The most honored cinematographer of 2020 is Joshua James Richards, the British-born “Nomadland” craftsman who specializes in beautiful but complex images of the American West. The partner of filmmaker Chloé Zhao, Richards has shot all three of her features, plus the 2017 farm-life love story “God’s Own Country,” imbuing each with a mysterious sense of nature’s power and the rawness of the outdoors.
Now Oscar nominees, Richards and Zhao, both in their late 30s, could each collect trophies at next month’s ceremony. Zhao is nominated in four categories, a record for a woman in a single year. Though the two do tend to eschew the spotlight, they are both deeply immersed in movie history and eager with references to films and filmmakers that have shaped their own careers.
“The approach of the cinematography was always one towards classic cinema that also feels contemporary,” Richards said in a video interview exclusively available on TheWrap.
Zhao added, “Josh is a very intuitive (camera) operator, so I rely on him to find the light and find the performance.”
Richards has spoken to TheWrap about the influence of the 1956 John Wayne film “The Searchers.” In the video, the cinematographer also highlights the importance of Hal Ashby’s “Bound for Glory,” a 1976 biopic on the life of folk singer Woody Guthrie, starring David Carradine.
Like “Nomadland,” that film was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture. Today it is largely remembered for cinematographer Haskell Wexler’s first-ever use of the Steadicam, now commonplace in movies and television to ensure perfect smoothness in moving, handheld camera shots. Think of Martin Scorsese’s Copacabana long take in “Goodfellas” or innumerable walk-and-talk scenes in “The West Wing.”
Wexler won the 1976 cinematography Oscar for the film. The technique became ubiquitous fast, showing up the same year on screen in “Marathon Man” and “Rocky” and then unforgettably as a tool of the supernatural in 1980’s “The Shining.” Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown personally operated the camera mechanism for that Stanley Kubrick film.
In the “Nomadland” video, Richards praised “Bound for Glory.” The Steadicam shot, he said, “Took you through all these traveling workers and used all these walking shots. It’s just a great way of serving both character and environment.”
In “Nomadland,” he continued, “We’re following Fran (McDormand) from a distance and it’s wide enough that the eye can search the frame, but Chloé is still grounding us in this woman’s emotional journey.
For a comparison, see the Steadicam shots from “Bound of Glory” and “Nomadland,” below. And watch the full video above.
“Nomadland” is in select theaters and available to stream via Hulu. The 93rd Academy Awards will air on April 25.