The latest movie montage from the supercut gurus at Burger Fiction offers a surprising lesson in cinema history.
In seven minutes, the montage offers up representative scenes from every film to win the Academy Award for Best Cinematography since 1927. The result is a concise master class in filmmaking from some of the world’s greatest cinematographers and directors. But it’s also a reminder that a film’s cultural and critical legacy often has nothing to do with whether it wins Best Picture. Instead, it often has to do with how well its camerawork delivers a unique and visually arresting story.
These are the traits of Oscar-winning cinematography
One thing the montage makes immediately evident is that like all of us, Oscar has a type. In a word, that type is “sweeping”: cinematography that somehow feels epic in nature will get ’em every time.
But what does “sweeping and epic” look like in practice? Here are some of the characteristic techniques of Oscar-winning camerawork.
The Academy loves a carefully composed wide shot. Often these will feature a character shown from a distance, framed near the edge of a wide landscape, or a character framed in the middle against a compelling backdrop.
If you’re filming intense battle shots with constant panoramic views and wide lenses, you might as well show up to collect your Oscar on awards night.
Natural lighting is very difficult to do well, which is why Stanley Kubrick went to extremes in Barry Lyndon, filming outdoors using camera lenses with extremely wide apertures to pick up as much natural light as possible.
It’s also why the Academy was only too happy to hand cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki his third consecutive Oscar in 2016 for The Revenant. The production famously filmed outdoors in arduous circumstances, with Lubezki chasing vanishing natural light through the Canadian wilderness.
Like most of us, the Academy loves “big” shots that feature a grand set teeming with drama — like this shot from Cleopatra.
Carefully framed composition
This cross burning scene in Mississippi Burning is a perfect example of the way cinema can visually sell the idea of deep conflict in a single shot. In this case, framing Gene Hackman within the cross juxtaposes dehumanizing racism with a familiar human face, creating a memorable paradox.
The Academy also appreciates cinematography that visually illustrates themes of the movie, such as the famous “bed of roses” shot from American Beauty, or this shot from The Aviator, which sums up its lead character’s obsession, desperation, and eccentricity.
This one is practically a given for Oscar-winning cinematography. Silhouetting recurs again and again throughout the montage.
The symbolic use of the color red
This might seem like a surprising item on the list, but a significant number of Oscar-winning films have used red symbolically, usually to symbolize awakening passion (as in the famous lipstick scene from Black Narcissus, Gigi, and the American Beauty roses) or life and endurance amid repression (Cries and Whispers, Schindler’s List).
All of the above:
Find a film that can deliver every one of the listed elements above in one perfect shot, and you pretty much have a film that will live forever in film canon — which is how we arrive at the iconic locust scene from Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.
Oscar-winning cinematography may be a better indicator of lasting greatness than the Best Picture award
What’s striking about this montage is that some of the films it includes weren’t even nominated for Best Picture, yet have gone on to maintain a lasting cultural legacy.
Days of Heaven, for example, had only three other nominations in 1979, for sound design, scoring, and costuming. But using as a barometer the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound magazine — which famously polls hundreds of critics once every 10 years, asking them to name the best films ever made — we see that Malick’s film is now regarded as one of the best films ever made, and is incidentally more critically acclaimed than The Deer Hunter, which picked up that year’s Best Picture award.
And while 1950’s Best Picture Winner, All About Eve, has made a lasting cultural impact, far fewer critics chose it for the Sight and Sound list than that year’s cinematography winner, The Third Man. Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, which won the award for color cinematography the year of its nomination, has far outstayed that year’s Best Picture winner, Marty, as an acclaimed and beloved cultural touchstone.
As for whether past traits of Oscar winners can predict future winners, well, it’s worth noting that last year, we correctly predicted that La La Land would win Best Cinematography based on last year’s version of this montage. The Burger Fiction montage makers, Andy Schneider and Jonathan Britnell, included this shot from La La Land, which draws obviously on the use of silhouettes, wide framing, and characters shown near the edges of the wide composition.
So, applying these rules to this year’s crop of nominees, we notice that the Burger Fiction guys have included this shot from Blade Runner.
Even if it weren’t high time for Blade Runner’s brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins to win — he’s been nominated 14 times for his gorgeous camera work and, so far, never won — this shot is as good a predictor as any. It’s all there: the wide composition, the figure posed in the center, the sweeping (CGI) outdoor landscape, the silhouette, and the color red, which the film strategically used to merge two very different kinds of science fiction aesthetics.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that each of these elements might continue to hold true in the future. After all, there is one more element to winning an Oscar for shooting a film:
Being a male cinematographer
The Oscar for cinematography has never gone to a woman because up until this year, it was the only Academy category that had never had a female nominee. But after this year’s landmark nomination of Rachel Morrison for Mudbound, that could finally change.
Watch: The Oscars' voting process awards safe movies