Cinematography in The Digital Age
Last Night, I attended the ‘Cinematography in The Digital Age’ panel at the Academy. Guillermo Navarro, Chris Sanders, Rob Hummel, Dean DeBlois, John Bailey, Dean Semler, Adrian Seery and Wally Pfister, via pre-recorded video, shared their knowledge and perception about the transformation their craft is going through.
What seemed clear from the beginning is that the Academy takes the digital revolution very seriously. In his introduction, Academy Executive Director Bruce Davis formulated some of the questions the Academy has in the back of their mind:
- Is it necessary to touch a camera to get a nomination for best cinematography? (A reference to How to Train your Dragon whose directors, Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, worked closely with Roger Deakins on the cinematography of the feature animated, opening a new door for cinematographers in animation by integrating lighting very early in the process). More about it here.
- How members should judge actors performance ? (A reference to the line to draw between an actor who does a motion capture performance, which is a collaborative effort between himself and the technicians, and the actor in ‘jean and t-shirt’ whose sole performance is in front of the camera. More about motion capture here.)
Andy Serkis playing The Gollum
Afterwards, all the panelists talked individually. Although their deep love for film was undeniable, some cinematographers, such as early adopter Dean Semler, also expressed that digital camera will take down film ultimately.
Semler evoked his shooting on the Genesis in the middle of the Mexican jungle for Apocalypto in 2006. For one scene where the camera had to follow a character falling in a water falls, they managed to shoot the action scene doing only one stopping once when they would have had to stop 10 to 12 times for a minimum loss of 2 hours total, if they were shooting in film and had to change the camera magazines. Since Apocalypto, Semler has shot numerous films on the Genesis, including Get Smart and (partially) Secretariat. He noticed actors seem to prefer the digital workflow that let them stay longer in the character, avoiding the cut, the wait and the inevitable tweaking period that ensue.
Image from Fill Marc Sagradaca
Wally Pfister, in a pre-recorded video, talked about his experience on Inception and Nolan’s philosophy about special effects. The two men see the special effect as a tool to tell a good story and try to reduce it to a minimum. For Pfister, the first Pass on a script is about the story, and the second Pass is about creating imagery. Nolan and him worked a lot with pre-viz to make sure they had the same universe in mind and to find how to make it happen. Although Inception had a lot of visual effects, Pfister never felt they were shooting a visual effects packed film as they shot most of the film on location. He added: ‘What a clever director and a smart visual effect supervisor will do is consult with the director of photography in their post-work’ to make sure the work they do matches with what the cinematographer has in mind for the film.
Months after principal photography is done, Pfister had the visual effect supervisor sending him .tiff or .jpeg showing what they had going on. Pfister did then some color and contrast work via Photoshop so the pictures could match what he was planning to have ultimately. His last advise for the new generations of Cinematographers and Filmmakers was not to get hang up in technology but to work on the craft of storytelling: ‘The craft and art of cinematography lays in great composition, beautiful lighting and appropriate camera movements.’
On the other side of the spectrum was Guillermo Navarro, a fervent supporter of film and its tradition. For him, the digital revolution’s advantages are eclipsed by the dangers that come along the too many options it offers.
Navarro, a lover of the rigor film imposes on a crew, regretted the lack of discipline digital cinematography brings on set. For him, the gravity center on set is no longer behind the camera but behind the monitor, where a dozen people agglomerate to give their opinion. He illustrated his opinion with a recent experienced he had on a commercial he shot digitally. They shot the equivalent of 40 000 feet of film in two days, when they wouldn’t have shot more than 6 000ft if they were working on film. To him, the role on set of a cinematographer is to make sure everybody is engaged to their maximum capacity to make the magic happen. If digital cinematography expands the comfort zone, it also reduces the importance of being on top of your game all the time.
Like his peers, he concluded saying that the film language is what will survive us all, but added that the new challenge for filmmakers and cinematographers today is to learn how to tame and canalize the options digital cinematography brings now, and not to let technology drowns the essential. Interestingly enough, and despite his obvious contempt for the digital revolution, Navarro’s next project is a 3D movie. The cinematographer admitted he was terrified, and joked about how he thought he was at the top of his game only to discover he had to go back to school again.
There would be much more to say about what was shared last night. It is clear though that to all of them, the euphoria coming along these new possibilities shouldn’t make us forget that cinema is first and foremost the art of great storytelling.
Keep an eye on the Academy events in Los Angeles or New York open to public, it is a great opportunity to learn and listen to established professionals for $5. (Yes, five.)