If there’s one thing film fans and average movie-goers agree on, it’s the incredible feeling of watching an absolutely beautiful movie. Cinematography influences a viewer’s film experience more than most realize, and aesthetically exquisite films find a way into our memory and hearts. Often as a result of masterful executions of cinematography, viewers find one single image from the film stuck in their minds. In the age of social media and constant photo circulation, film stills become an iconic representation of the movie itself.
This article will examine the 2010s Oscar winners for best cinematography, and analyze the change in cinematography trends across the most iconic film stills from each year. While the Academy Awards are in no way a definitive list of the best films, it serves as a starting point for analyzing popular cinematic trends.
DP: Wally Pfister
Inception is a classic 2010s film with a star-studded cast, mind bending concepts and visuals, and awe-inspiring stunts and special effects. Director of Photography, Wally Pfister, focused on creating intriguing compositions within the film; and the bending cityscape, as well as the rotating hallway, are standout scenes. Inception’s cinematography relies heavily on visual effects, and centering the characters within the film diegesis. As a representation of 2010, Inception indicates an appreciation for visual effects and neutral color schemes.
DP: Robert Richardson
Martin Scorcese’s Hugo brings viewers into a world of magnificent colors. The 2011 film is an adaptation of the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and the story does not disappoint on screen. Director of Photography, Robert Richardson, took full advantage of film as a medium, and implemented expert lighting and color into the striking compositions. Hugo is a tribute to both past and present cinema; 3D capabilities, visual effects, and a refined color palette blend with classic compositions and lighting. The film is an excellent example of the 2010’s cinematic nostalgia and innovation.
2012: Life of Pi
DP: Claudio Miranda
At the time of its release, Life of Pi had been a long awaited screen adaptation, and it excelled in its visual translation. Director of photography, Claudio Miranda, had a difficult task in creating the ‘unfilmable’ film, but the gigantic undertaking was ultimately extremely successful. Director Ang Lee chose to shoot the film in 3D, which allowed for the astonishing visual effects to shine. While Miranda did encounter some controversy for receiving a cinematography award that was largely attributed to visual effects, his execution in blending both parts of the film should be applauded. Life of Pi is an iconic early 2010s film with astounding color palettes, simple compositions, and mind-blowing visual effects.
DP: Emmanuel Lubezki
The 2013 motion picture, Gravity, falls right into place within the decade’s love for visual effects and emotional close-ups. The film, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, is an action-packed rollercoaster about astronauts stranded in outer space, but the setting isn’t the only factor in its masterful cinematography. Director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki, employed fascinating continuous shots, expert lighting techniques, and unique zero-gravity compositions for the film. Lubezki also collaborated with visual-effects supervisor, Tim Webber, to use a 20 foot tall Light Box that would allow them to project and mimic space imagery. Gravity is an intense, visceral film experience and its most iconic shot is a representation of how cinematography begins to blend effortlessly with visual effects.
DP: Emmanuel Lubezki
Birdman may be a forgotten favorite of 2010s cinema, but its cinematography upon release was astounding. Director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki, is known for his extremely long one-shots, but Birdman takes the cake for one-shot illusions. The film was not only shot almost entirely handheld, but also involved single shots up to fifteen minutes in length. The continuous shots of Birdman allowed for interesting, and almost unnerving compositions. Birdman also stands out for its lighting and color choice, creating a magnificent visual experience.
2015: The Revenant
DP: Emmanuel Lubezki
The Revenant is a dive into natural landscapes, muted colors, and intense, up-close action. The 2015 film directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, is based on true events of the 1800s, but the historical context doesn’t keep the film distant. Director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki, fresh off of Gravity and Birdman, worked tirelessly in extreme weather conditions to bring the film to life. To give the film a heightened sense of reality and immersive experience, Lubezki chose to only shoot with natural light, which gives the film its unique imagery and color palette. While The Revenant breaks away from highly composed and planned shots, it signals a turn into much more visceral and immersive cinematography.
2016: La La Land
DP: Linus Sandgren
La La Land took the world by storm with cinematic dance numbers, captivating lighting and color, and balanced compositions. To match the musical nature of the film, director of photography, Linus Sandgren, worked with director, Damien Chazelle, to choreograph rhythmic camera movements that constructed the camera as its own “musical instrument” . Even within La La Land’s iconic film still, viewers can feel the rhythm and dynamism of the camera.
2017: Blade Runner 2049
DP: Roger Deakins
It has become a rare occurrence for film sequels to chart successfully and win awards, but Blade Runner 2049 is one exception to the phenomenon. Star director of cinematography, Roger Deakins, combined astounding visual effects with futuristic landscapes and centrally focused compositions to create the award winning film. Also vital to the film is its remarkable color palette; vivid greens, oranges, and blues emblazon the film by a futuristic and captivating experience. Blade Runner 2049’s iconic still is a testament to the decade’s appreciation for color and simple compositions.
DP: Alfonso Cuarón
Despite its lack of color, Roma is a visually vibrant and exciting film about a house-keeper and 1970s family living in Mexico City. Alfonso Cuarón took on a giant project, doubling as director and cinematographer, among many other roles, but managed to create an emotional and striking film. While color has been crucial during 2010s films, Roma excels without it. Roma was filmed in color and meticulously edited in post production to create the outstanding black and white tonal range. While the film generally avoids close-ups and prefers to display characters within the environment, there is still an intensely emotional connection to the characters and story. Roma is a welcome break from the simple compositions and heavy color palettes of the 2010s.
DP: Roger Deakins
Director Sam Mendes ended the 2010s on a high with the release of 1917, a masterful cinematic journey of two soldiers during the first World War. The film was praised for its unique one-shot filming technique which creates an incredibly visceral and immersive film experience. Director of Photography, Roger Deakins, worked with the cast and crew for months on end to coordinate choreography, camera movements, and location set-up in order to pull off the visually stunning feat. This iconic still from 1917 is an homage to the decade’s desire for mind-blowing visual effects and centrally focused compositions.