and I think that the lighting works alongside that,” McGarvey says. “And then the other one is when Anna has her veil on, and she’s sitting on the end of Vronsky’s bed, and she [lifts it up]. It’s very, very simple, and starkly lit. The light was directly above the camera, and it’s banging straight into Keira’s face. There aren’t many actors or actresses who can take that and look as exquisite as she does.”

In addition to looking at paintings and photography (including fashion photography) for inspiration, McGarvey and Wright were influenced by films such as Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, and A Matter of Life & Death and The Red Shoes, which were shot by McGarvey’s late mentor Jack Cardiff. “We were looking at tonality, and color, and the way the lenses sort of depicted the images. We shot anamorphic lenses on 35mm, which is a sad rarity these days. But I had these Christian Dior 10 denier black stockings on the back of the lens, so that gave it a sort of glow that hopefully evokes a bygone era,” McGarvey says. How many stockings were used in the making of Anna Karenina? “We’ll say I went through one leg, because you do have to replace them. As many women understand, you do get ladders now and again,” the Irishman says, laughing. “But they’re a rarity. These stockings come from the ‘70s. I bought a few packs of them years ago, but they’re very sought after now.”

Some things, however, you just can’t plan for:

McGarvey: The end scene of the movie, when Jude Law is with his children in the field, Joe at the time was kind of upset because he wanted an optimistic finale to the movie, and there were these black storm clouds that day. I tried my best to light it. I was lighting it with these big sources. In the end, when we saw the rushes, I thought wow, it actually looks like it’s in the theatrical realm anyway. Joe initially didn’t like that, but when those shots are put in the auditorium, it really has that feel. It looks like it’s lit artificially, which of course it was to a degree. So sometimes, post-film rationalization can work for you. People say, “It’s amazing, that exterior, it looks like it’s lit with theatrical lighting!” And I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, of course.” (Laughs) There’s a certain alchemy that happens with moviemaking. Accidents can sometimes create wonderful logic.

Read more:

Oscar-nominated sound mixers explain what you should (or shouldn’t) notice if it’s done well

Oscar-nominated sound editors explain their key challenges (and the sounds you may not know they create)

Oscar-nominated editors clear up the biggest misconception about their category (and explain the decisions you may not know they’re making)

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