Anything Goes In This Year’s Oscar Race

Pete Hammond is Deadline’s awards columnist. This article appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of AwardsLine.

With less than a month to go, the stage is set for one of the strangest Oscar showdowns in memory. Certainly the season started with some clear favorites emerging, like Argo at Telluride, Silver Linings Playbook at Toronto, then Lincoln just after the election, followed by Life Of Pi. I thought Paramount’s Flight also might emerge as a major best picture contender around this time, but when critics awards and early nominations for Globes and CCMAs started coming in, it was clear this was mainly just a play for Denzel Washington and John Gatins’ original screenplay. At Christmas time, we got Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained, and the hotly anticipated Les Misérables to complete our seven-pack of best picture contenders. What many weren’t anticipating was that two small indie films that made a splash earlier in the year were also going to come in. Beasts Of The Southern Wild managed to hold on to all that momentum from its Sundance debut a year ago, and then Amour took Cannes by storm, winning the Palme d’Or and later travelling on the fall film circuit to Telluride and Toronto. That both were able to cash in that early 2012 awards goodwill and still make Oscar’s list was impressive, especially in the face of one of the most competitive and rich races for the ultimate prize in many years.

So what do we have? It’s as free-wheelin’ a race for Oscar as it can possibly be. Usually at this point, there are one or two strong contenders left in the hunt. Not this year. An argument can be made that, depending where the momentum shifts in the next month, it is almost anyone’s race, at least for best picture. But that also extends to some of the acting races (well, maybe not for you, Daniel Day-Lewis and Anne Hathaway) and even director, which has been turned on its head by the directors branch, who went their own way in snubbing DGA nominees Ben Affleck, Kathryn Bigelow, and Tom Hooper in favor of smaller films from Michael Haneke, Benh Zeitlin, and David O. Russell. At the very least, the directors have upended the race and made it a lot more interesting and less conventional. It is entirely conceivable that the guilds, which most closely reflect the Academy’s sensibilities, will further upend the race. In a year when so many movies are top quality and have their own unique constituencies supporting them, a split vote could produce some very nervous moments on Oscar night and some very unexpected results. Could a popular movie like Argo actually emerge as the best picture champ without winning any other Oscars?

It’s possible—not likely, but possible. Will the directing and picture categories split? Possible. Could Argo win DGA, Life Of Pi win best director at the Oscars, and Lincoln take home best picture? Who knows? It is a year where anything, and I mean anything, can happen.

And then there is the question of the earlier nominating period and online voting. The Academy assured me, perhaps because of all the publicity about snafus in the new voting system, that more members voted this time around than ever before. Will that continue through to the finals, especially now that there is a longer period, six weeks instead of four, between nominations and the Oscar show? Will the method of voting continue to be the story and could it affect the outcome in a razor-thin margin race like this one promises to be?

It has indeed been a rollercoaster ride for Oscar in his 85th year, and I have a feeling he’s got a few more surprises in store for us before this is all over.

Cinematographers On Their Awards Season Hopefuls

Thomas J. McLean is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of AwardsLine.

Don’t write that obituary for film just yet. The traditional moviemaking format remains a vital tool for the top cinematographers in the field, even as digital technology improves and offers exciting possibilities for the future.

AwardsLine caught up with the men who shot some of the year’s top contenders to talk about how they shot their current films, working with the top directors in the field, and how to make it all come together in the end.

Taking part in our mock roundtable are Mihai Malaimare Jr., who used large-format 65mm film to shoot the majority of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master; Claudio Miranda, who shot the sole digital and 3D picture of this bunch, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi; Wally Pfister, who mixed IMAX and 35mm in wrapping up Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy on The Dark Knight Rises; Rodrigo Prieto, who stitched together multiple formats for Ben Affleck’s Argo; Ben Richardson, who relied on 16mm to capture the Beasts of the Southern Wild for Benh Zeitlin; and Robert Richardson, who reunited with filmophile Quentin Tarantino for Django Unchained.

Rodrigo Prieto stitched together multiple formats to create the look of Argo.
Rodrigo Prieto stitched together multiple formats to create the look of Argo.

AWARDSLINE: How did you go about choosing cameras and formats for your current projects?

RODRIGO PRIETO: We wanted to differentiate the different segments of the film. We were going to intercut and wanted as soon as you saw an image, say, in Tehran that you would know that’s where you are just by the texture of the image, especially because we were shooting in very different locations.

