By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times
8:00 AM CST, December 18, 2012
With nine Oscar nominations and more than 60 movies under his belt, Roger Deakins thought he had seen it all. But even the 63-year-old cinematographer, who directed this year's James Bond blockbuster, "Skyfall," was surprised when he learned of a new system that could be used for his film.
"The lights on several sets around the world could be dimmed from one place," Deakins said in an interview, sounding slightly incredulous. "Not just from one place. From one iPhone."
Such massive leaps in technology — along with a more adventurous visual pop-culture and experiment-minded directors — have led to many cinematographers creating some of the boldest work of their careers this season.
Deakins' acclaimed "Skyfall," which, in addition to 21st century lighting also used remote-controlled helicopters and other 007-like toys during filming, is just one example. Steven Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski, previously known more for epic-scaled filmmaking à la "Jurassic Park" and "Saving Private Ryan," has with "Lincoln" made an intimate movie featuring ample shadows and tight interiors.
The digital guru behind the techno-look of "Tron: Legacy," Claudio Miranda, got behind the camera for Oscar winner Ang Lee to create scarily natural looking digital animals and breathtaking open-ocean scenes in "Life of Pi." Jeff Cronenweth, best known for the seamy "Fight Club," created a golden-era Hollywood in "Hitchcock."
And Greig Fraser, who a few years ago was making obscure independent films, shot some of the most acclaimed war footage in decades for "Zero Dark Thirty."
"I think there's new life being breathed into our craft," Fraser said. "Three or four years ago, I would have said, 'Roger Deakins shooting a James Bond movie? No way.'" (Deakins, incidentally, agrees.) "The rest of us," Fraser added, "are also trying to cross boundaries."
Cinematographers are the unsung heroes of the film world. Directors of photography, as they're sometimes called, are responsible for the visual language of a film much as a screenwriter is responsible for the spoken language. And this year, their work seems to shine more boldly than ever.
They point to several factors for the renaissance. The advent of digital technology has certainly played a role. (There are technical advancements, but shooting digital is also a lot cheaper, enabling directors to take risks. In a different era, they burned through a film's budget every time they tried something experimental. Now they can just delete anything that doesn't work.)
They're also keen to new challenges, getting away from their old looks, much the way established directors are.
But the biggest change may lie outside their realms.
"I think audiences are much more open to diverse material," Deakins said. "I remember shooting 'The Hudsucker Proxy' 20 years ago and some people saying it was a little far out. Now I think the level of visual information we receive means people are less willing to watch the same old, same old."
If mise-en-scène is edgier than it once was, DPs say they still want to make sure their switched-up looks serve a film's story. With "Lincoln," for instance, Kaminski decided to go dark because the material called for it.
"With some period movies, it's about bright colors and costumes, but we wanted to make this a little darker, because it's about words and ideas," he said. "And if you make it too bright, people don't pay attention to those ideas."
But the changes don't always go smoothly. Lee was initially resistant to some of the 3-D techniques he thought he'd need for "Pi." "Ang saw this one 3-D movie and it was horrible, really strobe-y," Miranda said. "But we worked together to discover not just what we wanted to do but what we didn't want to do."
But even given all the striking images they create, cinematographers prefer to stay out of sight.
"I get my buzz going telling a story visually," Deakins said when asked if he thought his profession merited more attention. "I don't want to be a part of the hoopla. I just want to get on the next set and get on with it."