Alex Heeney, Orla Smith, and Lindsay Pugh write about the best cinematography of 2020 and why they love it. Our picks for the best cinematography include Monkey Beach, Nadia Butterfly, and First Cow. This is part of our 2020 wrap up series.
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From a rom com to a sports drama to a western to a slice of Haisla mythology, our picks for the best cinematography of 2020 feature images we haven’t been able to get out of our minds. They created images that feel instantly iconic, not just for their visual beauty but for the way they tell a story, and invite us into a character’s subjectivity. We invited three of our writers — Orla Smith, Lindsay Pugh, and Alex Heeney — to write a short analysis of their favourite cinematography of the year.
First, some honourable mentions: Emma., Time, Shirley, Proxima, Lingua Franca, The Assistant, Ema, Clifton Hill, Swallow, Nomadland, Ammonite, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Call Me Human, Amanda, Lynn + Lucy, and Residue
Spinster and Nadia, Butterfly
There are few emerging cinematographers more exciting than Stéphanie Anne Weber Biron, who brought immersive visuals, rich colours, and astounding technical skill to the equally beautiful and vastly different Spinster and Nadia, Butterfly this year. The Québécois DP’s name is attached to many of the most visually striking Canadian films of the last decade, from Xavier Dolan’s I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats, to Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson’s The Forbidden Room, to Andrea Dorfman’s Heartbeat.
Andrea Dorfman’s latest film, Spinster, is an ‘anti-rom-com’ in which protagonist Gaby (Chelsea Peretti) learns to appreciate single life rather than falling in love, but Weber Biron ensures that we still get all the warm and fuzzy rom-com feels the genre demands. In fantasy sequences that show Gaby’s (and other people’s) idealised fantasy version of love, Weber Biron uses woozy, soft closeups and lingering shots of body parts to visualise desire. When Dorfman snaps us back into Gaby’s more mundane reality, Weber Biron’s cinematography is less showy, but the colours still pop, creating an appealing and comforting world you just want to live inside.
Weber Biron’s greatest technical achievement of the year was Nadia, Butterfly, a film that opens with two astounding ‘how did they pull this off’ swimming scene set at a fictional Tokyo 2020 Olympics. In a single take, the camera follows protagonist Nadia (Katerine Savard) up and down the pool in a swift, gliding motion. When we interviewed director Pascal Plante, he described how he and Weber Biron pulled off these swimming sequences: “The camera was rigged on a pulley system so we [could] capture both ends of the pool. [Weber Biron] was physically in a swimsuit on a paddle board so she could operate the camera. We knew we had only one take for this, because you don’t ask someone to go 100%, and then do it eight times.”
What’s most impressive about the cinematography in Nadia, Butterfly isn’t just its technical achievement, but the way Weber Biron subtly immerses us in Nadia’s subjective headspace. Plante (an ex-swimmer himself) talked to us about how he worked with Weber Biron to visualise the viewpoint of a swimmer. They used vintage lenses to play with imperfections in the image, like the feeling “when you’re wearing goggles, and you remove the goggles, and you have this blur of water in your eyes.” Just like in Spinster, Weber Biron captures bold colours that pop off the screen, particularly the blue of the water and the red of the Canadian swim team’s costumes — colours that are central to Nadia’s world. Orla Smith
Monkey Beach is a film rife with flashbacks, intergenerational trauma, and an ever-shifting line between the physical and supernatural. From the beginning, cinematographer Stirling Bancroft makes a clear distinction between Vancouver, “a city built on colonial lies,” and Kitimat, home of the Haisla people. Kitimat is introduced with sweeping drone shots, featuring the crystalline blue water of the Douglas Channel and the foggy, wooded coastline; Vancouver is framed with dumpsters and graffitied telephone poles. Each shot of Kitimat highlights its natural beauty, making the viewer feel a deep sense of history, of a time before human existence.
Over the course of the film, nature is used to chart the protagonist’s emotional journey. When she becomes overwhelmed with a sense of impending dread or regret over past mistakes, Bancroft gives us shots that hover right at the water’s edge, threatening to dip under at any second. Overhead shots of water give a sense of time’s never-ending expanse, of moments from past and present bleeding into each other and becoming indistinguishable.
The land, and the way it’s photographed, reveals just as much as the dialogue. During a scene at Monkey Beach, the camera pans around moss-covered trees and pulls back through dense forest, making nature seem just as animated as its human inhabitants. While people die, the land remains, holding memories and history beyond the scope of imagination. Bancroft’s focused, lingering shots never let us forget that land is a living organism and just as important to the story as the characters. Lindsay Pugh
In First Cow, director Kelly Reichardt and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt craft a beautifully realised character study where the relationships between characters and their body language is front and centre. The film tells the story of Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee) who strike up a friendship and a baking business in 1820s Oregon where civilization has yet to leave its mark.
Shot in the Academy ‘square’ ratio, Blauvelt explained to us, “A square is a closer shape to a human figure than anything else. You know if you think about 16:9 or 2.39 or CinemaScope, those are the options. Those are 45 degrees off of what a human body standing straight up is. So there’s a lot of benefit to that. If you’re closer in proximity to a person, you get more of their body language and their body in the shot. Whereas, if you want to get the same amount of body language or part of your human being on a wide angle, you have to be further away with the same lens.”
The world that Cookie and King-Lu inhabit is green and lush, and yet, as Blauvelt told me, “Kelly isn’t about beautifying the [landscape]. It’s a lot more to do with the actual human experience, the hardships of what these people go through.” The Academy ratio helps with keeping the focus on the characters even as they move through beautiful settings. That focus on character is perhaps especially clear from the fact that the camera never revels in the meticulous hand-built homes where the characters live, which merely provide a backdrop that creates mood while we stay focused on the characters.
Reichardt has become synonymous with minimalism. As Blauvelt said, “It’s avoiding the cut. Having a cut, even the most terrific cut, is imposing something on the audience.” Her collaboration with Blauvelt on set is crucial for this, developing framing and blocking that will allow for simplified storytelling without interfering with the actors’ process. Some of the most memorable frames in First Cow involve shots with windows in the background, which reveal two scenes happening at once: Cookie and King-Lu reconnect inside a bar while a brawl happens outside seen through the window; the Chief Factor discusses his views on harsh punishment while Cookie and King-Lu arrive at his home as seen through one window, and then another, in one continuous shot.
The biggest technical challenge of the film, however, was the night-time shots, since the wide shots necessitated shooting these day for night — a first for Reichardt and Blauvelt. The pair previously collaborated on some of the best night scenes on film in Meek’s Cutoff (Blauvelt told me, “Kelly let things go dark”) and the crime scenes in Night Moves. For First Cow, Blauvelt spent a month and a half testing cameras, lights, and lenses to get the look right. He told me, “Emmanuel Lubezki had mentioned that you should shoot night with hard sun, that that’s the best way to do it. So I had all these things in my head about what to do. But being in Oregon, I’m not going to have hard sun. I had to create it. When I was shooting in the canopy of the forest, there was one scenario where I had to light a lot. When it was sunny through the canopy, I could use those dapple highlights to look like moonlight.” Alex Heeney
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