If you missed yesterday's lead-in to this year's shots column, go catch up. In it you'll find my somewhat unique criteria and reasoning for choosing this year's assortment.
Before diving into part two today, some thoughts on the year in cinematography on the whole. It's worth remembering that, often enough, a great year of cinematography won't yield a high volume of still images that speak to the purposes of a column such as this. Just as often, a poor year for the form might actually yield an incredible array of inspired frames. We're boiling down to the base elements of cinema here, and the combination always turns out something unique each and every year.
This year, I think, is an example of both great photography on the whole and a nice array of single images to represent them. I thought the best photography of the year came from Roger Deakins on “Skyfall,” mentioned yesterday. But I was also blown away by what Greig Fraser was able to capture in “Zero Dark Thirty,” particularly in the film's final sequence.
The other CIA thriller of the 2012 awards season, “Argo,” was a great example of work from Rodrigo Prieto, utilizing everything from Super-8 to 16 mm to digital, two-perf and four-perf 35mm and overall just an underrated accomplishment. Janusz Kaminski, meanwhile, offered up some gorgeous, painterly work on “Lincoln” that would be near the top of my ballot (yet I could never settle on an image for this list). And a real unsung piece of work this year came from Peter Sorg on “Frankenweenie,” immaculately lighting Tim Burton's practical stop-motion vision. If only such an accomplishment could find room for reward.
I wasn't as impressed with Wally Pfister's work on “The Dark Knight Rises” as I have been by his accomplishments on other Christopher Nolan efforts, but the IMAX feat has to be mentioned. The 65mm work on “The Master,” speaking of epic imagery, was pretty stunning, too, as was the work of every DP mentioned on the list this year. It's just been a great season for imagery and craft.
So let's see what came out on top when boiling things down, frame by frame…
“LIFE OF PI”
Director of Photography: Claudio Miranda
“We shot that in like a 30-foot-deep tank and we kind of had it all mapped out where everything was going to be and I think that shot, which I think is really special, worked according to plan. He was silhouetted against the sinking ship, which I think looks really beautiful. And Ang [Lee] wanted to have sort of a 3D moment of having him kind of float out into the audience a little bit. The ship was all blue screen but all the lights and stuff were in there. I was trying to replicate the ship's sinking lights so it's all sorts of small little lights and they kind of descend and slightly flicker out as it goes on. I love that shot.”
– Claudio Miranda
This year's frontrunner to win the Best Cinematography Oscar is Claudio Miranda for the watercolor touches and 3D wizardry of Ang Lee's “Life of Pi.” And it's a film with no shortage of beautiful, potent images. One in particular caught my attention immediately when I first saw the film at the New York Film Festival and has taken my breath away every time I've seen it since.
As the eponymous Pi struggles in the torrential currents of the Pacific after abandoning not just the massive sinking vessel that was carrying him to a new life in Canada, but the tiny lifeboat that has been claimed by the film's Bengal tiger star Richard Parker, he paddles beneath the surface of the water to avoid an epic crashing wave. As he struggles underwater, the camera moving with him throughout, he pauses in suspended animation, silhouetted against the sinking ship taking his entire life down to the depths. It's an arresting image full of profound, unshakable loss.
Director of Photography: Mihai Malaimare Jr.
“A lot of times I'm asked about the shots on the boat but very few people ask about the shot in the prison, so that's a pleasant surprise. We scouted that location a few times and weren't sure we'd end up using it. One of the reasons was it's basically a museum. But it was an interesting location and it gave a lot just from how the cells were. We were discussing a shot like that from the first time we scouted it. But nobody, not even Joaquin, knew he would end up breaking the toilet, which was a piece of the museum! They had a hard time replacing it but it just happened and that was the take pretty much.”
– Mihai Malaimare Jr.
One of the stories in cinematography this year was celluloid's grip on relevance by going big. Wally Pfister, as mentioned, pushed IMAX to new heights. Meanwhile, Paul Thomas Anderson insisted on 65mm for his production of “The Master,” shot by Mihai Malaimare Jr. The idea first came up to use it here and there, the high density image revealing so much clarity. Soon it was used throughout, and for a filmmaker with a vision like Anderson, it makes the already potent imagery pop even more.
The shot that seals the film's thematic ideas, though, was the obvious choice for me. It's almost a split screen motif, Lancaster Dodd and Freddy Quell tossed into a jail cell for unruly behavior. And as the scene plays out, the film's idea of a man split in two comes forth, Joaquin Phoenix raging on one side, Philip Seymour Hoffman cool and collected on the other. Nothing else so clearly illustrates the nature versus composure construct the film is so interested in quite as well.