MIHAI MALAIMARE JR.: From the first meeting we had, we were discussing using a larger format for The Master. The reason is when you think about iconic images from that period, like from the ’30s and right after World War II, you are mainly thinking of large-format still photography. We started with VistaVision, but because the difference wasn’t that big from 35mm to VistaVision, we switched to the next bigger format which was 65mm, and that was giving us kind of the feeling that we wanted.

CLAUDIO MIRANDA: Ang (Lee) was really interested in 3D. He said, “I’ve been really interested in 3D for almost 10 years now. Even before Avatar, I really wanted to see how to bring a new language to cinema.” It had to be digital, because with 3D it had to be really precise.

WALLY PFISTER: Chris (Nolan) sat back and said, “Here’s the deal: This film will stand on its own, but we are wrapping up a trilogy.” We had discussions early on about shooting in IMAX, and I said, “Dude, we should shoot the whole movie in IMAX.” But we pushed up against the limitations of IMAX, which is you can’t record synched sound with an IMAX camera—they’re just too noisy.

BEN RICHARDSON: We instinctively knew that the only viable way for our budget and to get the kind of imagery we wanted was to go to 16mm. The great thing about a 16mm camera, obviously, is that as long as you have a couple batteries and a roll of film and a changing tent, you can keep shooting.

Wally Pfister mixed IMAX and 35mm for Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises.
Wally Pfister mixed IMAX and 35mm for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises.

AWARDSLINE: Was it a challenge to make different formats work as a cohesive whole when cut together?

PFISTER: We go through a bit of analysis for what makes sense for that story. The obvious reason for shooting IMAX is because you want to put something spectacular on the screen that’s going to have a visceral impact on the audience. In other circumstances, Chris wants the camera to have a more of a looser, documentary feel. So you use different tools and different formats and different methods to convey the story in different ways.

PRIETO: Once we started testing all these different things, I projected them next to each other, and we saw that the looks were apparent and were visible, but we didn’t feel it was jarring, given that it was all the same aspect ratio. Also, the story has this drive to it that helps it all come together.

AWARDSLINE: How important is having an established relationship with a director versus working with someone you’ve not worked with before?

ROBERT RICHARDSON: I think having an established relationship with a director is unbeatable. The shorthand that comes from a relationship that is longstanding, especially when both sides of the party are respectful of each other, is a tremendous benefit. I’m not opposed to working with a new director, but you do have to approach it differently because you don’t know each other yet. You tend to be a little more cautious.

MIRANDA: You definitely have to figure out where directors will let you go or not let you go, and it’s all about establishing that kind of communication. With Ang, we just talked back and forth about how we feel about lighting, and he let me go a lot.

BEN RICHARDSON: Working with a director I maybe knew less well, we might have had to cover a lot of ground to find the common ground. But I think we had a fairly solid understanding of each other’s wishes off the bat, so our daily conversations in terms of shot lists and shot planning were very much in the realm of an established aesthetic that we both understood.

Robert Richardson on the set of Django Unchained.
Robert Richardson on the set of Django Unchained.

AWARDSLINE: How did you approach environment and character on your film? Did you see them as separate elements or two parts of a whole?

PRIETO: On Argo, the environment plays a very important role because every situation the characters are in is based on where they are. These environments really affect the characters’ behavior and their emotional states very much in this film. I really tried to support and enhance the sense of this environment and how it’s affecting them.

BEN RICHARDSON: In terms of the environments, we didn’t so much storyboard as follow a shot list. We would go in with a sense of what we needed to achieve, but we would primarily allow the locations and the environments we found to dictate the way certain scenes could feel or could behave.

AWARDSLINE: Give one example or scene that demonstrates how cinematography was used to tell the story.

MIRANDA: I feel like the golden light is kind of a serene moment. He’s throwing this can in the air, and just the way it was captured—we shot it as a very wide shot—and he realizes that in the large ocean this is a really futile idea, and he gets really reflective. He has a little peek at the tiger, and they have a little eye connect. I feel like that was a pretty cinematic moment.

PRIETO: The one that came to my mind is when the houseguests are at the bazaar. I think the cinematography there was using the light to express this feeling of vulnerability, of being scared, and they’re overexposed—the light was several stops overexposed.

