Academy Award for Best Cinematography: History and Rules

Filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron accepting the Academy Award for Best Cinematography
HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 24: Alfonso Cuaron accepts the Cinematography award for 'Roma' onstage during the 91st Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre on February 24, 2019 in Hollywood, California.

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One element that every single live-action film has in common is the camera. Though camera technology has evolved drastically since the invention of cinema, movies with well-structured, visually-engaging camerawork have stood the test of time. On most films, the primary artist behind the camera is the cinematographer (also known as the director of photography), who is responsible for the camera technology utilized on set and the composition of shots in order to help create the director's vision of the film.

Since the very first Oscars ceremony, the Academy Award for Best Cinematography has represented the highest achievement for cinematographers. Over the decades, the rules for the cinematography category have largely remained the same.

Fun Fact

Cinematographer George J. Folsey, ASC, was nominated for 13 Academy Awards for Best Cinematography from 1934 through 1964 without a win. In 1945 and 1955 he was nominated in both the Black-and-White and Color categories.

History of the Best Cinematography Oscar

The Academy Award for Best Cinematography has been awarded since the inaugural Academy Awards, held in 1929. It is one of only a few categories to have been awarded every year at the Oscars. The first winners were Charles Rosher and Karl Struss, who were awarded for the 1927 film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans.

From 1936 to 1938, a second Academy Award for Best Cinematography was presented as a Special Achievement Award for color cinematography (at the time, a majority of films released each year were shot in black-and-white because of the expense of the color process).

Beginning in 1939, there were two competitive categories: one for black-and-white film and a second for color film. The first film to win in the Oscar in the Best Cinematography Color category was 1939's Gone with the Wind, shot by Ernest Haller and Ray Rennahan.

The categories were combined in 1967 (though no black-and-white cinematography Oscar was awarded in 1957). Since 1967, only two films released in black-and-white have won the Oscar for Best Cinematography: Schindler's List (1993) and Roma (2018), though other black-and-white films have been nominated. These nominees include Raging Bull (1980), Zelig (1983), The Artist (2011), and Nebraska (2013).

Requirements and Eligibility

Any feature that qualifies under the standard Academy Awards rules is eligible in the Best Cinematography category, and all eligible films appear on a nominations ballot that is voted on in a preferential vote by the Cinematographers Branch of the Academy. The five films that receive the highest number of votes and the corresponding credited cinematographers are deemed the nominees for the categories. The five nominees are then voted on by all members of the Academy.

Though most films have one credited cinematographer, a handful of Academy-nominated films have had more than one. The last film with two credited cinematographers to win was 1982's Gandhi (Billy Williams and Ronnie Taylor).

The only Oscar winner to win an award by write-in vote was Hal Mohr, who won Best Cinematography for 1935's A Midsummer Night's Dream during a very brief period when the Academy allowed write-in candidates. The rule was changed shortly after Mohr's win to exclude write-in candidates.

Notable Winners

Leon Shamroy and Joseph Ruttenberg are tied for most awards in the Best Cinematography category. They have each won four times. In addition, Shamroy is tied with Charles Lang for most nominations in the category (18 each). However, Lang had only one win (for 1932's A Farewell to Arms).

While eight individuals have won three Academy Awards for Best Cinematography, perhaps the most notable is Emmanuel Lubezki. Lubezki won his three Oscars in back-to-back-to-back years for Gravity (2013), Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014), and The Revenant (2015), which was a first for the Best Cinematography category. Prior to that, Lubezki was nominated five times without a win. Fourteen individuals have won the Best Cinematography Oscar twice.

While cinematography has historically been a male-dominated field, it is still surprising that a woman was not nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography until Rachel Morrison was nominated for Mudbound (2017).

In a rare feat, filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón won both the Academy Award for Best Cinematography and the Academy Award for Best Director for Roma (2018). The film also won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.