OBJECTIVE: Watch The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring once per every week of 2014.

WHEN: September 27, 2014, 2:07pm. (Week 40, September 21-27.)

WHERE: In the living room of my apartment in Portland, ME.

FORMAT: Blu-ray on a Vizio 47″ LCD HDTV.

COMPANY: None.

PHYSICAL AND MENTAL STATE: Just ate. Hoping to enjoy this marathon.

OOH! PRETTY!:
“Oh, here we go again,” you’d be saying if anyone read our site. “Bill’s gonna bitch about something he hates about The Fellowship of the Ring like he has been for months. What is it this time, you cranky son of a turd? Lemme check the title… oh, cinematography! Gonna complain about how ugly the movie looks, are ya?”

And to that I say: are you kidding me? The Fellowship of the Ring is gorgeous.

Here is one randomly selected frame of its breathtaking visual beauty.

While I may have zero interest in all the Elves and the Wizards and the Enchanted Things of the Stuff, that doesn’t change the fact that this is one good-lookin’ picture. And I’m not the only one that noticed; the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences declared The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring to have the best cinematography of any film released in 2001.

Zero sarcasm, this shot amazes me every time.

So, I decided to use today’s viewing to focus on Fellowship‘s exceptional cinematography… and then immediately watch its Oscar rivals Amélie, Black Hawk Down, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and Moulin Rouge! to determine if the Academy has any idea what the fuck they’re talking about.

THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING:
Hey, before we dive in, what is cinematography? According to Wikipedia, it involves the image sensor, the film stock, the filters, the lens, the depth of field and focus, the aspect ratio and framing, the lighting, the camera movement, the frame rate selection, the HOLY SHIT, okay, it’s a lot of stuff. For my purposes, it’s about what makes each shot look great in the context of the film as a whole. Check out the blog One. Perfect. Shot. or the web series Every Frame a Painting to geek out over the sort of stuff I’m talking about.

Seriously, this is porn for movie nerds.

Now, regarding Fellowship, many many shots are utter genius, and I’m not going to list them all, but I want to focus on a few that I particularly appreciate for how they add to the story. One of my favorites? The framing of Gandalf and Bilbo to show their relationship. When Gandalf sees Bilbo for the first time, the shot is framed behind Gandalf around shoulder level, showing their height difference. Should Bilbo be intimidated by this guy?

Naw. After a reaction shot from Gandalf, the camera moves downward and pushes in as they hug, to show that they are pals and equals. Aww.

Fellowmatography Hug

Throughout the rest of their scenes together, the cinematography continues to portray them as equals, with the camera distant at a level midway between their heights…

…or they’re framed to be the exact same height.

In addition to the acting and the dialogue, the camera position gives us a sense of the relationship between these two characters right away (and is doubly impressive considering the special effects used to make Bilbo appear tiny). But what happens when Bilbo starts fucking with the Ring and Gandalf is angry at him?

Boom. A low angle, making Gandalf tower over him. He now seems like more of a threat, and Bilbo seems weaker. It’s a brilliant use of camera placement to move the story along. Good job, Andrew Lesnie and friends.

Speaking of shifting relationship dynamics, you ever notice how the camerawork changes as Saruman reveals more and more of his evil plan? Check it out. Here’s a couple of chums just going for a walk…

…but when they move inside, it’s darker, and there are creepy shafts of light behind Saruman as he becomes clearly aroused by all this talk of Sauron.

When he finally goes Full Evil, Gandalf is framed normally, from chest up, but Saruman’s face fills the entire screen, at a slight angle. These are classic techniques to represent that this guy’s viewpoint is skewed and that he’s a growing threat.

What? More great moments of cinematography in bullet point form? Okay!

  • The contrast of the shaky camerawork in the first battle scene with the smooth tracking in the Shire.
  • That awesome dolly zoom before Frodo shouts, “Get off the road!”
  • The use of people walking through the frame in Bree to hide the edits.
  • The whip pans to show the echoes of the approaching army in Moria.
  • The various lighting changes from location to location.
  • And other stuff I could describe in greater detail if this were a video! (It’s not!)

Also, shout-out to screen direction. Almost all major treks to Mordor in this movie take place from screen left to screen right, so your brain never wonders, “Wait, are they coming home now?” You probably don’t need to see ten examples of consistent screen direction, but hey, here are ten examples.

Right and Left Again.

Well, I’ve said far too many nice things about The Lord of the Rings for one article; shall we move on to the flicks it beat out for Best Cinematography?

AMÉLIE:
The visual quirkiness of Amélie is so ramped up that it’s all our pal James could focus on when he watched it without any subtitles. The whole movie has a filter over it that makes France look like the reddest, greenest country on Earth.