AWARDSLINE: With so many digital environments used in movies today, how do you collaborate with the digital artists who are doing everything from effects and environments to color grading?

BEN RICHARDSON: If we had been able to, we might have gone as far as trying to find a way to do a photochemical finish. So it was very important to me that that sort of photochemical feel be preserved all the way through, and I worked very closely with our DI (digital intermediary) house to do a workflow that basically emulated the way you did a traditional answer print. In regards to the visual effects, I had been a key part from the beginning in terms of figuring out how we were going to do those scenes with the beasts. I was very much in touch with Benh (Zeitlin) and the visual effects supervisor as we worked on that stuff because to me that really was the fantasy high point of the film.

PFISTER: As cinematographers, we light in a very—at least I do—visceral, gut kind of fashion, like I’m throwing paints on a canvas. The visual effects guys, they analyze lighting, and they try to re-create it, so it’s much more of a technical process for them, but they’re really starting to understand it now. Their work has gotten better and better, so for me it’s just looking at the end and commenting on whether it’s matching or not.

MIRANDA: I stayed involved in the DI. Bill Westenhofer, who did the visual effects, was there. Even the editor was there, and he was very involved in the 3D because he had made a lot of choices in the Avid for 3D placement and staging and correcting.

AWARDSLINE: What makes your job easier? What makes it harder?

ROBERT RICHARDSON: The most difficult thing would be to have a script that hasn’t yet solidified. To work with something that is in fluctuation continually can be a horror show.

PFISTER: What makes my job easy is working hard. The hardest part of the job is really if people around you are not working as hard as they should be.

AWARDSLINE: What is the most exciting development in the field? What has you most excited about the future of cinematography?

ROBERT RICHARDSON: I’m excited by the movement toward digital cinematography. I think it’s opening up opportunities for a re-evaluation of lighting, and I don’t mean in the sense that it looks like a reality show, but you can work at lower levels.

MALAIMARE JR.: I think this is a really interesting moment because you can still shoot on film for projects that you think will work on the format or you can shoot digital. What’s even more interesting is the fact that you can find really cheap digital cameras—that doesn’t necessarily help the cinematography, but it helps the audience because they are going through a self-training process. The audience is getting more aware of what capturing or creating an image can be and, of course, they have higher expectations because of that.

Behind The Scenes On Life Of Pi

Paul Brownfield is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of AwardsLine.

The tank could hold some 1.7 million gallons of water, and it made waves you could surf on, says Suraj Sharma, the 17-year-old star who spent long hours in this fabricated ocean. The motion of the water could be programmed to affect the turbulence of troubled seas or a sudden calm, the swells only lapping at the makeshift raft on which sits a boy adrift in the middle of the Atlantic. He is alone with his thoughts—but not strictly alone, because the lifeboat to which his raft is attached is occupied by a Bengal tiger.

“I’ve never seen water done well in a movie, and I’m doing 3D. Water is the main show,” says director Ang Lee, discussing the challenges of adapting Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi on open waters.

A boy loses his family in a violent shipwreck in Life of Pi.
A boy loses his family in a violent shipwreck in Life of Pi.

To hear Lee talk about the torque machines and energy-dissolving technology that enabled him to choreograph the motion and shape of the waves is to begin to understand what he means when he says the ocean, in the story, represents “the visualization of Pi’s internal feelings.”

“To shoot in water,” Lee says, “either you go through suffering the ocean, and not much gets done, or you create something like a bathtub,” with the water bouncing back and forth through the frame.

Lee, an Academy Award winner for Brokeback Mountain, wanted neither of these things. He wanted an actual physical environment in which to portray an experience that ventures into magical realism.

Thematically, Life of Pi is a story that asks its readers to consider what is illusory and what is real—and whether a fine distinction matters. It is part picaresque narrative, part allegory. “We view the whole thing as a film about stories and storytelling. How stories get us through life,” says screenwriter David Magee.

But movie magic had to do some evolving before Life of Pi could hit theaters. Lee’s film follows a curious and adventuresome teenage boy, nicknamed Pi, whose family owns a zoo in Pondicherry, India, where the many exotic creatures include a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

From these idyllic beginnings, the story soon turns apocryphal if not Biblical: When the family decides to leave India and relocate the zoo to Canada, they all set sail on a cargo ship that capsizes in the middle of the Atlantic. The sole survivors are Pi and four animals, huddled on a lifeboat—a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and the tiger. Soon enough (see under: Darwin, Charles) the allegorical framework is made apparent: Man and beast must learn to coexist in a horizonless expanse otherwise known as the middle of the ocean.

