Celebrating the Art of Cinema: Best Cinematography Oscar Winners of the Last 40 Years

Are you a sucker for the Oscars? It’s okay, you can admit it. I am too. Here’s a fun fact: only 270 people attended the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. And there was no surprise factor as the results were revealed months before the ceremony! So, the following year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences kept the results a secret, yet they still sent newspapers a list of winners for publication after the ceremony. Then, in 1940, the Los Angeles Times spoiled the results, which guests could have easily read before arriving to the red carpet. Ever since, the Academy has used sealed envelopes to keep the names of the winners under lockdown.
Anyway, let’s celebrate the art of cinema by going through the last 40 years of Oscar winners for Best Cinematography. The movies are beautifully shot and worth seeing again just to appreciate the art form.

Days Of Heaven (1978) – Nestor Almendros

Nestor Almendros is one of the most valued contemporary cinematographers. Days of Heaven was shot much later in his life and during the production of the film, Nestor was going blind.

Fun fact: John Travolta auditioned for and won the lead role of Bill, but ABC-TV wouldn’t let him allow him out of his contract for his series called Welcome Back, Kotter (1975), and the part was finally given to Richard Gere.

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So before each shot, he had his assistant take a picture with a Polaroid camera for him to view it under a high-powered magnifying glass. The movie was also shot almost entirely at “magic hour,” – the hours between day and night (early in the morning and late in the evening).

Apocalypse Now (1979) – Vittorio Storaro

Vittorio Storaro started studying photography at the age of 11. Apocalypse Now was his first Oscar. The director, Francis Ford Coppola, gave him the freedom to design the visual look of the picture.

Fun and weird fact: Francis Ford Coppola invested several million dollars of his own money in the film after it went severely over budget. He eventually had to mortgage his house and Napa Valley winery to finish the film.

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Vittorio was reluctant to take the film assignment because he thought Gordon Willis was Coppola’s cinematographer, but Coppola wanted him because of the shot Last Tango in Paris (1972), which also starred Marlon Brando.

The next photo is a magnificent shot from the 1980 winner for best cinematography.

Tess (1980) – Geoffrey Unsworth & Ghislain Cloquet

Ghislain Cloquet had to replace Geoffrey Unsworth as director of photography because Unsworth died of a heart attack during the third month of shooting the film, at the end of October 1978. Most of the film’s scenes shot by Unsworth were in the first half of the movie and are mostly exterior shots. They can be noticed by some fog and light diffusion. Then Cloquet shot the rest of the movie and most of his scenes were inside with no diffusion.

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The film was directed by Roman Polanski and made as an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1891 novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles. The film received positive reviews and was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It won for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.

Reds (1981) – Vittorio Storaro

Vittorio, who already saw had won for Apocalypse Now, received his second Oscar for Reds. At one point in the movie’s production, Vittorio almost quit. It was when he and Warren Beatty were fighting over the use of the camera as they had very different styles. Vittorio wanted a dynamic fluid movement in the film, but Beatty was adamant on having only static shots.

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They finally made a compromise and decided that the film would open with static shots and progress towards more moving shots. Later, in 2011, Beatty described he work with Vittorio: “There’s no greater cinematographer. We were in total agreement and had continual conversations.”

The next beautifully shot movie is about the world’s most famous anti-violence activist.

Gandhi (1982) – Billy Williams & Ronnie Taylor

Billy Williams was also known for his work in The Wind and the Lion (1975) and The Exorcist (1973). But he wasn’t able to finish this film. Billy got ill and couldn’t complete the movie. So Ronnie Taylor flew out from England to help him and ended up completing the film for him. But both men were awarded the Oscar.

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This film was Richard Attenborough’s dream project, even though his first two attempts at filming had failed. In 1962, Attenborough was contacted by someone named Motilal Kothari, an Indian civil servant working in London and a devout follower of Gandhi. He insisted that Attenborough meet him to discuss making a film about Gandhi. Attenborough agreed and spent the next 18 years attempting to get the film made.

Fanny And Alexander (1983) – Sven Nykvist

Sven was considered one of the world’s greatest cinematographers who perfected the art of cinematography by giving his films the simplest and most natural look imaginable. He used light to create mood and bring out the natural skin tones in the film’s actors. The director, Ingmar Bergman and Sven had a big falling-out while shooting this film. Sven wanted to go to his ex-wife’s funeral and Bergman wouldn’t let him leave the set.

