The Greatest Film ever made? For much of the Twentieth Century it was universally acknowledged to be ‘Citizen Kane’. And in the making of that classic, Orson Welles recognised the essential truth of cinema by paying Gregg Toland ASC the highest industry compliment by sharing his screen title card with his cinematographer. The new genius of cinema grasped instinctively an essential fact; that it’s all about where you put the camera, frame the action and light the story. Orson discovered very quickly that he wasn’t in the theatre anymore.
Fade to black...
.........the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences had been making not-so-discreet plans to cull technical categories from the live broadcast of the Oscars to bring it in under three hours and therefore boost viewing figures and increase advertising revenue. Like its plan to create a whole new category (Best Popular Film), it had been hoped by many that this idea would fall by the wayside. Sadly, it didn’t.
Thus, we had the Academy announcing, just two weeks before the event, that the categories of cinematography, editing, live-action short and make-up & hair-styling would not be broadcast live but instead recorded, edited and inserted into the live broadcast at some juncture of the evening (the ceremony would be available later on-line “uncut”, apparently).
Cue, a heartening and gut-led response to what, at best, could be termed an unconscious slight toward those who have devoted their lives and passions to their profession.
I don’t think we can doubt the Academy’s best intentions to please everyone involved. Every editorial sleight-of-hand would have made it appear as if the ceremony was one continuous live broadcast, slipping seamlessly from one category to another. “The viewing public would never have noticed the difference”, was a phrase used to defend AMPS’s move. Perhaps not, but symbolically it was depressing and, for cinematographers especially, a marker as to where we sit in the purview of those overseeing our industry.
It was always about the show-biz, of course, but didn’t Hollywood use to revel in the reputation of its technicians and artists alike? The catalogue of movies depicting, often self-consciously and self- referentially, Hollywood’s backlot culture is evidence of that. The Dream Factory knew its entirety was its allure, its magic. And it was all shot through the prism, literally, of the camera.
It’s worth noting that AMPAS’s move - had it gone ahead; they reversed their decision within a week of publicising it - would have been far less clumsy (and, quite frankly, more respectful) than BAFTA’s annual end-of-show debacle where it fast-shuffles through what it deems items still outstanding.
Now is the time, surely, that the BBC and the British Academy of Film & Television Arts, inspired by AMPAS’s moment of reflection, get their act together and face up to their responsibilities. Honour and recognise properly and publicly, the men and women who create the images that make up the industry they represent.
Both Corporation and Academy should do this if only for the sake of diversity. If honoured equally, the position, be it cinematographer, production designer, editor or any other deemed below the line, becomes more visible and more likely to spark enquiry from those curious about a place in the industry (they’ll learn soon enough it isn’t all red carpets and call-ups to the stage, but by then they’ll be inspired by something more substantial). How many young women, for instance, are aware of the legion of women editors in the annals of movie-making?
It cannot be just about the stars. Look up the definition of ‘Academy’ and you will see the word ‘promote’. Where is the promotion in “...and other awards given out earlier in the evening included.....” ?
As I write, the 91st Academy Awards have yet to happen, but the 1st BSC Awards have. I was unable to attend due to work commitments but I sincerely wish I had been there. By all accounts it was a memorable and successful evening which saw the Society’s honours presented in a fashion that I hope will become the norm. It was a proud night for the BSC and testament to the hard work and diligence of the BSC’s Events Committee that played midwife to what, I’m sure, will become a date of note in the awards season.
The Society’s motto, Preserving The Vision, could have been coined for the film that picked up Best Cinematography in a Feature Film that night. ROMA, photographed by its director, Alfonso Cuaron, is a loving recreation of a childhood - beautiful, elegant, human and humane. A worthy winner among a startlingly strong nominee list, the sort of short-list that gives one heart for the state of cinematography today.
I’ll give the last word to Alfonso’s compatriot, Guillermo del Toro, who commented the week of the AMPAS controversy. It’s worth seeing in print again, and perhaps should be engraved on Academy walls: “Cinematography and Editing are at the very heart of our craft. They are not inherited from a theatrical or literary tradition: they are cinema itself”
Mike Eley BSC