Does Amélie live in the Matrix?

Also, if you like your framing to follow the rule of thirds, stay the fuck out of Amélie, because shit’s about to get centered.

Un!

Deux!

Trois!

Quatre!

Cinq!

In terms of camera placement and movement, Amélie really goes out of its way to impress. There are some gorgeously complicated shots in this movie, including one in which the camera tracks down a building, under a roof, towards Amelie, and then finally over her shoulder to reveal the book she’s looking at. A beautiful shot that lasts all of 23 seconds, but which probably took a crazy amount of work.

Hmm.

Oh, nice.

WHOA.

YOU’RE KIDDING ME.

Here’s the part where I get a bit cynical, though. Amélie uses damn near every visual trick in the book, but is a book of visual tricks a story? Don’t get me wrong, this is a lovely little dream of a film, but to me, cinematography’s main goal is to seamlessly flesh out the story and tone of the film. Sure, you could claim that the entire point of Amélie is feelings over story, but nevertheless, if every two minutes you’re saying, “Hey, that looked neat,” instead of taking in the movie as a whole, is this a case of cinematography failing because it tried too hard? Enough nitpicking this French whimsy, let’s blow some shit up.

BLACK HAWK DOWN:
Hmm. Well.

Yeah.

This entry’s gonna go by pretty quick. The opening of the film is very somber, with a depressing blue tint and slow camera movement to convey the weight of the hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties in Somalia. This part of the film is powerfully effective.

Then it just becomes… a war movie.

Agh! War stuff.

I’m not saying it’s a bad movie. I enjoyed it quite a bit. It’s just an odd pick for a cinematography award, as, aside from the opening sequence, I struggled to find a single shot that blew me away in terms of enhancing the story.

Okay, this one enhances the badassery.

Maybe it’s purely the nature of the genre. We’re being thrown headfirst into combat, and familiar cinematic techniques would distract from the grittiness. In a nutshell, the cinematography is thoroughly competent, but nothing to hand awards out to unless you were dependent on selecting five nominees. Next!

THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE:
Oh. My. God.

Yup, a guy cutting hair is more interesting than any film so far.

This is it. This is the movie. If we’re talking a film where every frame is visually striking without distracting from the story, The Man Who Wasn’t There is just such a film. I will go on record saying that I think black-and-white can be pretty gimmicky and that I’m only a mild Coen brothers fan, and this flick still blows the competition out of the water. I could try to describe how intensely gorgeous this movie is, but just look.

You may notice that, while the angles and composition are great, what really makes each frame pop is the lighting. The absence of color certainly helps to draw your eye to it, but holy hell, the mingling of light and shadow is pure visual pornography. (The camera movement is solid as well; brace yourself for a scene that moves from window to window in real time.) This is the perfect example of a simple, small-scale story that uses cinematography effectively to make it feel larger than life. This film’s loss at the Oscars makes me wonder if the Academy even knows what cinematography is.

MOULIN ROUGE!:
Ah!

Wait!

Fuck!

Hold on!

Jesus!

Make it stop!

NO!

EVERYBODY JUST CHILL THE FUCK OUT.

Thank you. Phew.

If you told me the editor of Moulin Rouge! was bitter enemies with its cinematographer, I would believe you. There are plenty of lovely shots in this film, but it’s cut so fast that you have half a second to even catch them. There is no way the Academy could rightfully nominate this movie for Best Cinematography without a pause button.

Oh, that one’s nice– GONE.

I guess you could say it works for the film, where the shots are crazy and goofy when they’re being all bohemian and slow and wonderful when they’re being all romantic, but I have a headache right now and I don’t want to think any more.

CONCLUSION:
I think the Academy was wrong, but only slightly. Whereas The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring could have been a Michael Bay-style shitsucker of a blockbuster, it elevated itself through the use of brilliant cinematography to deliver us a visually epic adventure, something that Peter Jackson has always aimed for even in his earliest films. That said, I think some of his choices are strange (that random strobe effect that he went on to max out in King Kong, to name one) and the movie’s reputable source material and appeal to general audiences helped give it a boost when it was supposed to be ranked purely on visuals.

The Man Who Wasn’t There is a great film that looks nothing short of amazing in every single scene, but it’s just a little too “off” for broad appeal. Amélie and Moulin Rouge! are baskets of candy that are good for a quick sugar high, but the flavor doesn’t stick with you. Black Hawk Down is a fifth film.

My final ranking for best cinematography, if you like movie criticism in list form like some beauty pageant:
The Man Who Wasn’t There
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Amélie
Moulin Rouge!

Black Hawk Down

ONE THING THAT WOULD HAVE IMPROVED THE MOVIE:
I’d kinda like to see Fellowship done in black-and-white.

Ooh, how noir.