10 Of The Very Best Cinematographers Working Today

Skyfall 10 Of The Very Best Cinematographers Working Today

The paradox of the various departments of film production, whether it’s design, music, photography or others, is that when they’re executed with the highest level of skill they stand out, but they’re not really meant to. Most agree that a movie’s score, for instance, is operating at its best when it is affecting the audience’s response to and understanding of a particular scene or moment in a film but on a completely unconscious level. It’s only afterward, perhaps on repeat viewings, that we notice how beautifully composed the music was throughout, and in particular segments of the movie. If it stands out too much, it can be overbearing, and overly noticeable, and actually distract from the story that we’re supposed to be engaging in.

I don’t completely buy this perspective, but I certainly understand and sympathize with it. Story is important, and for those whose intention it is to make story the primary component to their movie, as is most often the case, then anything that upstages the story is to its detriment. On the other hand, one of the most important aspects of cinematic storytelling is defining the mood or voice of the story, and this is achieved most effectively and simply through establishing a distinct look and feel to the film’s imagery. It’s a delicate balance, and the best cinematographers are the ones who can maintain that balance while delighting our eyes.

Here are 10 figures who stand out as among the very best cinematographers in the movie business.

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1) Emmanuel Lubezki

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If I had to pick one guy who would shoot every movie I ever watched for the foreseeable future, it would probably be Emmanuel Lubezki. It’s tough to argue there’s anyone creating better cinematic products right now. His name first came to my attention when his incredible work on Children of Men seemed to be the talk of the movie world back in 2006; his collaborative effort with director Alfonso Cuarón was one of the most visually innovative films to date. The extraordinarily long takes and swirling camera movements put us right in the middle of a world that was utterly convincing. More than any other film I had seen to that point, I felt like I was one of the people in the movie. And that was without 3D. The buzz surrounding their upcoming picture, Gravity, is that it is even more immersive, which is hard to imagine.

Along with this stunning documentary-style realism, Lubezki is also able to manipulate light and color to create images that resemble paintings. I thought Sleepy Hollow, on a visual level alone, was one of the most gorgeous films I had ever seen. Then came The Tree of Life, and the team of Terrence Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki proved to be the most formidable in all of cinema. Every shot of this movie is a masterpiece. It’s no wonder Lubezki is one of the most sought after names in the business.

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2) Roger Deakins

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I’d say just about anyone who knows the name of one professional cinematographer knows Roger Deakins. He is cinema’s elder statesman, even though he’s not all that much older than a lot of people in the game. Of anyone working today, he has to have the most impressive record, possibly the most impressive record of all time in movies, receiving ten Academy Award nominations for cinematography, and racking up several dozen credits over four decades. He’s like if Woody Allen made the best movie of the year every year in terms of proficiency and productivity.

His collaborators owe so much to him, but it’s his work with the Coen Brothers where he’s probably been his strongest. Their relationship dates back to Barton Fink, but they really seemed to come into their own in the desolate winter landscapes of Fargo, the golden fields of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and may have made the most visually beautiful film during their entire run together most recently with True Grit. On top of that, you know, in his spare time, he shot The Shawshank Redemption, The Village (M. Night Shyamalan’s best-looking film), and the sublime Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, surely one of the most gorgeous-looking movies ever made. Having Roger Deakins’ name on your movie basically guarantees that if nothing else (and movies like In Time could certainly be examples of movies with virtually nothing else), it’s going to look amazing. The great part is, when you pair his skills with an outstanding movie like Skyfall, magic happens.

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3) Claudio Miranda

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The reigning Oscar recipient for cinematography, Claudio Miranda has rather quickly become one of the top names in his field. He apparently kicked around in various lighting departments until David Fincher made him the Director of Photography on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Miranda soared on this project, giving it a gorgeous golden, dreamlike look, and earning several award nominations, including an Oscar nomination, for his work. He went on to direct the photography in Joseph Kosinski’s two visually striking films, Tron: Legacy and Oblivion this year.

