ASC Nominees Talk About Future of Craft on Big Screen and Small

When the 35th edition of the American Society of Cinematographers Awards for Outstanding Achievement convenes on April 18 to announce the winners, all eyes will be on the future of their craft.

This year’s crop of nominees in the feature film category includes two fresh faces and three previous contenders — but a distinct lack of usual suspects and past superstars like Roger Deakins, Emmanuel Lubezki, Robert Richardson, Janusz Kaminski and Rodrigo Prieto. Perhaps it’s a matter of timing in this strange year, with some big titles being held back, or prestigious projects landing prior to the pandemic. And surely, the quarantine had some effect on how this year’s films were seen and perceived.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” brought Phedon Papamichael his seventh ASC nod, following last year’s “Ford v Ferrari,” while “News of the World,” the Tom Hanks Western, gave Dariusz Wolski his second, a full 25 years after his first, for “Crimson Tide.”

Newton Thomas Sigel, long admired by his peers as a bold and skillful camera pro, earned his first for “Cherry,” a visually powerful film — and the only ASC-nominated film not also recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The newcomers include Joshua James Richards, honored for the doc-flavored, stream-of-consciousness imagery in “Nomadland,” and Erik Messerschmidt, who stepped up from first-call gaffer to director of photography on David Fincher’s “Mank,” a black-and-white cinematography feast with silvery echoes of everyone’s favorite golden-era master, Gregg Toland, who shared a title card with Orson Welles on “Citizen Kane.”

Light-sensitive digital cameras allowed Wolski to shoot a lamp-lit period Western mainly with zoom lenses. For his 1960s courtroom drama, Papamichael used the same combination of expanded Panavision lenses and ARRI Alexa LF that he used on “Ford v Ferrari.” Messerschmidt tested just about every lens on the shelf before going with Leica Summilux-Cs and Red Ranger cameras with Helium 8K Monochrome sensors that helped achieve deep focus.

Sigel differentiated settings with a smorgasbord of glass that included vintage Todd-AO and Hawk Class-X anamorphics, Super Baltars, Leica, Sigma and Lomography Petzval portrait lenses, among others. Richards’ spontaneous approach was accomplished with Alexa Minis and AMIRAs and Zeiss Ultra Primes on a gimbal rig to maintain a close connection to the subjects, most of whom were non-actors.

Philosophically, most of the nominated feature films were not painstakingly planned extravaganzas with thousands of visual effects shots. “’News of the World’ was a relatively big-budget movie, but we didn’t have any cranes or extensive camera cars,” says Wolski. “There was usually a single camera, often hand-held. Our approach was very simple and basic, and I liked it that way.”

Wolski adds: “You can’t overplan. You have ideas, of course, but you have to use broad strokes. When you come onto the set, you must be completely open and fresh, because there are limitations, adaptations and surprises that you must capture. And sometimes they compound each other beautifully, which is what happens in nature. If you’re worrying about something you have in your mind, you might miss a great chance.”

Despite the pandemic’s blow to theatrical viewing, “I’m still in the mindset that I’m shooting for the big screen,” says Papamichael. “I’m shooting for an audience in the theater, and that applies to future projects, too.”

But Papamichael also remains realistic. “I realize that the transition to streaming is happening, but with ‘Chicago 7’ there were many other considerations regarding the timing of the release,” he says. “But I do think it was a blessing that Netflix bought it. A lot of people got to see it who otherwise might not have. So I do think it is a powerful tool. We have to realize that that way of viewing things is here to stay, but to me that’s not how to watch cinema. I’m hoping that people will be hungry for the theatrical experience and begin to return.”

Anette Haelmigk, nominated for her work on the pilot for “The Great,” which was commissioned by Hulu, says that striving for high standards has been beneficial for non-theatrical cinematography. She mentions the exodus of feature work out of L.A. some years back with leaving a talented and experienced workforce willing to take TV gigs, and credits her success in part to extensive training in the feature realm.

“You’re trained to do things in a certain way,” she explains. “You work incredibly hard to satisfy that aesthetic. I was lucky when I started shooting television. It was on a project with the highest standards. Later, ‘Game of Thrones’ set the bar high, and the way I deal with that is to hire the best, most qualified people I can get — and having worked on ‘Game of Thrones’ helps with that. Getting a quality result with less time comes from having a crew whom you trust completely that pushes hard.”

Meanwhile, on technologically groundbreaking Chapter 1 of “The Mandalorian,” DP Greig Fraser, who usually works in features, found himself answering completely new questions. “Even in the prep process, we found ourselves making at least 40 groundbreaking decisions every day, in addition to the usual questions we’ve been answering for a century: Where do we place the camera? What’s the direction? How do we stage this? There were hundreds of new factors to navigate every single day, and that was true of the visual effects department, too.”

It isn’t easy. “Each day when I went home, my head literally hurt,” Fraser adds, “but the key is to remember that the technology is there to serve us as filmmakers. We have to maintain the flexibility and humanity to keep the magic in a given shot.”

Sigel observes: “Cinematography is changing so much that it really makes you wonder what the definition really is. Each movie is fun in its own way, but every now and then you have an experience where all the elements comes together, and you’re really in your groove. This is why we do it.”

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