Last night, Alfonso Cuarón’s audacious cinematic undertaking “Gravity” brought home seven Oscars – a hefty lineup of statues that included wins for Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing. These technical categories get placed at the top of the show because, to be truthsome (as Mal Reynolds would say), everyone is more likely to stick out a 4 hour-long award show if the fan favorites are placed last (i.e. Best Actor/Actress, Best Feature Film, you know what I mean).
But you should care about these categories and who wins them. Not even Jennifer Lawrence can save a film that hasn’t been edited well. Often, a riveting visual story told alongside some well chosen words is what makes a movie memorable, and the thousands of decisions made after the cameras stop rolling can mark the difference between Academy Award-worthy art and yet another hyper-extended cut of “Avatar” (Did anyone really miss the longer alien sex scene with mildly squick-inducing hair follicle seduction?? I sure didn’t…).
A long while back, I met Alfonso Cuarón outside the men’s room of a college auditorium where he, Guillermo del Toro, and Alejandro González Iñárritu were discussing their experiences as Mexican filmmakers, and I told him how much I enjoyed his revision of the Harry Potter franchise with “The Prisoner of Azkaban”. I am a self-professed Potterhead, but I am aware that my love of this movie’s treatment puts me in the minority of fandomers who saw this adaptation and actually liked it. HP purists hate this movie primarily because of how much was cut from the script.
At the time, I was a recent English/Film grad and therefore newly equipped to see what many fellow fandom folks did not: that which was cut from the dialogue was not lost from the film. It was all there in the visual storytelling. One simply had to “read the film” to see all the ways it communicated plot points that there was not enough time to convey more blatantly. (For example: If you’re mad that the movie never expressly identifies Harry’s father as the deer that characterizes his Patronus, go back and watch it again. As Professor Lupin and Harry discuss Harry’s dad, the shot places the illusion of antlers behind Harry’s head. See below:)
This brand of storytelling in film challenges standard Hollywood fare and relies on the advanced capabilities of technical visionaries to produce a movie experience that transcends its enjoyment as a literal artform. (In other words, when we watch movies, we don’t usually see the metaphors and other artistic devices upfront because the medium lends itself to literal interpretation. For our brains, it’s a simple exercise to just watch and enjoy.) But as Cuarón told us that day in NYC, his job as a director was to move the tip of a pencil being held by a thousand people. So much of that magic happens behind the camera and after the production has wrapped. Hence: These special categories are pretty darn important.
Here is the short list of reasons why you should care about the technical stuff, and why the folks that win the awards for it should be admired as much as the pretty people on screen!
Cinematography: You could refer to this as the photography of the film. Everything you see on camera has been orchestrated by a cinematographer to reflect a singular aesthetic that the audience can respond to. It’s not just about setting up the shot – it’s about defining the movie’s look as a whole and ensuring that every shot belongs in that vision. The cinematographer is a close collaborator with the director, bringing together the art and science of filmmaking to extend the story onto the screen. Take “Glory”, winner of the Best Cinematography Oscar in 1989. With as many moving pieces as a war scene, it was a feat of awesome cinematography to convey what the script cannot – that the 54th Massachussetts Volunteer Infantry are meeting their destiny on this very beach:
Film Editing: Imagine the most repetitive, drawn out, boring conversation you’ve ever had. The content of the discussion could have been really important – thrilling, even – but something about the lackluster emotion behind it or the pacing of it was just putting you to sleep. Movies have the potential to do the same, but it is the editor’s job to make sure it not only keeps you awake, but glued to your seat. If cameramen make pictures like writers make words, editors provide the punctuation, grammar, and style, and their language is breathtakingly effective. The juxtaposition of scenes, the timing of a look, the choice between one perspective over another, the tint of color or granularity of the footage – these are ways of controlling what you, the viewer, is feeling and understanding about the action. Perfect example of the film editor’s prowess? Take the iconic shower scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”. There isn’t a word of dialogue in this scene – nothing but jump cuts and well placed shots to make you jump out of your skin. Bam.
Sound Editing and Mixing: You know that club scene in that Fill-in-the-blank movie where everyone is dancing and every character in the scene is screaming over the music to be heard? It was shot in near complete silence. Foley artists and sound editors combine talents to create environments, from club scenes to war scenes to space scenes. One of the best sound designers that ever lived (in my humble opinion) was Ben Burrt, mastermind behind the signature sounds of Star Wars. This same dude gave Wall-E his voice. Literally. As in, he actually recorded his own voice and mixed it to sound like everyone’s favorite Pixar robot. As a matter of fact, watch “Wall-E” sometime and realize with shock and awe that neither Wall-E nor Eve say more than a small cluster of words over and over again the entire film. It’s the blips, whirs, and manipulated effects that pair so well with such an endearingly animated robot.
Visual Effects: These artists are the current unsung heroes of the industry. Combining technical genius with classical artistry, special effects teams are capable of creating worlds where there are none, engineering from pure imagination some of the most iconic scenes of our modern cinematic age. This picture from “Gravity” conveys what I mean pretty well, since NOTHING IN THIS SHOT IS REAL.
More impressive than the choreography of this keystone scene is that it mimics reality so well as to not draw your attention to it. That is arguably the highest objective of visual effects, and the movie that fails to achieve it risks snapping viewers out of the experience of the film to say, “Wow. That’s a lot of CGI.” (Not a problem with “Gravity” unless you are a professional astronaut and/or astrophysicist.) And right now, folks in this particular part of the industry are being abused and horrendously underpaid for their incredible, limitless talent.
These categories serve to remind us all that there is art in filmmaking and there are stories in art. And as someone on the humble outskirts of “the business”, these people inspire me to be better, think bigger, and work harder. This is why, my hat goes off to the winners of these categories, and so should yours.