Friday, June 28, 2013

David McGee's Cinematography for the Aviator

At one point in our courses, we had an assignment where we had to find an Oscar-winning picture and argue how it did deserved or did not deserve that Oscar. I chose James Cameron's Avatar and the resulting essay is not that readable because it basically says Avatar did not deserve Best Cinematography because it did not utilize the techniques involved with constructing a shot or a scene and instead utilized the rendering and construction techniques of a video game - akin to special effects rather than cinematography.
David's essay is not as boring... so I provide it for your reading again.

Not for nothing did Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator win five Academy Awards.  The 2004 biopic of film director and aviation enthusiast Howard Hughes is filmmaking at its best, succeeding on both the grand scale and in small details.  One of the Academy Awards that it received was Best Cinematography, and the reason is abundantly clear.

            The movie’s expert use of cinematography can be seen through its carefully symbolic use of color, one of the most prominent of which is blue.  After Hughes, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, has his first great triumph—the success of his war epic Hell’s Angels—he enjoys a few rounds of golf with Catherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), and, interestingly, the grass, instead of being green, is unmistakably blue . . . in fact, the entire scene is lit with a slight blue tint, as it is later where they go to dinner together, when even the steam that rises from a bowl is subtly blue.  The meaning of this would be obscure if not for something that the filmmakers have been very careful to show up to this point: in almost every scene, DiCaprio’s eyes, a bluish-green in real life, shine a brilliant blue, far brighter than necessary unless to underline a point, and that point soon becomes clear: after the success of Hughes’ movie, everything is his for the taking; the world, in effect, becomes his, and to drive that point home, the world is blue.  But as he begins to succumb to madness and rivals threaten his goals, not only does the color pallet of the rest of the world change from the understated blue back to normal, but the color of his eyes changes slightly—from blue to green.  As this happens, green and red take the place of the previously-predominant blue, but instead of each scene being tinted, it is instead Hughes’ antagonists who bear the color directly, usually wearing it—green to symbolize paranoia, envy, and competition, and red to represent danger.  These in and of themselves are not cinematographic choices, but the fact that they stand out so clearly is—the entire movie must be lit in such a way so that these colors stand out amidst everything else.
            Several individual shots in The Aviator deserve special note.  One occurs when Hughes is giving instructions to one of his employees and becomes distracted by a janitor sweeping the floor.  Of course the janitor is only doing his job, but Hughes can’t remember having seen him before and suspects him of spying.  During a long close-up of the janitor’s face, his face slowly drains of color—not to black and white, but slowly becomes greyer as Hughes begins to consider him a threat.  That this is noticeable but not obtrusive speaks of the high quality of the cinematography.  Another noteworthy shot comes after Hughes has almost had a mental breakdown in front of one of his workers.  Escaping to his car, he tries to regroup, and all that can be seen of him is a silhouette of his profile—except for his reflection in the window right next to him, which is perfectly clear.  The juxtaposition of silhouette and reflection is so skillfully done that it’s easy to miss.  

An intriguing cinematographic choice comes when Hughes attends the premier of Hell’s Angels.  Instead of the bright colors of the previous scenes, or the blue-tinted ones of the next several, every shot is a hazy sepia color and slightly blurry.  This is also an editing choice (for which The Aviator also won the Oscar) and gives the impression that the audience is watching an old movie, or perhaps even archived news footage, which helps to draw them into this historical fantasy.
            The Aviator also features some of the only flash bulbs that are as momentarily blinding for the audience as they are for the characters.  Normally, films dial down bright lights for their audiences—but not this one.  The Aviator wants its audience to experience the same discomfort and panic that seizes Howard Hughes whenever he is accosted by flash photography, and so when he steps onto a red carpet or into a courtroom and is bombarded by flashing lights, it’s disconcerting for the audience as well as him.
Clearly, The Aviator deserved the Oscar for Best Cinematography.  Its technical skill combined with a powerful story makes it an engaging movie that merits multiple viewings, and it demonstrates that filmmakers need not choose between style and content. 

-David McGee spends much of his time obsessing over the creation of a brassiere that will enhance the cleavage of his articles and bring more people reading them.

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