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The film was a box office success as well as an instant hit with critics. It received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Of the three Oscars that it won, it won for Best Supporting Actor for Haing S. Ngor, who had no previous acting experience.

Next, remember The Killing Fields?

The Killing Fields (1984) – Chris Menges

Menges is also known for his work on Michael Collins (1996), The Mission (1986), and The Reader (2008). Chris has said that the key to keep authenticity in movie scenes is to give actors space to create and move without cameras in their faces.

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He said that it’s all about long lenses and shooting from a distance. “We would always work outside the circle of performance,” he says.

Out of Africa (1985) – David Watkin

Watkin served for a short time in World War II before beginning a career in cinema. He was an innovator in cinematography, known for his artistic and picturesque technique.

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His most famous films are Jesus of Nazareth, Moonstruck, and this one.

The next movie was also shot by Chris Menges from The Killing Fields.

The Mission (1986) – Chris Menges

This movie was nominated for seven Oscars, but only won one award for cinematography. Menges said of filming The Mission: “The hardest part for me was working with two cameras. It was just incredibly difficult. It’s very hard to light for two cameras and get that delicate feeling we wanted.”

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The film’s sequences were shot at a huge waterfall (Iguazu Falls in South America) and it was a real challenge. Menges explained: “We had miles of walkways put up for the crew just so they could get to work. With all those streams and boulders, it took the most minute planning just to get the camera in place.”

The Last Emperor (1987) – Vittorio Storaro

Remember Vittorio? This is already his third time on the list. In this film, he used light in a very specific way to represent different stages of the emperor’s life. For instance, red, which is the color of the blood, starts the flashback and the opening doors which represents birth.

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Orange was the warm color of his family and the Forbidden City. Yellow was the color of the emperor’s identity as well as the sun. And then green, which was the color of the tutor’s bike and hat, represented knowledge.

If you saw the next movie, you’ll remember some of the more unforgettable scenes.

Mississippi Burning (1988) – Peter Biziou

Aside from this film, Biziou is also well known for his work on The Truman Show, Nine ½ Weeks, and Time Bandits.

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A New York Times film critic said, “Peter Biziou’s camerawork is so evocative I suspect one could hear dogs barking in the distance, freight trains passing in the night and crickets chirping in the tall grass, even without the soundtrack.”

Glory (1989) – Freddie Francis

Francis was an Oscar-winning cinematographer for his work on Sons and Lovers (1960) and Glory. But he was also a respected director of horror and science fiction films.

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Francis began working as a stills photographer in 1934, going on to make short films for the British Army during WWII. He was known for not liking special effects, which he thought diminished the art of cinematography.

The next photo is from a movie shot in Australia by Australian cinematographer.

Dances With Wolves (1990) – Dean Semler

Semler was also known for his work on Apocalypto (2006) and The Road Warrior (1981). The film was shot in his home country of Australia. And when he was on a flight there, the flight attendant asked him if he had the Oscar with him and if he would mind showing it to the passengers.

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Semler’s daughter was a horse wrangler in the film. But she broke both of her wrists when the horse she was riding suddenly ran off and she fell off.

JFK (1991) – Robert Richardson

JFK is one of two films in which Robert Richardson worked with Kevin Bacon. They also worked together in the film A Few Good Men (1992).

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In the movie, they had to recreate the assassination at Dealey Plaza, where the producers had to pay the Dallas City Council a lot of money to close down streets for three weeks. Richardson used two 35mm cameras, five 16mm cameras and fourteen different film stocks for the highly important scene.

We all remember a younger Brad Pitt in the next incredibly shot film from 1992.

A River Runs Through It (1992) – Philippe Rousselot

This cinematographer also worked with Brad Pitt on the film Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994). And he’s also known for his work in many films including:

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Big Fish (2003), Planet of the Apes (2001), Remember the Titans (2000), and the People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) among many other films.

Schindler’s List (1993) – Janusz Kaminski

This was the first collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski. It was also the only Hollywood film to be filmed by a Polish cinematographer in his homeland of Poland.

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Everyone who’s seen this film will remember the girl in the red coat. She was actually based on a real girl who survived the war and wrote a memoir titled “The Girl in the Red Coat: A Memoir”.

The next cinematographer won Oscars for both the next film as well as the one after it.

Legends of The Fall (1994) – John Toll

John Toll is an American cinematographer and films a variety of genres, including period pieces, comedy, science fiction, and contemporary drama.

