A list of chronological Oscar winners often tells you more about the state of the culture than the state of the art. That is very true when it comes to Best Picture, with musicals and epics taking home the Academy Award during one decade, but being largely forgotten the next. So too is the award for Best Cinematography, as seen in the seven-minute supercut above. Showing every Academy Award winning cinematographer and their films, the supercut's choices for the one or two shots that sum up a brilliantly lit picture do make the Academy’s decision at least justified. But it is surprising how quickly so many of these films have slipped from the public’s consciousness. (Like 2003’s Master and Commander--when’s the last time you thought about that film?)
When the Academy first started giving awards for cinematography, it went to the person first, not the picture and the person involved. So when Karl Struss and Charles Rosher were nominated for--ostensibly--their work on F.W. Murnau’s classic Sunrise--they also got credited for the five other films they had shot that year.
The current system was worked out in 1931, although up to 1967 awards went--and I think rightly so!--to color and black and white separately. (And, to further complicate things, the color award was considered a “special achievement” award for a while until Gone with the Wind pretty much necessitated a change in priorities.) After 1967, the only black and white film to win was Schindler’s List.
Somebody with way more viewing experience should weigh in on what makes a lot of these films Oscar-worthy in their cinematography, but it does seem that at least through the 1960s, the Academy loved bold use of saturated colors for one category, and an almost abstract use of high contrast shadow and light for the other.
Other notables: Alfred Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief (a rather minor work) and Rebecca (a much better one) were his only two films to get the nod, with awards going to Robert Burks (but not for his work on Vertigo, Rear Window, North by Northwest) and George Barnes respectively. Stanley Kubrick has had two of his films win, with Russell Metty for Spartacus and John Alcott for Barry Lyndon. (But not Gilbert Taylor for Dr. Strangelove!)
Stanley Kubrick has done slightly better, with Russell Metty for Spartacus and John Alcott for Barry Lyndon. (But not Gilbert Taylor for Dr. Strangelove!) Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and The Aviator both earned statues for Robert Richardson (who also won for Oliver Stone’s JFK). Roger Deakins has never won, though he’s been nominated 13 times, twice in 2007 for both No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
And the most awarded cinematographer? That’s a tie at four Oscars each for Leon Shamroy (The Black Swan, Wilson, Leave Her to Heaven, and the studio-destroying bomb Cleopatra); and Joseph Ruttenberg (The Great Waltz, Mrs. Miniver, Somebody Up There Likes Me, and Gigi).
Make of this list what you will. (And feel free to do so in the comments!)
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.