Defining Cinematography

Sandra Bullock in Gravity

When Gravity took home awards for both cinematography (to Emmanuel Lubezki) and visual effects (to Timothy Webber, Chris Lawrence David Shirk and Neil Corbould) at the Oscars this past weekend, it got me thinking about the relationship between these two intertwined art forms. One can’t do most (though soon I would modify that to some) effects work without a camera, and, increasingly, one can’t shoot a film without the help of a skilled effects team. Are cinematography and visual effects actually that separate anymore?

So I poked around the old Oscar database. Here are all of the films ever to win an Oscar for both cinematography1 and visual effects:

  • Gravity (2013)
  • Life of Pi (2012)
  • Hugo (2011)
  • Inception (2010)
  • Avatar (2009)
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
  • Titanic (1997)
  • The Longest Day (1962)
  • Ben-Hur (1959)
  • The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

Ten films. Five of them in the last five years. This, to me, looks like a trend.

According to the Academy’s current bylaws, cinematography isn’t narrowly defined. Visual effects, on the other hand, are.

Achievements shall be judged within the parameters defined by the executive committee and on the basis of:

a. consideration of the contribution the visual effects make to the overall production and

b. the artistry, skill and fidelity with which the visual illusions are achieved.

And later on:

Visual effects, as an achievement or a craft, shall be determined by the Visual Effects Branch Executive Committee.

No such dictum is directed at the Cinematographers Branch. Cinematography is just…cinematography.

I think it’s becoming clear that we should be questioning what is and what isn’t considered cinematography. In the case of Gravity, a film whose illusion is so closely tied to its plot, it’s fair to ask how much of that movie magic comes from the camera, how much comes from special effects. Would it even be possible to award one and not the other? How could Lubezki’s camera work possibly hold up without the stunning work of the effects team?

Another question: why not make animated features eligible in the cinematography category? Regardless of how, technologically, a film is animated, there is always a “camera” that has to be positioned, moved and controlled. As visual effects and cinematography coalesce, why shouldn’t animation and cinematography as well?

For good measure, here’s how the Academy defines an animated feature:

An animated feature film is defined as a motion picture with a running time of more than 40 minutes, in which movement and characters’ performances are created using a frame-by-frame technique. Motion capture by itself is not an animation technique. In addition, a significant number of the major characters must be animated, and animation must figure in no less than 75 percent of the picture’s running time.

That’s a good definition for now, but it will soon become more difficult to make the distinction between effects-laden work and an animated film. As the uncanny valley shrinks, our perception of “what is filmmaking?” will only get broader. Perhaps the Academy’s definitions should broaden as well.

  1. From 1940 through 1967 (the 12th through 39th Oscar ceremonies) the Academy gave out two awards for cinematography, one for color and one for black-and-white. This had already become de rigeur for the Academy, which had given special awards out for color cinematography three years in a row before bestowing the first “Best Cinematography, Color” award upon Ernest Haller and Ray Rennahan for their work on Gone With the Wind↩︎