The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents April 2010 Return to Table of Contents
Alice in Wonderland
Presidents Desk
Sundance 2010
Production Slate
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up

The release of Avatar has sparked a lot of discussion regarding cinematography and its relationship to computer-generated images. With the advent of more sophisticated virtual-production capabilities, where does the knowledge of how to evoke mood and tell stories in a visual manner take our profession? I think the answer is in the elements that have comprised our job from the very beginning. A visual story requires artists who are versed in the subtleties that affect human emotion. These artists are not mere button pushers — in fact, they may best leave the actual pushing of buttons to someone else — but visionary minds who see the world differently. That they do so with impeccable taste and an almost uncanny ability to do exactly the right thing at the right moment is what makes them great.

A CGI artist recently told me about a large-scale production he worked on that used a great deal of CG material and proportionally less “live” filmed footage. Eager to please his producers and make an impact, this artist undertook in his previs conceptual footage to incorporate the “look” he thought the movie should have, based on his interpretation of the script. He built in dazzling camera moves and eye-popping color effects. He created whip-pans to emphasize the rapid-fire line delivery of the voice actors. And he used his arsenal of computer effects to create incredible lighting that was more perfect than what could ever have been achieved in real life. He created all this as a blueprint for the rest of production to follow; the cinematographer, the art director and the editor were to make their work match his.

As the prep went forward and personnel in the various crafts were brought onboard, the CGI artist was continually confronted with opinions that differed considerably from his own. The cinematographer did not like the steely-blue patina of the overall look because he intended to light the live-action sequences with a chocolate filter so the brown tones could serve as an extension of the character’s past. The dazzling camera moves were swept away in favor of a simple composition that kept the two lead characters in the same frame so the human quality of their interaction would be retained. And the perfect lighting was altered to be less perfect; in that subtle alteration, it somehow became more human.

All through this process, the CGI artist made updates to his work to reflect the opinions of the other experienced craftspeople the production had brought aboard. And what he found was a revelation: that the collective input of artists who were the best at what they did translated, through him, into the new medium in a way that made all the work better. He found his own contributions were better because he was working with the best, and the other artists continually challenged his expectations with their own original artistic vision. The resultant movie was the best culmination of all these disciplines.

Visual storytelling is a collaborative art. It always has been. Only the tools are changing. As cinematographers move forward through this brave new world, it is our voice that a beleaguered and confused industry will need to hear. It is our knowledge of what these new technologies are capable of which producers will rely on for budgeting and scheduling. And it is our unflappable, unerring knack for doing what is instinctively right for the material that will be needed. It is what we have always done since the beginning of motion pictures.

So I don’t buy into all this panic about the death of traditional cinematography. The history of the art form is paved with technological innovations that revolutionized the way we create images. If you’ve ever looked at the inner workings of a three-strip Technicolor camera, you know what I mean — it’s a marvel of engineering that necessitated more marvels of engineering to effectively harness its potential. Look at the evolution of 3-D from the late 1800s to today. Think about when you first used a power window in a color-correction suite to isolate a section of the picture.

My vision of what a scene looks and feels like exists in a form that is infinitely adaptable to any medium that might arise; it is the product of my imagination coupled with my knowledge of the various technologies that could be used to realize it, whether it be a tungsten lighting kit or a super-computer. I will continue to choose the right tools for the job because it is what I do.


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