Richard Parker, the Bengal (and digital) tiger with whom Pi shares his lifeboat.
Richard Parker, the Bengal (and digital) tiger with whom Pi shares his lifeboat.

In the book, as in the film, the story is told from the point of view of the adult Pi, now living in Canada. As played by Irrfan Khan, the adult Pi retells his spiritual, emotional, and physical coming-of-age quest to a writer who while traveling in India has heard of the story secondhand.

Lee, even after completing the film, concedes that “it’s very hard to articulate what it’s about.” He calls it a “provocation for your imagination,” which is necessarily elliptical, given that the essential logline is that the story revolves around a tiger and a boy learning to coexist in the middle of the Atlantic.

Producer Gil Netter says the novel had already been passed on by every major studio, including Fox, when Fox 2000 president Elizabeth Gabler signed on to the project in 2002. The consensus had been that it was too difficult to realize as a movie. Netter optioned the book with screenwriter Dean Georgaris (the idea being that Georgaris might adapt it)). Netter says he and Georgaris pitched Gabler on Pi’s transcendent themes.

The book was already selling itself as a literary sensation, winner of the Mann Booker Prize, which didn’t much solve the problem of just how to make it into a movie. The challenge perennially boiled down to three words: Boy. Tiger. Ocean. Along the way, other words and phrases would arise, like “recession” and “no star potential,” neither of which dissuaded Netter, the producer of such films as The Blind Side, Marley & Me, and Water for Elephants. All of those movies are often called “heartwarming” or “uplifting” or “family-oriented.” Netter saw the same potential for Life of Pi. In the end, he also credited “the dogged enthusiasm and determination” of Gabler and 20th Century Fox executive vp Victoria Rossellini.

Some of the directors who attached themselves to the project went further than others. M. Night Shyamalan signed on initially to write and direct, and years later Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men) circled the film, but no one before Lee got as far as Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the distinctive French director of such films as Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children.

Jeunet completed a script, which Netter says was more of a fairy-tale interpretation. “He wanted to shoot on the ocean, with live animals,” Netter explains, speaking with a wry delight. “To say that the studio was a little nervous is an understatement.”

Existential themes permeate Life of Pi.
Existential themes permeate Life of Pi.

By 2008, seven years after the book’s film rights had first been optioned, Lee was immersed in flower power and hippiedom as he readied his 2009 film Taking Woodstock. Around that time, Lee says, he got a call about Life of Pi from Tom Rothman, then cochairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment.

“He said, ‘It’s a family movie,’ ” Lee recalls of their initial conversation. “I said, ‘What do you mean, family movie?’

“In a strange way, it’s like the book,” Lee continues. “Yann Martel told me he thought he wrote a philosophical book for adults. He didn’t know why teenagers connect to it. It looks like they might with the movie, too.”

Lee was in postproduction on Taking Woodstock, when Fox came back to him to direct Life of Pi. Admittedly, Lee says, the book haunted him, and the question of “how do you crack this thing?” began to take hold of his imagination, particularly the prospect of telling a story as a 3D experience. As Lee puts it, the question was, “How do you examine illusion within illusion? We all know movies are based on illusions—the image, this emotional ride. How do you do that while you’re examining the power of storytelling?

“I thought of 3D maybe adding another dimension,” Lee continues. “What doesn’t make sense could make sense. And I thought of the older Pi telling stories and having the first person going through the story while the third person (is) examining it, but they’re the same person.”

This was months before James Cameron’s Avatar hit the theaters and promptly advanced the cause of 3D beyond movie gimmickry and into the realm of storytelling art. “It’s very daunting,” Lee says of shooting 3D. “You cannot trust anything people tell you, because it could be wrong, because it’s so new. And the audience hasn’t had a relationship with it yet.”

According to producer Netter, “Fox was challenging us all to figure out how to make this a four-quadrant international family movie. In order for that to have a chance at working, it’s got to feel like an event. So in the discussions to figure out how to event-ize it came the 3D discussion, and then Ang was smart enough to come up with a philosophy of how he could approach doing that.”

