10 Contemporary Cinematographers You Should Know


Movie lovers around the world were saddened last week by news of the death of Harris Savides, the acclaimed cinematographer best known for his collaborations with Gus Van Sant (on Milk, Elephant, Gerry, Last Days, Restless, and Finding Forrester), but whose credits also included Zodiac, The Game, Somewhere, American Gangster, Whatever Works, and Birth. Savides was a true artist, one who brought a distinctive eye and sense of craft to his work, and merged his unique sensibility with the directors he collaborated with. But the cinematographer is often an underappreciated and overlooked part of the filmmaking process, their gifts and style too often solely attributed to their directors.

In an attempt to acknowledge some of the other true artists in Savides’ field, we put together a brief survey of some of the most important working cinematographers today; in the interest of keeping it manageable, we’ve confined ourselves to those who work primarily in American film, and those who are still prolific in the industry. Our list is after the jump, and we welcome your favorites in the comments.

Roger Deakins

HIGHLIGHTS: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Man Who Wasn’t There, No Country for Old Men, The Shawshank Redemption, Kundun, True Grit, O Brother, Where Art Thou? AWARDS: Nine Oscar nominations; two American Society of Cinematographer (ASC) awards, eight nominations TRADEMARK: When Barry Sonnenfeld and the Coen Brothers parted ways before Barton Fink, Deakins stepped in, and has shot nearly every film they’ve made since. What’s most impressive about Deakins may well be his versatility — he can go from a bright, wild Coen comedy to the painterly imagery of Jesse James to the slickness of James Bond, and all are jaw-dropping. Deakins is so good, in fact, that he’s frequently employed as visual consultant for animated films, helping those technicians create more realistic images (his credits in that capacity include WALL-E, Rango, and How to Train Your Dragon) UP NEXT: His third collaboration with Sam Mendes, the aforementioned Bond film Skyfall, is out next month.

John Toll

HIGHLIGHTS: Legends of the Fall, Braveheart, The Thin Red Line, Almost Famous, The Last Samurai, Gone Baby Gone, The Adjustment Bureau AWARDS: Two Oscars, one nomination; two ASC awards, three nominations TRADEMARK: One of only three cinematographers in film history to win back-to-back Oscars (for Legends of the Fall and Braveheart), Toll has shot some of the most visually sumptuous movies in recent cinema. But he likes to go natural; “I love just very simple, natural-feeling things,” he said in a 1991 interview. “I love things where the hand of the cinematographer is almost invisible; it’s like he showed up on the most gorgeous natural light possible and happened to take advantage of it.” Toll’s not only worked in film; he shot the first episode of one of television’s most cinematic shows, Breaking Bad. UP NEXT: Currently filming Iron Man 3; Cloud Atlas is out later this month.

Emmanuel Lubezki

HIGHLIGHTS: The Tree of Life, The New World, Children of Men, Ali, Sleepy Hollow, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Meet Joe Black, Great Expectations AWARDS: Five Oscar nominations; two ASC awards, one nomination TRADEMARK: Lubezki has become the go-to DP for Terrence Malick, one of the most purely visual storytellers of our time. The cinematographer has worked in a variety of styles, from the baroque Great Expectations to the gritty Children of Men to the Gothic Sleepy Hollow, but he’s slipped in to Malick’s experimental frame well; “Photography is not used to illustrate dialogue or a performance,” Lubezki told the LA Times after Tree of Life. “We’re using it to capture emotion so that the movie is very experiential. It’s meant to trigger tons of memories, like a scent or a perfume.” UP NEXT: Two Malick collaborations awaiting release (To The Wonder and Knight of Cups), and another filming; a new film with another frequent collaborator, Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity), will be out next year.

Rodrigo Prieto

HIGHLIGHTS: Frida, 25th Hour, 21 Grams, Brokeback Mountain, Babel, Lust Caution, Water for Elephants AWARDS: One Oscar nomination; two ASC nominations TRADEMARK: Born in Mexico, Prieto came into prominence alongside his frequent collaborator Alejandro González Iñárritu. Prieto’s cinematography is notable for the strong sense of texture he brings to his work, which seems embedded in the story’s time and place. “I try not to think of the way it could be photographed,” he told Interview magazine. “I prefer reading to feel how I connect with the story and the characters, and what emotions I experience as the story progresses.” UP NEXT: Argo was just released; currently shooting The Wolf of Wall Street with Martin Scorsese.