Director of Photography: Robert D. Yeoman
“When Wes first described this shot we all knew that it would be a challenge to pull off. As the introduction to the scout regional hullabaloo, he wanted to incorporate as much about scouting life as possible into this single shot…We walked the field several times while reading the script so we could determine the length of the fence. We knew that the fence in the foreground would not only give a sense of where the actors were, but would also be a great visual as it quickly moves along at the bottom of the frame. It was a bit of a challenge to keep all of the actors in the frame so they literally walked in each others' footsteps, as close to each other as possible. With so many separate elements it was difficult to coordinate everything, but obviously in the end it worked out beautifully.”
– Robert D. Yeoman
One of my favorite films of the year was Wes Anderson's “Moonrise Kingdom,” and a big part of that was the fact that, finally, his penchant for artifice was reconciled with personal emotion for me. I realize that has happened just as well for other viewers with his previous films, but it never fully clicked as well as it did here. And the photography from Robert Yeoman was criminally ignored most of the season.
There was always a shot from the film that stuck out for me, and it wasn't particularly deep in a thematic sense, but it wasn't so empty as to be merely a stunt, either. It was a wonderfully choreographed tracking shot full of movement in the frame laying out a setting with ease, with this added element of a fence moving along the bottom like the teeth of a saw. It was just dazzling to me and so giving in that it showcased all of the design elements of Anderson's film, the costumes and the sets getting perhaps their biggest moment.
Director of Photography: Seamus McGarvey
“Joe loves playing with time, but in a similar way, he likes for a shot — in one take — to be both subjective and objective. We see Anna and Vronsky move onto the dance floor and sort of activate these dancers with their passion, so there's already a metaphor at work. Then it goes from the real gradually into a more psychological sort of space, when he lifts her up and the camera swirls around her. At that moment there was an almighty stampede behind the camera and underneath the camera as all the extras had to kind of evacuate the auditorium really in the space of five or six seconds! But it's an exciting technique to explore, because when you have that symbiosis between your actors and the camera, you can create another layer of dynamism. It's a cinematic, sort of architectural travel. And that's always the goal. It's not to make a peacock of a shot.”
– Seamus McGarvey
Seamus McGarvey has been here before. Recall a centerpiece steadicam shot from 2007's “Atonement,” moving through the beach at Dunkirk and all the production coordination that went into it. Yet in that introductory year of this column, I resisted the temptation to choose it and instead went with something more modest, but just as powerful. This year, though, I couldn't resist the big moment of “Anna Karenina,” and McGarvey's quote above does a nice job of summing up why.
The shot itself is a feat of choreography, of course. But what it says thematically is key. So much of the film, particularly the cinematography, is exciting and a true testament to artistry this year. There are some days I think it should have found a place on my top 10 list, and certainly, it nearly did. But director Joe Wright is an exciting talent because he is so involved with what the images of his films actually mean. And by the way, a big hand to steadicam operator Peter Robertson, who was holding and guiding the camera on both this shot and the big shot from “Atonement.”
Director of Photography: Danny Cohen
“One of the things Tom was trying to do was give the audience an experience in tact, which was the reason to do a lot of long takes and not cut into them. You are limited by a frame and where you put a face in the frame is important because it tells more of the story. If you're not conscious of where you're putting the actor and the reason, I think you're missing a trick. One of the things we looked at was 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' by Carl Dreyer, and it's just an amazing film about faces. The only thing you don't get when you see the stage musical is, in your brain, you can't cut to a close-up. The one thing film as a medium can do is cut to the close-up. As soon as you get a face in the frame and you place it in an interesting place in the frame, the rawness just kind of jumps out of the screen.”
– Danny Cohen
I can kind of hear the groans but I really don't care. It's humorous to me that the oft-criticized cinematography of Tom Hooper's “Les Misérables” ended up topping this list, and that I couldn't personally argue with myself on the choice anyway. From the moment I saw the film, this single take of Anne Hathaway performing the showstopper “I Dreamed a Dream” struck me in a profound way. Dismiss the technique of using a great many close-ups in the film if you must, but this one proved the production was on to something, and in all likelihood, it's the single shot that will land Hathaway an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
That's the point of this column. To get at the most powerful shots of the year. And what's more powerful than that? Plenty is owed to the performance, of course. Plenty is owed to the song. But the decision to do it this way was brave and could have been a disaster, particularly with the added high wire of live singing, and all involved pulled it off perfectly. It is, in so many words, the best shot of 2012. And it will be remembered for many years to come. It will become one of the identifying images in all of film. It will never go away.
And there we have it. My take on the best shots of the year. But let's turn it over to the readership. What were some exceptional images for 2012 in your book? Have your say in the comments section below!