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He’s collaborated with many famous directors, including Francis Ford Coppola, Edward Zwick, Terrence Malick, Mel Gibson, John Madden, The Wachowskis, and Ang Lee. He also shot commercials and the pilot episode Breaking Bad.

Braveheart (1995) – John Toll

John Toll won again this year for Braveheart. He is one of four cinematographers to win consecutive Oscars for Best Cinematography.

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Mel Gibson directed this movie and the first scene was his first shot he ever did. He also did all of the castings for the movie but never asked any of the actors to read the script.

The English Patient (1996) – John Seale

John Seale worked on the cinematography of six films that were nominated for Best Picture. They are: Witness (1985), Children of a Lesser God (1986), Rain Man (1988), Dead Poets Society (1989), and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).

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Of the six nominated, Rain Man and The English Patient were winners.

Titanic (1997) – Russell Carpenter

Caleb Deschanel was actually the first cinematographer before Russell. Deschanel didn’t get along with James Cameron regarding the lighting of the film and was eventually fired. He was replaced by Russell Carpenter.

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On the film set, the only real decks were the boat deck. So many lights were required that Carpenter commented: “And you walk inside, and 70 miles of one kind of cable and 70 miles of another kind all add up to this Terry Gilliam vision of the telephone company of the 1950s.”

Saving Private Ryan is next and the unique look it had has a specific technique.

Saving Private Ryan (1998) – Janusz Kaminski

Kaminski was the cinematographer of Schindler’s List, if you remember. His unique “look” for the film, was accomplished by him adjusting the film shutter to ninety degrees in order to create sharper, more realistic images. He used an Image Shaker to vibrate the camera to provide the impact of explosions.

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When the film was sent to be processed, Kaminski ran it through the developer more than typically done so it would get a washed-out look. Spielberg said, “His idea delivered a fantastic visual, and the film looks freakin’ great for it.”

American Beauty (1999) – Conrad L. Hall

Conrad Hall wasn’t the first choice. Director Sam Mendes thought he was “too old and too experienced” to even want the job. He was also told that he was difficult to work with. Mendes asked Frederick Elmes to do cinematography, but he turned it down because he didn’t like the script.

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Hall was recommended to Mendes by Tom Cruise. It’s a good thing he chose him in the end.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) – Peter Pau

Peter Pau collaborated with director Ang Lee on this film. The film’s style was poetic in lighting and camera movement.

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Pau then became the first Hong Kong cinematographer to be nominated for an Oscar and went on to win seven major US critics’ awards.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring (2001) – Andrew Lesnie

Director Peter Jackson hired Andrew Lesnie for the Lord of the Rings trilogy after seeing his work on Babe (1995), the Australian film about a pig. Yes, that’s true.

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Lesnie started his career as a camera assistant for a low-budget horror film Patrick in 1978. In the 80s, he shot music videos for groups such as INXS, UB40, and Mental As Anything.

Next, is yet another win for cinematographer Conrad Hall.

Road to Perdition (2002) – Conrad L. Hall

Conrad Hall won another award for this film. This was the last full-length film he worked on as a cinematographer. Tom Hanks and Hall both thought the screenplay was too violent and they asked Sam Mendes, the director, to tone it down.

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One day when Hall was setting up a shot of Paul Newman, Hall looked through the camera’s viewfinder and began to cry. Later he was asked what was wrong, and he just said, “He was so beautiful. He was so beautiful.”

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) – Russell Boyd

Boyd did most of his work in the 70s, 80s and 90s. He’s best known for his work on Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975).

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This was the first movie ever to film in the Galapagos Islands. There was only one scene where they filmed in Baja, California.

See the next slide for a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

The Aviator (2004) – Robert Richardson

Richardson also won for JFK. Martin Scorsese, this films’ director, originally wanted Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan) to film The Aviator. But Kaminski wasn’t available.

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Scorsese then asked Robert Richardson. They had already worked together on Casino (1995) and Bringing Out the Dead (1999).

Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) – Dion Beebe

The film has a certain winter light effect that was discovered by accident a number of days before production. They used silk to prevent rain from damaging the set, and the crew had to create daylight during the night.

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There were lights from top to bottom of the set, seen through the silk. The resulting effect was part of why Dion Beebe got the Oscar.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) – Guillermo Navarro

Navarro said this of how he chooses his movies and about this movie in particular: “I search for films that allow me to create a reality, not just everyday life that everybody knows. So I tried to create visual bridges to take us in and out of the narrative and connect the story’s two distinctly different worlds.”