Matthew Libatique

HIGHLIGHTS: The Fountain, Black Swan, Iron Man, Inside Man, Everything is Illuminated, Requiem for a Dream, Pi AWARDS: One Oscar nomination; one ASC nomination TRADEMARK: Libatique came to prominence alongside his regular collaborator Darren Aronfsky with their breakthrough film Pi; that film had a distinctive, high-contrast black and white look that served both the low budget and the film’s nightmarish paranoia. But he’s equally adept at big blockbusters (like the first two Iron Man films) and seems to work well with just about all of his directors — aside from Aronfsky, he’s done three or more films with Spike Lee, Joel Schumacher, and Jon Favreau. UP NEXT: Reteaming with Aronfsky for Noah, currently in production.

Robert Elswit

HIGHLIGHTS: There Will Be Blood, Good Night and Good Luck, Magnolia, Michael Clayton, The Town, Punch-Drunk Love, Heist, Syriana, The Bourne Legacy AWARDS: One Oscar, one nomination; one ASC award, one nomination TRADEMARK: Elswit is one of our most color-conscious cinematographers, from the cold blue palate of Michael Clayton to the burnt sienna tone of Syriana to the gray Boston cityscapes of The Town. Even when working in black and white, as he did (to great acclaim) in Good Night and Good Luck, he shot in color and converted to black and white, in order to capture subtler shades that would translate into a wider range of blacks and greys. UP NEXT: He’ll shoot the pilot movie of a possible HBO series called Criminal Justice (adapted from the BBC mini-series) for director Steven Zaillian, starring James Gandolfini.

Ellen Kuras

HIGHLIGHTS: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, He Got Game, Summer of Sam, Away We Go, Be Kind Rewind, Blow AWARDS: One Oscar nomination (for Best Documentary feature) TRADEMARK: There’s no sexist conspiracy in the lack of women on this list — or at least, not one at our level. Female DPs are in shockingly short supply in Hollywood, but Kuras has dazzled in the male-dominated field. Her background is in documentary — and she still shoots plenty of them, including Martin Scorsese’s profiles of Bob Dylan and Fran Lebowitz — and she brings that off-the-cuff naturalism to her narrative films, particularly in her many collaborations with directors Michel Gondry and Spike Lee. UP NEXT: Nothing on her plate currently, according to IMDb, and what’s up with that?

Christopher Doyle

HIGHLIGHTS: In The Mood for Love, Hero, Chungking Express, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Happy Together, Paranoid Park, 2046, The Quiet American AWARDS: Technical Grand Prize, Cannes Film Festival TRADEMARK: We bent our “primarily in American film” rule a bit here, though Australian Doyle has done plenty of domestic films. But he’s best known, and most revered, for his work in the Asian cinema, specifically with director Wong Kar-Wei. In those films, his sumptuous use of color and degrees of saturation were awe-inspiring, but he also is a master of light and shadow, as seen in his low-key photography of In The Mood for Love and Phillip Noyce’s The Quiet American. UP NEXT: Sebastian Silva’s Magic Magic, out next year; currently shooting American Dreams in China for director Peter Chan.

Darius Khondji

HIGHLIGHTS: Seven, My Blueberry Nights, Midnight in Paris, Panic Room, Stealing Beauty, The City of Lost Children, Evita AWARDS: One Oscar nomination; two ASC nominations TRADEMARK: Mainstream audiences first became aware of Khnodji’s style via the distinctively rainy and shadowy world of Seven. But Khondji is hard to pin down — it’s hard to believe that the same man photographed that film as the candy-colored My Blueberry Nights, or the picture-postcard Stealing Beauty. The more common thread between his work is his tremendous eye for composition, for arranging faces and objects with his preferred Cinemascope frame. UP NEXT: Michael Haneke’s Amour, out in December; James Gray’s Nightengale, out next year.

Robert Richardson

HIGHLIGHTS: JFK, Hugo, Kill Bill, Natural Born Killers, Inglourious Basterds, Bringing Out the Dead, The Horse Whisperer, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Aviator, Nixon, Platoon AWARDS: Three Oscars, four nominations; ten ASC award nominations TRADEMARK: Richardson was Oliver Stone’s regular cinematographer through 1997’s U Turn (they parted ways right around the time Stone’s filmography took a quality dip — coincidence?); in the years since, he’s made several films with Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, among others. If you’re looking for a tip-off that you’re watching a Richardson movie, look up; the use of powerful, almost blown-out top lighting is one of his specialties. He also helped Stone develop the mixed-media shooting style that became so prevalent in the filmmaker’s ’90s movies, and has also crept its way into films like Kill Bill. UP NEXT: Reteaming with Tarantino for Django Unchained this Christmas; he also lensed the troubled World War Z, out next year.

Those are some of our favorite contemporary cinematographers — who are yours?