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The really important Oscars

There are two of them that matter most to me, I think -- and not in the Best Picture category. ("The King's Speech" over "The Social Network"? Really? I can only shrug. Forget it, Jim -- it's the Academy...) I'm much more interested in seeing Roger Deakins and Skip Lievsay get their due recognition. DP Deakins, unquestionably one of the handful of great cinematographers working today, is nominated for "True Grit" (2010) -- his ninth nomination in 16 years, and he has yet to win. How can this be? For the record, here are the films for which he has been nominated by the Academy: "The Shawshank Redemption," "Fargo," "Kundun," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," "The Man Who Wasn't There" (black-and-white widescreen, my favorite format), "No Country for Old Men" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (both in the same year!), "The Reader" (co-nominated with the also-great Chris Menges, who should have won for "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada") and now, "True Grit." (What? No nomination for "A Serious Man"?!?!) He also photographed "Sid and Nancy," "Stormy Monday," "Mountains of the Moon," "Homicide," "Barton Fink," "The Secret Garden," "The Hudsucker Proxy," "Dead Man Walking" and "The Big Lebowski," among many others.

Watch the impressive featurette/interview above for a few examples of Deakins' brilliance (and, for once, that term is actually intended to refer to the intensity of light!).

The Carpetbagger has a short interview with Deakins today, too (which contains spoilers, although this excerpt does not):

A. [For a climactic scene] We shot this wide shot of the horse falling down. I picked his location of a rocky plain with a bluff in the background. Lit up at night, it looked quite threatening. And we talked about it, and Joel said, it's too interesting. There's too much happening in it. And he said, wouldn't it be more interesting if it were this horse in this empty plain of nothing? And it is, it works much better than the original shot would've worked.

Q. When I spoke to Carter Burwell, the composer for "True Grit," he said when a film's score really works, even a composer might not notice it. Is that true for good cinematography as well?A. Absolutely. It's too easy to make ostentatious kind of shots, that at first viewing, are like, oh, that's great, but they don't help the story, they don't help the audience get immersed in the story. [In "True Grit"] there's certain things you think, I felt happy at the end of the day, something might've been a particular challenge, but in terms of the final image, I hope nothing does stand out. I hope everything is, in that sense, equivalent and works with the story.Q. What were the challenging scenes?

A. Reading the script, one thing that gave me nightmares was, how do you track with a horse galloping at night across an open plane, and if that horse is jet black, how do you see it? We built a road that was 1500 feet long, in a forest, so we could track alongside this horse, and used a kind of electric golf cart, and then we have a little crane arm and a gyro-stabilizing head, that sets away from the car, so you could keep the camera on the horse's head. The trainer, there was just a rider who knew the horse, the rider just put on Jeff's costume [Jeff Bridges who plays Rooster Cogburn]. And apart from that, you just need a very big light a long way away.

As for Skip Lievsay, the sound designer (editor, mixer, etc.) whose name in the credits signifies additional dimensions to a film that 3D can't begin to approximate, I wrote about him when he received his first pair of nominations (shared with a team) for "No Country for Old Men." Unbelievably, he didn't win. Now he's nominated twice more, for sound editing and sound mixing, for "True Grit."

Remember this? Mattie and Rooster are perched up in the hills, waiting for Lucky Ned Pepper and his men to show up. A man on a horse comes riding up the trail below. It's dark and he's too far away to get a good look at, but the moment he dismounts we know who it is. How? A faint jingling of spurs. Lievsay has brought that kind of wit and imagination to sound design for many years. (In recent years he has concentrated on dialog while co-nominee Craig Berkey focuses on sound effects.)

He started as a sound editor on John Waters' "Polyester" in 1981 and went on to work with the Coens ("Blood Simple," "Raising Arizona," "Miller's Crossing," "Barton Fink" -- the mosquito! the wallpaper glue! -- and so on), Martin Scorsese ("After Hours," "The Color of Money," "The Last Temptation of Christ," "GoodFellas," "Casino," and more), Spike Lee ("Do the Right Thing," "Mo' Better Blues," "Malcolm X," "Clockers") -- and too many others to mention. (That list only takes you up to the mid-1990s, but I first learned to keep an eye out for him in the latter part of the 1980s.)

I don't know how many people realize what sound design is, but here's a terrific quotation from Lievsay I found on his IMDb page:

"The essence of sound design is you can't record the sound. You have to take a lot of sounds and put them together. You can't just go somewhere with a shotgun and a silencer."

In other words, most of what you hear in a movie wasn't recorded on location. It's been created and layered into the picture during post-production.

(tip: Tim Appelo, via Richard T. Jameson)

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