His greatest achievement to date, however, has to be his work with Ang Lee on Life of Pi, for which he won this past year’s Academy Award for Cinematography. This one was a runaway for the prize, by far the most captivating visual experience at the movies last year and a stunning advance in the use of 3D photography in particular. After Avatar it seemed as though no one knew what to do with 3D filmmaking, opting for lazy and lackluster post-production 3D and settling for pop-up book imagery in what had the potential for drawing us more into the world before us rather than reminding us we’re just watching. Life of Pi reminded us that 3D can be beautiful, whether it was the opening shots in the zoo that felt like we were taking a stroll through it, or the gorgeous underwater swimming shots, or the fact that Pi’s entire time at sea looked vividly surreal, which ended up making narrative and thematic sense. Needless to say, Miranda will be a name we’ll all be watching for in the years to come.

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4) Matthew Libatique

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Darren Aronofsky’s movies always leave a visual impression on you all while they’re effing with your brain. That’s all part of it—the disorienting feeling experienced by the eye corresponds deeply with the same feeling being perpetrated on the mind. It’s one of the qualities that makes his films so distinct and affecting. And the visual aspect of this impression is a testament to the work of his collaborating cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, who shot Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and Black Swan, among other well-known titles.

Libatique has done solid work with Jon Favreau in recent years, but it’s his work with Aronofsky that stands out the most. His range is most evident in the stylistic chasm between The Fountain and Black Swan, the former possessing immense impressionistic color and beauty, and the latter employing frenzied movements and nightmarish images to create two distinct pieces of work. It’s not just the ability to carry out both looks, but the absolute mastery of them that makes Libatique unique. I can’t wait to see what he does with Noah.

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5) Christopher Doyle

Hero 10 Of The Very Best Cinematographers Working Today

Christopher Doyle is a name I came to know because it had a certain way of standing out: he has been the cinematographer on several Chinese language movies, and a name like Christopher Doyle tends to stand out when listed in the major credits of such movies. His most frequent collaborating director is Wong Kar-wai, the king of Hong Kong cinema, and is the eye behind gorgeous films like Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love.

But he has been prolific elsewhere, working with directors like Gus Van Sant, Jim Jarmusch and Phillip Noyce, as well as M. Night Shyamalan (whose movies are at the very least visually spectacular) and Zhang Yimou on one of the most beautiful films of the 2000s, Hero. Most recently his work gave a haunting and sinister feel to Sebastian Silva’s Magic Magic starring Michael Cera and Juno Temple. As cinematographers who are Australian transplants living in Taiwan and fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin go, he’s probably my favorite.

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6) Wally Pfister

Dark Knight 10 Of The Very Best Cinematographers Working Today

A big part of the Christopher Nolan appeal is the visual quality of his movies, and that makes collaborating cinematographer Wally Pfister a major part of Nolan’s rise to the upper echelon of contemporary Hollywood directors. He deserves enormous credit for making the dark Gotham envisioned by Nolan a reality, a city that felt alive, and dark, and on the brink of chaos. The use of light in the entire Dark Knight Trilogy, particularly the increasing use of light as the series progresses until the final installment which almost all takes place in the light of day, is an inspired concept, and executed to perfection.

The other Christopher Nolan pictures he has shot are equally impressive, maybe even more so. Memento, their first project together, stitched two distinct-looking storylines that we eventually realize are on the same timeline. The Prestige doesn’t work nearly as well if the look of the film doesn’t feel every bit as magical as the narrative it’s trying to represent. And Inception relies on completely different looks so the audience is clear which depth of dream we’re meant to be looking at at any given point of the movie’s hectic climax. What I’m saying is that without a well-executed visual style, Chris Nolan ain’t quite Chris Nolan, and we have Wally Pfister to thank for that. Plus, his work on Moneyball reminded us all how beautiful baseball can be.

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7) John Toll

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He hasn’t been nearly as prolific in his career as others on this list have been, but John Toll has made his mark on a number of visually striking movies over quite an extended period of time. In a way, he has a way of accomplishing that kind of invisible cinematography that filmmakers like to talk about; he’s not the most well-known name among cinephiles, and yet he has been recognized for his work on movies like Braveheart and Legends of the Fall, as well as working frequently with Cameron Crowe, and two works with highly respected visual storytellers, the Wachowskis and Terrence Malick, in Cloud Atlas and The Thin Red Line, respectively.

