Avatar won the Best Cinematography Oscar, which brings up an interesting question. As one of my movie friends so aptly put it: "C'mon, that is not cinematography. That is 3D visual effects." The movie is probably about one-third live action footage and about two-thirds computer generated imagery, so which are we counting? If we're just talking about the footage that was run through an actual camera -- the footage of actors sitting and chatting in rooms in front of scientific machines -- it's really not all that impressive. If we're talking about the much more impressive footage that was generated in a computer, then we've entered a strange new realm. And it's something that the Academy is going to have to address.
If computer-generated imagery counts, then movies like Up should also be considered for Best Cinematography, and taken shot-for-shot, that movie is much more beautiful and visually effective than Avatar. Computer artists use different tools from cinematographers to achieve the same ends. They use light, and control the way the light falls into the picture. The light can be strong or soft, originating from all different angles. It can be a harsh spotlight or deep shadows or a bright sky. Computer artists also arrange their frames in much the same way, placing a figure in an empty landscape to communicate isolation, or surrounding the figure with buildings or trees to convey something else.