Movies That Have Won An Academy Award For Best Cinematography
What does it take to earn an Academy Award for cinematography skills? Well, we will learn from some of the best-shot films in the industry to date, covering factors such as camera placement, lighting, and the saturation of scenes and environments!
All Quiet On The Western Front
War films are quite notable for their drama and filming practices and All Quiet On The Western Front, a film released in 2022 based on the first world war, is no exception to this, winning the Oscar for best cinematography in 2023! When you think about war, you probably think of powerful weapons of destruction and the chaos that each side causes to anything in their paths; this film perfectly portrays this power with camera angles showing, for example, a shot of the vast battered battlefield and close-ups of soldiers running to and from the enemy and being killed. This emphasises how dangerous major conflicts can be, which is exactly what many critics expect from war films.
The lighting also provides a lot of drama to earn the film an Oscar for the best cinematography of the year. This is shown with the darkness of some scenes, which gives that extra bit of drama and horror to an already frightening series of events; we could only imagine the terrible effects that the war had on these soldiers with this environment that the film portrays with its cinematography.
The last part of this film’s standard of cinematography is saturation. In a lot of All Quiet On The Western Front, the saturation is pretty low, which adds to the feeling that there is a colossal lack or loss of life on the battlefield, which is seeping into the environment and affecting the mood of the soldiers and eventually the audience watching the film.
Much like the previously discussed war film, The Revenant, an action-adventure film released in 2015, makes good use of camera angles to portray the difficulties that Hugh Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, faces when surviving in the middle of nowhere that is South Dakota in the 1820s, but also the beauty of the nature that surrounds him. This is done by placing the camera to show wide shots showing the remote and vast environment that Glass is stranded in. However, in more tense or dramatic moments, the camera is moved closer to the characters or in tight spaces, such as in the forests of Dakota, which could show the importance of the scene to a drama film.
Lighting is also an important factor in this film and its setting, which is also done very well to add to the factors that earnt this film an Academy Award for its high calibre of cinematography at the 2016 Academy Awards. To make this film that bit more dramatic, the scenes are mainly shot in darker environments, which could show how lonely the people that inhabit rural South Dakota were and how little civilisation had advanced in the film’s location, much like the Dark Ages of Europe where little progression was made. This could also make the film more horrifying to some people as they may have a fear of the dark, which would boost the effects on the audience due to the techniques used by the cinematographers!
Saturation also helped with winning the Academy Award for cinematography due to how it sets the mood of the characters and the conditions of the environment. This is done by downgrading the film’s colour to being almost greyscaled with the lack of vibrant colours, which highlights Dakota is cold and how little human life inhabits the remote location.
How did Avatar, a film released in 2009, earn the cinematography award at the 2010 Oscars? Well, like the previous film that was discussed, camera angles are a key factor in the quality of shooting scenes. In several scenes, the size and beauty of the alien planet, Pandora, is emphasised with the camera being placed far away from any of the characters, with the focus being placed on nature. This may also provide an important message to the audience and tell them about how nature should be preserved, which is also a part of the film’s plot, where the destructive human race declares war against the peaceful Na’vi alien race in a special mission. These wide shots also provide the size, tension, and destruction of the combat that the humans desire against the Na’vi on their own natural planet and settlements.
Saturation is also something I would like to point out when discussing its impact on the quality of the entire film and not just the cinematography aspect from behind the scenes. This is because the message that this film gives is made clear by the lack of saturation when the scene is set at the human military base, showing how there is a lack of life and pride in what they are doing, whereas this is the opposite when the scene is located in the natural and quiet environments of Pandora. However, when the humans enter and interrupt the peace of the alien planet’s nature, this lack of saturation seeps in, to an extent, to show how there will be a loss of life due to the presence of humans with their equipment made for destruction.
