Benjamin Button was not a very good movie. Face that fact, people. But it did look gorgeous. I thought for sure that it would go home with Oscar gold for cinematographer Claudio Miranda.
But then Slumdog Millionaire won the ASC top prize for cinematography, and it became the frontrunner for the Academy Awards. ”Why?” I asked myself. ”What makes this gritty, realistic movie more worthy of an Oscar than the beautifully shot, carefully composed Button?”
So I thought about it again. I did some research, and, after careful consideration, I have to get behind the Academy’s decision.
Given, these kinds of awards are always subjective, but I still think you can make a good case with a lot of solid facts on Slumdog’s side.
In order to understand the cinematography Oscar, though, perhaps it’s pertinent to figure out what we are looking at when we speak of cinematography. It isn’t just lighting. Put simply, cinematography is “the way the film was shot.” This includes everything from the style of the shots to the lenses used to the camerawork, format, and lighting. It’s about the full package and how that package compliments the story of the movie, not just about pretty pictures.
Slumdog, then, really had three big things going for it.
First, the style of shooting is spot-on. Slumdog isn’t an easy movie. You can’t walk on set and say “this is all going to be handheld,” or “let’s keep the camera moving constantly,” or even “lets focus on perfectly composed shots.”
A lesser cinematographer might have looked at the script and said, “okay, it’s all handheld. It’s gritty and in your face.” Instead, Anthony Dod Mantle came at the movie with a more flexible approach. The movie moves between a documentary feel and a classical feel with dolly movements and traditionally composed shots. The true genius, though, lies in knowing when to use what style and why. It comes from blending these styles seamlessly so there are no jarring changes in pace.
Slumdog is a masterwork in this way, shifting from dimly lit rooms to bright, blazing sunlight, from frantic slum chases to quiet emotional scenes on top of buildings. Never once does a shot feel out of place…even when the movie transforms into classic cinema and eventually a full-blown Bollywood number. It was the difficult choice. It was the right choice. And it was the only choice that could communicate both the gritty realism of this world and the fairy-tale nature of its story.
Second, Slumdog achieves something very few movies do. It allows you to truly forget that there is a set, a film crew, and an entire ocean of rigging and equipment involved in each shot. The images are slightly blown out at times, just off what we expect from a big-budget Hollywood film. They don’t feel lit, but they most certainly are, and that is a rare thing.
Action-wise, too, we are allowed to be fully immersed in this world. When our two young brothers are running for their lives through a maze of horrors, the camera movement is planned and careful, but the world feels 100% real, unplanned, and chaotic. To pull this off requires more planning and talent than most moviegoers will ever realize…because when it’s done well, you aren’t thinking about it.
There is one final element that sets Slumdog apart, and that is its choice of formats. The debate rages over whether digital photography can ever replace film. It’s getting close, and digital video is easier to shoot than film, but there is something to be said for the lush look of 35. Digital cinema lets you get shots film never could, though, and also provides a great medium for experimentation.
So Anthony Dod Mantle simply refused to choose between the two. He shot parts of the movie on 35mm film and other parts on high-definition video. The average viewer might never notice the difference, at least consciously. But playing with these two formats once again allows the movie to move between dark, grainy images and perfectly composed classical images. Film grain is used to add a “dirty” feel to parts of the film while other scenes are crystal clear and perfect. All of this is held together with a consistency of lighting that somehow manages to blend these two formats perfectly.
The result of this approach is a film that is strikingly different from the norm. The movie is at once a fairytale, a classic Hollywood love story, a socio-political documentary and a gritty crime film. It’s the cinematography, really, that pulls all these disparate elements together and creates a look and feel that shifts with the changing scenes but holds itself together enough to feel like a single, cohesive movie.
Well, the director has something to do with that, too, I suppose. But Boyle can step out of the spotlight just this once. It’s Anthony Dod Mantle’s time to shine.