Tech Support: ‘Life of Pi,’ ‘Lincoln’ and ‘The Master’ lead the race for Best Cinematography

Every year I say it again: our cinematographers are the heart of filmmaking. It is, after all, the use of the camera to capture a director”s vision that, more than anything else, separates cinema from every other art form. Innovation in camerawork has immeasurably improved the quality of our films. Capturing stories visually is the essence of filmmaking.

The talented individuals who serve as directors of photography are awarded by the Academy in the category of Best Cinematography, one of the few crafts categories to be cited by all major critics” awards, and probably having a reasonable degree of public acknowledgment. The category definitely tends to award “pretty” films that draw attention to themselves by having especially striking imagery. Black-and-white films also do disproportionately well when they are in contention. The branch tends to have somewhat of a love-hate relationship with digital photography, which is becoming increasingly prominent in blockbusters and action films. Frequently these films are snubbed but when nominated, they often win.

While a newcomer, or two, or three, is welcomed with a first nomination every year, the branch undeniably has its favorites who are cited consistently. Remarkably, though, no woman has ever been nominated in this category.

Prominent among those favored DPs is last year”s winner in the category, Robert Richardson. This three-time winner (“JFK,” “The Aviator” and “Hugo”) is responsible for shooting Quentin Tarantino”s “Django Unchained” this year. Tarantino”s movies, especially in recent years, always give superb opportunities for cinematographers to shine. Even so, it”s always debatable how well his work will be received, so it”s probably wise to refrain from taking this nomination to the bank just yet. Though Richardson was nominated for his last Tarantino collaboration, “Inglourious Basterds,” and westerns present a great opportunity.

Bob isn’t the only Richardson in the running this year. Ben Richardson”s lensing of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” was exceptional and important to the film”s success. I fully expect year-end citations for the film and its actors to bring this young-up-and-comer into the conversation and perhaps the nominations.

“Les Misérables” could bring Danny Cohen back into the fold two years after lensing Tom Hooper”s Best Picture winner “The King”s Speech.” Musicals usually provide the opportunity for interesting lighting. French landscapes and elements of revolution also ought to provide great visual fodder. So while cinematography likely isn”t this film”s most surefire nomination, if it becomes the crafts category behemoth that it has the potential to be, I”d expect a nod.

Also the beneficiary of a nomination for a Best Picture nominee in recent years is Claudio Miranda. Cited four years ago for David Fincher”s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” he teams up this year with Ang Lee for “Life of Pi.” Now, adapting this book to the screen has proven an incredibly different task. And the film seems to have moved people to tears. Cinematography, moreover, is absolutely key if this project is to be realized. Unless something truly goes awry on release, I fully expect Miranda to be among this category”s frontrunners.

Mihai Malaware Jr. offered some exceptional 65mm work in Paul Thomas Anderson”s “The Master.” Virtually everyone has acknowledged how accomplished the photography was, and indeed, the choice of 65mm has been a major talking point. Considering that and the fact that critics awards will surely come into play, it may be difficult to overlook Malaware in the end.

Greig Fraser is another up-and-coming cinematographer. Responsible for “Snow White and the Huntsman” and “Killing Them Softly,” I”d say this Aussie”s best chance lies in Kathryn Bigelow”s “Zero Dark Thirty.” We know surprisingly little about this title, one of few films in that situation at this point in the year. Even so, Bigelow”s last film was nominated here and she’s tackling another gritty military subject with this one.

With “Lincoln,” Janusz Kaminski will be looking to earn his sixth Academy Award nomination, his fifth for a Spielberg film. Having won for “Schindler”s List” and “Saving Private Ryan” and having been nominated for “War Horse,” “Amistad” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” Kaminski is clearly respected among his peers, notwithstanding his falling out with his guild (from which he resigned in 2007). “Lincoln” will presumably include war scenes, certainly a boon in this category. More importantly, I simply expect Kaminski to show off his talents, much like he did with his pastel-like work on “War Horse” last year. While the category is stacked with contenders, I fully expect Kaminski to remain in the conversation until the end.

Wally Pfister has become somewhat of a staple in this category in recent years for his collaborations with Christopher Nolan. After being the sole nominee for “Batman Begins,” he was nominated for “The Prestige,” “The Dark Knight” and “Inception,” winning for the latter. He was probably pretty close to a nod for “Moneyball” last year as well. Nevertheless, I cannot help but wonder if the branch will be content to let someone else have a turn, especially as “The Dark Knight Rises” doesn”t seem to add much visualy to what has been done before in the series.

John Toll seemingly had this category by its tail after back-to-back wins for “Legends of the Fall” and “Braveheart.” After a nomination for The Thin Red Line,” however, he has been absent for more than a decade. On “Cloud Atlas,” he teams up with never-nominated veteran Frank Kriebe. The film is apparently visually extraordinary. It seems the sort of digital-heavy work this branch is likely to shy away from, however, so I”m not banking on a nomination.

I have considerable faith in Ben Affleck”s “Argo” to do fairly well with the Academy. Affleck”s third-straight critical success is also the most Oscar-friendly of his efforts. Rodrigo Prieto, a past nominee for “Brokeback Mountain,” showed us revolutionary Iran in all its chaos, giving us an appropriately gritty feel. A likely nominee? Probably not with so many riches on display in this category. But I”d still consider him.

Joe Wright”s “Anna Karenina” is by all accounts a visual treat. I, unlike many, am skeptical if this will actually be that successful on the Oscar circuit outside of Best Production Design and Best Costume Design. The novel doesn”t naturally lend itself to cinema (though Wright’s vision has leaped that hurdle) and the film seems divisive. Even so, a stylized visual treat with Best Picture potential must be watched closely in this category. Seamus McGarvey was, after all, nominated for “Atonement.”

“The Impossible” features many long, glorious shots of unforgettable footage. Does that mean an Oscar nomination is to follow? Probably not. But Óscar Faura could find himself chalked up alongside Naomi Watts (akin to Roger Pratt for “The End of the Affair”) should the film leave a lump in the throat of many cinematographers. The tsunami, as well as the starkness of devastated Southeast Asia, will make the photography noticeable. There is invariably a first-time nominee in this category and should Malaware fail to score, there seems to be an opening. Fraser and (Ben) Richardson both have strikes against them.

I”ll end with a seemingly unlikely possibility I nonetheless insist should be considered. Roger Deakins has, almost tragically, never won this award despite nine nominations. It”s not that he”s ever lost to a film that had no business winning. But there are at least a half-dozen of his achievements that easily could be considered worthy of triumphs in this category. This year, he”s reunited with Sam Mendes on “Skyfall.” I expect this to be one of the best-reviewed James Bond films ever. That can lead to nominations elsewhere. And Deakins never misses an opportunity to shine. However, there is the fact that it’s a digital production, which could be a mark against.

So there are 14 luscious contenders in this always-loaded category. Who do you see making the cut?