Master and Commander- Far Side of the World was nominated for 10 academy awards when it was released in 2003. Out of the ten nominations, the film won two awards for cinematography and sound effects editing. Looking closer at the film, we can see exactly why it won the former award.
The opening scene starts with death-like silence. The screen is dark, but reflective, as the camera pans across the ocean. Slowly, words describing the plot appear on the screen giving the viewer a clear picture of precisely what is happening without wasting time. As the words fade, the screen dissolves into the ships interior where the crew soundly sleeps. There is very little sound... only the soft creaking of the old ship can be heard. In this shot, there is very little light. There is just enough illumination so that if the viewer strains their eyes they can see what is happening. It truly gives the feeling that they are on a Napoleonic Era ship. Because of the low lighting, it is impossible to make out faces; the characters up to this point have been mere shadows giving them a mysterious aura.
Eventually, the camera takes us to the upper deck and begins to zoom out. It is revealed that the ship has been encased in a pale white fog. Here is where the cinematography reaches its peak. A shroud of mystery is created through these images leaving the viewer with an eerie sense of discomfort. To this point in the movie, there has been no dialogue which helps accentuate the masterful cinematography. The night watchman peers through his telescope into the fog after hearing the faint sound of a bell. Because he is fearful they may be close to a reef marker or another boat, his expression is grim.
The camera switches to a first person view as it peers out the looking glass. The sea is covered by the thickest fog. An image materializes as the camera pans to the side and overshoots. It immediately corrects itself to the same area the image was but the object has disappeared. After some discussion and rallying the men, the ship's bell is rung. Everyone is silent. There are flashes in the distance and the captain shouts, “Down! All hands down!” A barrage of gruesome cannon rounds tears through the ship. Splinters of wood fly everywhere. The entire time the camera holds true and keeps a smooth air letting the viewer focus on the action. Keeping the shot steady, rather than choppy, keeps the fear in the air as the men cower for their lives. Before anything else happens, the viewer already knows they are outgunned and probably outclassed. The enemy already has them by surprise, an important element of war strategy.
This is the most masterful shot of the entire film, but this is not to say that the rest of the movie is not impressive. Every scene has some unique camera angles that give the audience a new perspective on the issue at hand. The most common and impressive choice of a camera angle is the frequent first person view. Often to show what is happening through the characters eyes, the shot will go to the first person. Rather than tell you what they character is feeling they show you. One of the best examples of this happens about halfway through the movie. The crew are practicing with the gunship on a small unmanned craft. After practicing all day, one can imagine the frustration these men were facing. Finally, the last round of the volley is fired. The shot switches to the cannoneer’s perspective and the audience can see firsthand as the target is destroyed. The viewer is filled with a sense of relief as a cheer goes through the crowd.
It is due to this masterful cinematography that the film was so successful. The lighting in most scenes was dark and cloudy giving the movie a very mysterious tone, much suited to the pursuit of a phantom ship. The camera movement is crisp and smooth so that the action sequences are easy to follow and the dramatic scenes are emotional. Finally, unique camera angles showed a new light on perspective.