More than 50 years have passed since the Oscar categories honoring color and black-and-white cinematography merged - and in that time, 1993's "Schindler's List" has been the only film of the latter style to win. But monochrome's unlucky streak could soon come to an end: "Roma" and "Cold War" are this year's top picks for best cinematography, marking the first time since 1966 that multiple nominees have been shot in black-and-white.
The stories date to eras of personal significance for the filmmakers. The Spanish-language "Roma," set in 1970s Mexico City, highlights the resilience of Cleo, a housekeeper based on writer-director Alfonso Cuarón's childhood nanny; "Cold War," set primarily in mid-20th-century Poland and France and told in six European languages, follows a tumultuous decades-long romance between a couple loosely inspired by writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski's parents, Wiktor and Zula.
Whereas directors determine the overall vision of a film, cinematographers are the ones who physically execute it by leading the camera and lighting crews. Cuarón served as his own cinematographer after scheduling conflicts led his usual collaborator, three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki, to back out; Pawlikowski chose to team up for a second time with Lukasz Zal, who recently won the top feature prize from the American Society of Cinematographers for "Cold War." (They previously worked together on 2014's "Ida," which joins 2013's "Nebraska," 2011's "The Artist" and 2009's "The White Ribbon" as the only black-and-white cinematography nominees of the past decade.)
Both movies were shot digitally, meaning they lack the softer aesthetic of movies shot on film decades ago. When paired with monochrome palettes and stories from the past, this visual crispness evokes the feeling of recalling distant yet poignant memories.
"Cold War," for instance, is set against the backdrop of a conflict that didn't culminate in traditional warfare. Pawlikowski chose to interpret the harsh effects of a totalitarian regime through memories of his parents' romance, according to Zal. Black-and-white, Zal said, both nods to the past and "allows you to create your own interpretation."
But "Roma" and "Cold War" are exceptionally different black-and-white films. Whereas Pawlikowski and Zal opted for a stylized look, Cuarón's is more naturalistic. Much of "Roma" takes place in the spacious house of Cleo's employers, modeled after the home Cuarón grew up in. The various shades of gray chosen for its interior and exterior achieve a gentle visual contrast in line with the overall aesthetic of the neighborhood.
In addition to favoring wide shots, Cuarón used extensive tracking shots in which the camera moves parallel to the actors. The film has a documentary-like feel that, per IndieWire, Cuarón described to Lubezki in a December discussion as "a ghost of the present visiting the past, objectively without getting involved."
Take an emotional scene in which Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) stands outside the house with her arms around the family's youngest child, Pepe (Marco Graf), their light-colored clothes blending into the light gray wall. His parents argue in the foreground, but Cuarón doesn't cut to Cleo or Pepe's reactions. The camera maintains a distance.
"It's mysterious and very emotional," Lubezki said of Cuarón's style, according to IndieWire. "It feels like the camera and the cinematography are not there to illustrate; they are the film itself."
"Cold War," on the other hand, operates in high contrast on every level. The film follows stoic musician Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and young, uninhibited singer Zula (Joanna Kulig), who fall in love despite their differing temperaments. They meet at a Polish performance academy influenced by the oppressive regime, and yet their wildly uncontrollable love burns bright.
Zal picked out reference points of black and white for every shot and constructed the rest of the image around them - a lesson he learned from working on "Ida." Production design, costuming and makeup followed suit. The dresses women in Zula's singing troupe wear, for example, have dark bodices and vivid white sleeves. When Zula and Wiktor reunite in Paris, their dark attire often stands out against the glamorous buildings' pale walls.
Zula, who thrived in Poland, feels suffocated in Paris. Zal captured her disconnectedness using a shallow depth of field, and upped the visual contrast to illustrate the couple's constant clashing: "There were no shades of gray," Zal said.
At the Oscars, "Roma" and "Cold War" will also compete against each other in the foreign language and directing categories. Joyce Eng, a senior editor at awards prediction website Gold Derby, considers Cuarón a lock for best director. His best cinematography chances are also strong, she said, given the novelty of him being the first filmmaker to earn nominations in both categories at the same show.
But the ASC chose Zal, and academy members might feel inclined to share the wealth - "Roma," after all, also received best picture, actress, supporting actress, original screenplay, production design, sound design and sound mixing nominations.
No matter the results, Eng added, the evolution of the academy into a more diverse voting body could lead to more recognition for "exciting and dynamic filmmaking around the world." The academy's taste is much more eclectic than it was when the categories merged, or even when "Schindler's List" took home the trophy.
"Maybe black-and-white will become a little more in vogue now," she concluded.