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They Get the Picture

The cinematography nominees have met challenges ranging from expressionless geese to lighting a scene with little more than a flare.

March 23, 1997|Steven Smith | Steven Smith is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Four of the five were born outside America. Several share a past in documentary filmmaking. And each is quietly insistent on sharing credit with his crew and director.

But this year's Oscar-nominated cinematographers could not be more different in their subjects, from the bitter white snowscapes that envelop the residents of "Fargo" to the sun-baked orange desert of 1930s Egypt in "The English Patient" (the location in fact was Tunisia, filmed in chilly winter). Meet the five men who, in the words of the academy, turned simple words on a script page into visions of light.


Like the desperate kidnappers in the Coen brothers' black comedy, Deakins--a soft-spoken native of Torquay, England--knows how easily plans can go awry. Both "Fargo" and his latest project, Martin Scorsese's Dalai Lama biography "Kundun," filmed in Morocco, depended on landscapes of snow. In both cases, nature had other ideas.

"During the whole period we shot on 'Fargo,' it snowed for just a couple of days" on the Minnesota location, recalls Deakins, 48. "We had to keep moving north, till we were five miles from the Canadian border. A lot of snow in the film is created."

For his third teaming with the brothers Coen, Deakins took an approach far different from its predecessors. " 'Barton Fink' and 'The Hudsucker Proxy' were very stylized, almost pastiches of other films, but 'Fargo' we deliberately wanted to set in a reality, with a very simple style.

"We did change one thing: We said we'd shoot it in an observational way; we didn't think we'd move the camera. That went right out the window with the second shot we did, a long tracking shot! But I think we were faithful to the concept."

A former Oscar nominee for "The Shawshank Redemption," Deakins says he avoids big-budget projects in favor of "scripts about human beings," like the $7-million "Fargo." But one major studio film, "Courage Under Fire," did give special pleasure.

"What was interesting was the juxtaposition of quiet, emotional scenes with the violent flashbacks of war. It was exciting to do, because visually, it was three different styles: helicopter scenes with Meg Ryan, the [Desert Storm] tank scenes with Denzel [Washington], then the contemporary drama."


The teaming of Deschanel and "Fly Away Home" director Carroll Ballard dates back nearly three decades, to a series of educational films. But their signature partnership came with 1979's "The Black Stallion," a story that, like "Fly Away Home," is told through poetic images of a child and animals, free in nature.

"Carroll's best storytelling comes from what he puts in between the lines of a simple story," says the 52-year-old Philadelphia native, a past nominee for "The Right Stuff" and "The Natural." "You understand the characters because of what they're seeing.

"I think all films have to have some sort of mystery to them or they're not very interesting. That's what appeals to me when I read scripts."

In 1963, a single image, now hanging in his office, drew Deschanel to his work: a Life magazine photo of Stanley Kubrick holding a still camera. (Deschanel has also emulated Kubrick by juggling camera work and directing, helming films like "Crusoe" and TV shows like "Twin Peaks.")

He is particularly pleased to be nominated this year for a non-period film (a type he says is often overlooked in the voting). Among his favorite work in "Fly Away Home": the title sequence, with a car crash from the point of view of the young heroine, an idea he credits to Ballard.

As for its co-starring geese, "the hardest thing was just getting looks on their faces--they won't turn to look at sounds like a dog would. Also, you have to watch where you step a little more than with other animals."


"What convinced me to do it was [director] Alan Parker telling me he didn't want to do a nice, beautiful musical," recalls first-time nominee Khondji, 42. "He wanted to make it like a political statement--gritty, sometimes dark, [with] not too much glamour but glamour where it was needed."

The key adjective may be "dark." With "Evita," "Seven" and "Delicatessen," Khondji, who was born in Tehran and raised in France, has proven himself a master of chiaroscuro lighting. In those films, and the upcoming "Alien Resurrection," Khondji has employed the Technicolor system ENR, in which silver is added to the film during processing. The result is greater contrast, with blacker blacks and brighter light tones.

"It brings me closer to black and white, which I love. Orson Welles said using black and white was like putting a magnifying glass on actors. It increases sharpness; color diminishes that." (Not surprisingly, Khondji cites "Citizen Kane" cameraman Gregg Toland as a key inspiration.)

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