Saving Private Ryan
Saving Private Ryan, released in 1998, is another legendary film with a great standard for cinematography, earning it the Academy Award for this in 1999. Yet again, camera placement and angles made the film such a great example of the quality of camera work in war films, which is made clear by showing the huge amount of distress caused in events such as the D-Day Landing on Omaha Beach, getting close up to soldiers being injured and panning across the battlefield where people are losing their lives everywhere you look. Another example of this would be when one soldier is found cowering on the stairs mid-way through carrying ammo to another soldier in his platoon. The camera angles used in this scene show how low the cowering soldier is compared to others, in the sense of physical, mental, and emotional strength.
In the Omaha Beach scene, the camera work also affected parts of the audience that experienced the actual event, which is mentioned in a comment made on YouTube which says “Back when this movie was still in cinemas, my father and uncle went and saw it together. After the movie finished, my uncle went to the bathroom and found an old man in there sobbing. Turns out he was a war veteran, and that he’d been there on that beach.” The fact this happened in a scene where the cinematography highlights the violence of war the most, shows how worthy this film truly is to earn an Oscar.
A lot of this film uses bright lighting, especially in scenes that are located in the dangerous outdoors. This lighting gives the impression that the soldiers are open to the elements and vulnerable to any attacks coming their way since brighter environments open up the surroundings and allow people to see easier.
Saturation also makes for a better war film because it highlights what is going on in certain scenes. In parts of the movie where combat is the main focus, less colour is used in the environment but rather focuses on the red of blood, the orange and yellow of fire and explosions, and the green of soldier uniforms. This truly emphasises the seriously violent aspects of war and how there is a large loss of life to the audience, which would probably relate to the story that the YouTube comment told about the Omaha Beach scene and its gut-wrenching effects on the war veteran. However, in scenes with less violence, the saturation is brought back to the entire scene, showing that there is more life in the environment and the soldiers are at peace.
Titanic, a film released in 1997 that is based on the real disaster of RMS Titanic in 1912, won the cinematography award at the 1998 Academy Awards. At the beginning of the film, before the ‘unsinkable’ ship hits the iceberg, camera angles and movements are elegant and focused, showing how enjoyable it was to be aboard the Titanic and how pretty the design is, both inside and out. However, this is a significant contrast to after the ship hits the iceberg and starts to sink, where the camera becomes much quicker and unfocused to show the distress that the people are in to escape. Near the end, the camera cuts to a shot of the Titanic tipping up in the middle of the lonely ocean, which looks terrifying when you consider the masses of people still stuck on the ship.
Another part of the filming that contrasts before and after the Titanic hits the iceberg is the lighting. This contrast, where the ship is bright and clear before sinking and dark near the end of sinking, shows how much of a difference hitting a large object can do to such a hyped way of travelling across the Atlantic Ocean and how dangerously cold it was on the outside when the ship sinks, which led to the inevitable death of hundreds of people if they did not drown with the Titanic.
This is frightening! Considering I think this, the film deserves its Oscar for cinematography because of how much it dramatises and makes the audience aware of what is going on in the disaster.
The main focus of cinematography in Schindler’s List, which was released in 1993, and won the cinematography award at the Oscars in 1994, is the fact the colour in this film is almost non-existent. Why? Well, when the film was being produced, Spielberg wanted the film to be black and white because the film was based on the deadly events of the Holocaust by the Nazis, and being in black and white would seem accurate to the extreme loss of life as the colour would make the film seem unserious.
However, when the film turns to the present day, colour returns as people are finally living in peace As the film turns from black and white into colour, the camera also gives a shot of the huge numbers of people saved by Oskar Schindler walking towards it, which just shows how much of a saviour and a hero Schindler was for them. This leaves a good ending to a terrifying event, which is exactly what anyone would want!
When you consider all of the techniques that these films used alongside their plots, they all deserve their Oscars for the best cinematography of the years they were released, making dramatic moments more emphasised with saturation and camera placement and audiences more aware of the lives lost in war with saturation. Thank you for reading today!
Written by Mark Murphy Director