He also was one of the people responsible for the initial look of Breaking Bad, which Michael Slovis effectively built upon in making that show the most visually compelling in television history. In fact, Slovis will likely be one of the best cinematographers in all of cinema someday. He certainly is at the top of the pack in television right now. Perhaps he’ll take over for Toll with the Wachowskis one of these days, although I can’t imagine him topping the visual feat of Cloud Atlas anytime soon.

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8) Robert Richardson

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Robert Richardson has been all over the place, and for far longer than I realized. I came to know him as the guy who really brought Quentin Tarantino’s movies to visual life, starting with Kill Bill but really coming to fruition in Inglourious Basterds. The look of Basterds was key to confirming its cinematic departure from Tarantino’s previous efforts, and it also is just a gorgeous, gorgeous film. His work on Django Unchained was also some of the best photographic work of last year.

What I didn’t know is that he was Oliver Stone’s cinematographer through that director’s golden period, from Salvador and Platoon up until U Turn (probably a good point to part ways). Since then, aside from Tarantino, his most frequent collaborator has been Martin Scorsese, both in his documentaries like Shine a Light and his recent gorgeous visual work on Shutter Island and Hugo. He has progressed from the gritty realism of his 1980s work with Oliver Stone to more cartoonish visuals with Quentin Tarantino to the dreamscapes of recent Scorsese stuff, showing he now has the photographic range of an A-list cinematographer.

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9) Rodrigo Prieto

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Another excellent DP who has been under-recognized despite consistently giving us outstanding work is Rodrigo Prieto, whose most recent work was done on a moderately successful film called Argo. He has accumulated quite the resume over the past couple of decades, including Brokeback Mountain and Lust, Caution with Ang Lee, Babel and 21 Grams with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 25th Hour with Spike Lee, Frida with Julie Taymor, and worked with Martin Scorsese on the upcoming Wolf of Wall Street.

That’s quite the track record, and with a remarkably diverse group of filmmakers. And yet every one of those films is memorable for how much its imagery contributed to the experience of its story. Brokeback Mountain in particular is a beautiful example of a kind of throwback, classical Hollywood love story told from a contemporary history context, employing the traditional visual dichotomy of boundless country landscapes representing freedom and crippling, claustrophobic city scenes where the characters are inhibited by society and its mores. Sometimes seemingly simple cinematography can contain more meaning than all the words spoken in an entire film.

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10) Janusz Kaminski

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Serving as the go-to guy for perhaps the most beloved cinematic storytellers of the past 40 years speaks volumes of the skilled hands of Janusz Kaminski. He has been Steven Spielberg’s cinematographer exclusively since he shot Schindler’s List for him in 1993. The two seem to make a pretty solid team, from the stylized black and white photographer of Schindler, to the hyperrealism of Saving Private Ryan, the future brought to life in Minority Report, the picturesque landscapes of War Horse, right up to the muted, muddy tones of Lincoln. The two would serve as possibly the best example of great cinematography working in the service of the storytelling.

Establishing a look that feels right for a film is so crucial, and so subtle, and seemingly so difficult. Sometimes it can mean the difference between a movie being taken seriously or being laughed at. And yet there are so many people doing great work—I think again of Michael Slovis on Breaking Bad or others doing great TV work, and also of one of the most visually stunning movies I’ve ever seen, the Turkish film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, photographed by Gökhan Tiryaki. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on his career in the years to come. Fortunately, thanks to the brilliant work of all the filmmakers listed here, that eye will be kept very happy in the meantime.

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  • Mabasso

    This can not be a valid list without Larry Fong. Great list, though, but Laryy Fong is missing. Just because the movies haven’t been Oscar-nominated doesnt mean his work wasnt sublime. He deserves a shot, and he puts his signature blueish pallete on all of them.