Tech Support: ‘Birdman,’ ‘Unbroken’ and ‘Interstellar’ set the mood for Best Cinematography

Commentators have noted that this year's Best Actor race is stacked with way more than five outstanding candidates. And they are right. But compared to Best Cinematography, Best Actor is positively paper thin. As usual, an embarrassment of riches is present in this category, which awards a film's director of photography (DP).

The cinematography branch is partial to gorgeous looking films, black-and-white films and war films. After years of resisting digital photography, the branch has also embraced 3D work this decade. Being a Best Picture nominee can also help immensely, but so can being a foreign-language film; the branch has an international eye like few others.

In any particular year, most of the nominees tend to be returning contenders. Moreover, many first-time nominees (such as Philippe Le Sourde and Phedon Papamichael last year) tend to be veterans awaiting their first nomination. Having said that, there hasn't been a year with no first-time nominees since 1978 and there are only three working DPs (Roger Deakins, Emmanuel Lubezki and Robert Richardson) with more than five career nominations to date.

Lubezki looks highly likely to return to the race this year for his absolutely pivotal work on “Birdman.” It was not only the “one take” trickery, but the mood and lighting on display in the cinematography that were essential to the film's success and could lead Lubezki to a second straight statuette.

Deakins is also back in the running, having lensed Angelina Jolie's “Unbroken.” While the quality of this film is still to be determined, it certainly appears to be an absolute showcase for a DP who is almost tragically still awaiting his first win. Unless the film tanks, I expect him to be at the front of this race with his 12th nomination.

Dutch DP Hoyte Van Hoytema has been noted as a rising star in recent years, due to success with films like “Let the Right One In,” “The Fighter,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “Her.” The fact that Christopher Nolan chose him to lens “Insterstellar” after longtime collaborator Wally Pfister moved into directing is demonstrative of is talent (ditto Sam Mendes tapping him to take up the Bond mantle in Deakins' wake). Nolan's films have a good track record here and assuming the film is a hit, Van Hoytema appears in solid shape for a first nomination.

Everyone who has seen “Mr. Turner” has raved about Dick Pope's superb camerawork. Poised to rival “Topsy-Turvy” for Mike Leigh's greatest success in Oscar's crafts categories, this title may well find Pope (previously nominated for “The Illusionist”) finally rewarded for his long-time relationship with Leigh. To me, it's a question of how well SPC can push the film.

RELATED: Cinematographer Dick Pope says 'Mr. Turner' himself would have approved of going digital

Jeff Cronenweth and David Fincher have a relationship that is not as long-lasting as Pope/Leigh, but has been very successful, leading to two Oscar nominations for Cronenweth this decade (“The Social Network” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”). This year, Cronenweth is responsible for the wickedly stylish “Gone Girl,” where different approaches to photography were incredibly important for capturing the mood and telling different aspects of the story. Can lightning strike thrice?

RELATED: Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth talks 'Gone Girl,' film, digital and a career with David Fincher

Rob Marshall has had a similarly close working relationship with Australian lenser Dion Beebe, who earned his first nomination for “Chicago” and first statuette for “Memoirs of a Geisha.” He was probably also close to a nomination for “Nine.” (I am stilled annoyed by Beebe's decade-old snub for Michael Mann's “Collateral,” but be that as it may…) On “Into the Woods,” Beebe will once again be collaborating with Marshall on a musical. Can the director crank out another critical hit? He hasn't had the greatest track record post-“Chicago” but that hasn't stopped Beebe's work from being acclaimed.

The last time Robert Elswit worked with Paul Thomas Anderson, he won the Oscar (“There Will Be Blood”). Anderson films always look amazing, and I am sure “Inherent Vice” will be no exception. The bigger problem, in my opinion, is whether this film can break out of Anderson's small circle of devotees. It doesn't appear to be his most Academy-friendly effort and Elswit's work may ultimately get lost and/or be considered too stylish. But the lenser also put out work in “Nightcrawler” that plenty are talking about, so he has a couple of shots here.

RELATED: 'Inherent Vice,' 'Nightcrawler' cinematographer Robert Elswit shoots an 'unusual Los Angeles'

Spanish cinematographer Óscar Faura has been on the cusp of a Hollywood breakout for a while, most notably with “The Impossible.” In “The Imitation Game,” he is lensing a leading Best Picture contender, and a period piece at that. He may well find himself with his first nomination, particularly with a big push from The Weinstein Company.

French lenser Benoît Delhomme has been doing solid work for years. On “The Theory of Everything,” he gives us a sun-kissed take on Stephen Hawking's Cambridge days. It seems as though everyone who has seen the film has raved about how the photography captured the mood. If it begins to catch fire, he could easily end up in the final five.

Some people love Russian DP Roman Vasyanov's lensing of David Ayer's “Fury.” The capturing of the climax, in particular, was extraordinary, with lots of gorgeous imagery throughout. But do people really like this movie enough for Vasyanov to survive in this stacked category? I don't want to say no but I'm still a little skeptical. It's one of precious few contenders that was shot on film this year, it's worth pointing out.

It took Tom Stern quite a while to finally score a nomination with a Clint Eastwood film, but he finally got there with “Changeling.” Six years later, “American Sniper” might be his best chance to return to the fold. This movie is still very much a mystery. It could be a cinematographer's showcase, or it could not. It could be a major Best Picture contender, or it could not. In the face of all this competition, however, I suspect Stern will have a tough time.

Australian DP Greig Fraser has also been lurking on the cusp of contention for years now, with titles such as “Zero Dark Thirty” to his credit. “Foxcatcher” may be a major player in many categories, and his work looks appropriately mood-setting. I'm still doubtful it will be able to stand out in this packed category, however.

“Wild” will take us through peaks and valleys of California. There's no doubt that the landscape Yves Bélanger has captured can be gorgeous. Again, however, I fear competition will be his biggest obstacle.

And finally, there is Frenchman Bruno Delbonnel and Tim Burton's “Big Eyes.” Delbonnel is clearly a branch favorite, having pulled off four nominations that were unexpected or from films that appeared to be in trouble in other categories (“Amélie,” “A Very Long Engagement,” “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” and “Inside Llewyn Davis”). So let's watch this contender.

I suspect the nominees will come from these 14 names. But I could have missed something. Do you think I did? And who do you see making the cut here? Who are you rooting for?