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“I had to consider how the fantastic world affects reality, so visually it was about connecting the pieces. I’m a strong believer that the images are the language and grammar of storytelling, but they also have to serve the story.”

There Will Be Blood (2007) – Robert Elswit

Robert Elswit is an American cinematographer. His other popular movies are Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011), and Nightcrawler (2014).

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Elswit was nominated for Best Cinematography in 2006 for Good Night, and Good Luck. Two years later, he won the award for There Will Be Blood. And it was well deserved. The movie is a masterpiece.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008) – Anthony Dod Mantle

Mantle said of cinematography: “I’ve become known for movement. Why and how you move the camera is an essential part of our job. It took me the first two years of my four years at film school to understand how to give up that control of the static image and maintain some other kind of variation of the word control of a moving image.”

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“Where you move both yourself and things move in the frame and the light changes, that’s the big, difficult jump. Controlling the light, for the fraction of a second that the picture demands it is so important.”

Avatar (2009) – Mauro Fiore

You can see Mauro Fiore’s work in other movies like Training Day (2001) and The Island (2005).

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James Cameron wanted Mauro Fiore work on his film because he admired his work in Tears of the Sun (2003). Fiore agreed only after a 30-minute meeting with Cameron.

The next movie is one of the best of all time, and the cinematography is a huge part of the film’s success.

Inception (2010) – Wally Pfister

Wally Pfister is an American cinematographer and film director, best known for his collaborations with Christopher Nolan, the writer and director of the film.

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His first collaboration with Nolan was in Memento (2000). Pfister then took over as cinematographer for Nolan’s subsequent films: Insomnia (2002), Batman Begins (2005), The Prestige (2006), The Dark Knight (2008), and Inception. He’s the only cinematographer to work with Nolan between Memento and Dark Knight Rises.

Hugo (2011) – Robert Richardson

This is the third movie on this list for Robert Richardson. Richardson, along with Emmanuel Lubezki, and Vittorio Storaro are the only living cinematographers to win the award for Best Cinematography three times.

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Richardson has a very impressive resume for cinematography. Other films he’s done were Django Unchained (2012), Inglorious Basterds (2009), and Shutter Island (2010).

Life Of Pi (2012) – Claudio Miranda

Miranda was surprised when Ang Lee (the director) wanted to meet with him. He was told it was unlikely he’d get the job because another cinematographer was connected to it already.

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Miranda obviously got the job and he and Lee discussed how they wanted the movie to look. They decided that the world of Pi couldn’t be magical and beautiful all of the time. They wanted to maintain a sense of realism and danger so the viewer could feel like they’re really there.

Gravity (2013) – Emmanuel Lubezki

Emmanuel Lubezki, the director, and visual effects supervisor decided they couldn’t use traditional methods to make this film. Lubezki needed to light the actors’ faces to match the completely digital environment.

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Lubezki folded L.E.D. screen into a box, put the actors inside, and used the light from the screen to light the actors. The “light box”, which was essential to the space-walk scenes, was a nine-foot cube big enough for one actor.

Birdman (2014) – Emmanuel Lubezki

Just the next year, Lubezki won again for Birdman. Lubezki and director Alfonso Cuaron worked together a lot. They have been friends since they were teenagers and went to the same film school in Mexico.

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Together they worked on six motion pictures including, Great Expectations (1998), Y Tu Mamá También (2001), Children of Men (2006), Gravity (2013), and Children of Men (2006).

The Revenant (2015) – Emmanuel Lubezki

This is the third consecutive win for Lubezki. This incredible film was shot with only natural light except for one scene: the campfire sequence at night where the wind was making the fire pulse in a distracting way.

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“We had to lay a bunch of light bulbs around the fire to create a cushion of light,” Lubezki said. “That’s all the light we used.”

La La Land (2016) – Linus Sandgren

Sandgren is also known for his work with director David O. Russell on American Hustle and Joy. Sundgren said about the director of La La Land: “Damien wanted to make an old-fashioned film in a very modern way where the camera is more fluid.”

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There were many technical challenges of making this film. For one, the camera had to be reloaded with film every ten minutes. The director also wanted to shoot big production numbers in single takes, and Sundgren called it “Unbroken reality”.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017) – Roger Deakins

This film earned Roger Deakins his first-ever Oscar for Best Cinematography. He had been nominated 13 times without winning.

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He’s also done work on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), No Country for Old Men (2007), True Grit (2010), Skyfall (2012), and Sicario (2015).

Let’s see who wins this year for 2018’s best cinematography!