The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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One morning a couple of weeks ago I started my day by watching the last 15 minutes of a movie I’d dozed off on the night before. It was originated on 35mm film and played back in Blu-ray format on a 52" television. A few hours later I found myself in a colleague’s office having a look at some Super 8 footage optically projected on the wall. In the afternoon during lunch, I was casually shown a sequence from Lawrence of Arabia on a friend’s mobile phone, which gave way to scenes from an episode of the Showtime series Billions on the same person’s iPad. Then, that evening, I attended a demonstration of an amazing new technology at the Imax headquarters in Playa Del Ray. The large-format material was laser-projected onto a screen 60' wide and 40' high. And did I mention that it was in 3D?

      Save for an encounter with a virtual-reality rig — which could easily have been arranged — this otherwise unremarkable day exposed me to as wide an array of image-delivery systems as currently exists. Clearly, the local movie theater is no longer the only place to go for a meaningful viewing experience, but that’s been true since television began its march toward ubiquity more than 60 years ago. Tell the truth: Is there really anyone left who regrets the passing of that single-option tyranny?

      Certainly not among the modern audience. It’s fascinating to consider how quickly they have embraced so many changes in their viewing habits. But when everyone has the ability to watch whatever they want whenever and wherever they like, it can’t help but have an effect on the way cinematographers approach what they do. Most of us have adapted quite easily. I tell the ones who haven’t to get over it. The multitude of platforms through which our work can be presented is the reality of today’s world. And we don’t just need to be a part of that world, we need to drive it.

      An important step in that direction would be to stop thinking about cinema as something rooted in a large, dark room full of people. If you’re not sure about that, talk to any young person. They just don’t care! To them, the term “cinema” itself smacks of the ancient and weatherworn. Today, audiences exist anywhere and everywhere. Since they ultimately dictate everything we do, we must put aside antiquated thinking and accept that the numerous gradations between Imax and iPhone are all equally important.

      We must also think differently about our cinematographic history. For more than a decade we have rarely had the chance to live with new developments long enough to truly understand them, to make them our own; this is often the cause of those ridiculous conversations about how much better things were in the past. While it remains important for us to know what went before, we no longer need to cling to that legacy out of habit or reflex. We also don’t need to strictly classify things as good or bad, because there is an audience for everything. All bets are off these days, and sometimes just knowing or understanding the past is enough for us to keep our work honest and effective.

      A further unintended consequence of digital technology has been to reduce the distance between artist and audience. Never was this made more apparent to me than on a dreary winter afternoon this past November when I sat on a panel with Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC at the Camerimage International Film Festival in Bydgoszcz, Poland. At one point I floated the notion that it would be “immoral” to watch his work in Apocalypse Now — one of the big-screen masterpieces if there ever was one — on an iPhone. The reaction against that by the predominantly youthful audience was staggering — and completely correct. I changed my mind about the issue right there on the spot. With a few months’ distance from that moment, I can’t believe I ever harbored a different point of view.

      As the bulb lit up, I realized that intent is all that matters. Some may find this frightening, but it actually strengthens the cinematographer’s position. Instead of one canvas that’s controlled by a small group of people, we now have many canvases that can be controlled by anyone. But they’re not united by technology — they’re united by our creative spark.

      If we ever enjoyed an equivalent of the decisive moment, that’s over. We’re now living in something much more interesting: the constant moment.

      Still a bit reluctant? Think again. Then get over it.

 

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