Netter jokes that he referred to one particular room on the set of Life of Pi as the Beautiful Mind room—it was where Lee had meticulously diagrammed “completely from top to bottom, all the way around the room every single detail of fact that needed to be known,” Netter says, down to the changing pallor of Pi’s skin as he endures a life at sea and the gradual aging of the oars.

The Taiwanese-born Lee had not shot in his home country since making his 1994 film Eat Drink Man Woman. The Life of Pi production was based in an abandoned regional airport in Taichung, which was converted into soundstages with an international crew of 150, some of whom enrolled their kids in schools in Taiwan during the year they were making the movie.

“Last time I tried to bring the American independent way, like New York independent filmmaking, back to Taiwan,” says Lee, juxtaposing his location shoots 20 years ago for Eat Drink Man Woman with the mini-studio he created for Life of Pi. “I was there alone. I just tried to bring the method there. This time I brought Hollywood.”

Composer Mychael Danna Discusses Scoring Life Of Pi

David Mermelstein is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Nov. 28 issue of AwardsLine.

For Life of Pi, his third collaboration with director Ang Lee, composer Mychael Danna incorporated the sounds of Asia—especially India—into a multicultural stew of a score. Along with a full studio orchestra, accordion, piano, celesta, and mandolin, Danna added Balinese gamelan, Persian ney, basuri (an Indian transverse flute), Indian percussion, and, of course, the sitar. Plus, the venerable Pandit Jasraj (still going strong at 82) contributed vocals.

Composer Mychael Danna's biggest challenge was scoring a vfx-heavy film before many of the major sequences were completed.
Composer Mychael Danna’s biggest challenge was scoring a vfx-heavy film before many of the major sequences were completed.

“Pi is a 21st-century citizen; he belongs nowhere and everywhere,” says Danna of the lead character in the film, based on an acclaimed novel that blends adventure and spirituality. “It’s set in India but in a French colonial town. So we have accordions and mandolins playing Indian melodies and sitars playing French melodies. We also have an English boys’ choir singing Sanskrit and a Tibetan chorus singing in Latin. The goal was to carefully—and, hopefully, artfully—blend every culture that Pi comes across and then makes part of his own essence.”

Combining the tale’s fantasy elements with its more profound truths didn’t come easy. “Most of the film depicts Pi as a young boy or young man,” Danna says, “and for the music to connect to him, we needed that sense of boyish wonder, that sense of awe and youth to the sonorities. My first drafts didn’t have that.”

Complicating matters for the composer was the film’s great reliance on CGI. “It technically makes it much more difficult to score,” Danna explains, “because those elements don’t come in until the very end of the process. So for a lot of things, I had to rely on Ang’s descriptions. I’d be working with storyboard or crude versions of a scene. There’s an extra layer of removal from what you’re scoring when you work like that. I think it worked out fine, but it was a bit scary.”

The biggest challenge came in the “Storm of God” scene, in which Pi and a tiger named Richard Parker lose the raft of supplies roped to their rowboat. “It’s a very complicated scene in the sense that the CGI was crude when I wrote the music. The score has to get harsh and big—this concept was very important to Ang—because the God of the storm is the real true God, and that God has no personal connection to Pi, no compassion for him. He’s a God far removed from puny human endeavors—as opposed to the gods Pi knew as a child, the mythological Indian gods. And Ang wanted a big transfer here, a shift to awesome and frightening and powerful and overwhelming That’s a shift in color and theme, and it had to be anchored in other places in the score where Pi comes to know God with a big ‘G.’ And we wanted to do this on a very big scale, with big orchestra and big choir, because Pi kind of has a Job-like moment, and God smashes him with the back of his hand into the water and crushes him. That scope was very challenging to do. It’s the biggest group of musicians we used, with a large percussion section and choir. It was very wild, with everyone playing with abandon and a great deal of power and passion.”

To get there, Danna worked closely with Lee. “He’s very involved,” the composer says. “It’s a true collaboration. We did a lot of talking about the best role for the music before shooting, but when we saw the film, we shifted our ideas of what the music should be doing. It’s a film about big questions, and it seemed that the music had to acknowledge that. But underlying it had to be a kind of simplicity and a line that helps join everything together from beginning to end and emotionally guides us through Pi’s life. That’s something we worked on very carefully, music as a compassionate guide. And we wanted to show that compassion to both Pi and the viewer.”