The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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The DI Dilemma, or: Why I Still Love Celluliod

A recent story on National Public Radio’s (NPR) morning news program should sound an alarm to every working cinematographer. It confirmed my own worst imaginings about the diminishing role we are facing over the creative control of our work. Filing from a digital bay in a well-respected Santa Monica color-correction facility, reporter Susan Stamberg interviewed an eminent colorist, who, she said, “corrects” all the mistakes and flaws of the original photography.  

At one point, the colorist referred to the scene he brought up as “the raw film,” as though it were nothing more than a preparatory sketch for his digital painting. Stamberg called the colorist a “Da Vinci of movies,” an “artist” who can remove the green in an actor’s face or turn a sunny day into an imminent winter snowstorm. In the much simpler world of photochemical printing, the same people are called “timers,” though surely the best of them are equally artistic. Also interviewed in the digital suite was one of the film’s producers, who was making decisions on the grading of the film with the colorist. I don’t know whether the director was hovering somewhere in the room; he was never mentioned.  

Stamberg noted how this magical process can eliminate wrinkles and imperfections in actors’ faces, pointing out that an increasing number of actors have a provision in their contracts to “correct” the markers of aging. Everyone interviewed for the story seemed to embrace this wondrous new control of the image except for a costume designer, who said she hated it because all of the work she’d done in testing and choosing colors can now be “tweaked” by a keystroke.  

Not once was there a quote from or a reference to the cinematographer, the person who creates the images. Was this a mere oversight, or is there something more ominous afoot?  

I confess I have not been, nor am I now, a big fan of the digital-intermediate (DI) process. I make no secret of this, just as I make no secret of my disdain for every manufacturer’s claim that its high-definition-video camera equals the quality of 35mm motion-picture film. For more than 20 years, my choice for image capture has been 35mm film in the anamorphic format, and it has been my preference to answer-print and release-print on film. This is for both aesthetic and technical reasons. On the aesthetic level, I find the 2.40:1 aspect ratio to be openly expansive for large interiors and exteriors, yet also able to embrace the intimate environs of a small-scale drama. The Accidental Tourist (AC Nov. ’88), the first film I photographed in the anamorphic format, is mainly a two-person interior drama; I was gratified at how careful lens selection and composition could maintain intimacy without any sense of being caught in a confined space. Selective depth of field, easier in anamorphic than with spherical systems, helps guide the viewer’s eye to the chosen action. The added quality of transparency and depth that comes with a full-aperture frame is striking when compared with 1.85:1 and, especially, Super 35mm, or “poor man’s anamorphic.” Given the higher resolution of the anamorphic frame, I have found it problematic to down-rez or degrade it to a 2K or even a 4K DI. There are those in the digital world who will dispute this, but I trust my eyes.  

On a technical level, I don’t see the efficacy of embracing the DI for the non-effects films I usually photograph. I use greenscreen for effects shots, which are scanned, worked on at a digital station, and then rendered back to film. I do this for the scenes that require it, but why should I digitize the entire movie? “For more control,” say some. Ah, control — the double-edged sword. Whose control? If the recent NPR story is any indication, it is not the cinematographer’s control.  

• • •

A decade ago, many cinematographers embraced the DI process as a promising technology. My ASC colleague Roger Deakins demonstrated its potential with his work on O Brother, Where Art Thou? (AC Oct. ’00). For awhile, it appeared cinematographers had a second palette, but it did not take long for our collaborators to realize they, too, could “paint” in the digital suite. Then, some actors realized they could supervise digital plastic surgery.  

Cinematographers have become deeply infatuated with the tools of the da Vinci and its myriad controls, so much so that some are tempted to reconceive their work in the digital bay. More deleterious to the integrity of the work can be the cry “Don’t worry, we’ll fix it in post!” — often used as an excuse for less-than-careful control of lighting on the shooting stage. And, sadly, increasing numbers of my fellow cinematographers complain they are being forced out of the DI process as producers, directors, stars and studio executives all pile on. I know filmmaking is a collaborative process, but I can’t help wondering how my late ASC colleague Connie Hall would feel about all this “collaboration.” Then, too, there are the anecdotes about how much more time and money cinematographers cost with their “indulgences” in the digital suite. From the bottom-line studio perspective, who needs the cinematographer? The director and editor can supervise the DI; they are already being paid at that stage of the project.  

So here we are.  

I fear we cinematographers may have unwittingly begun to write our own epitaph on the subject of image control. Do I even need to mention the number of producers, production managers, studio executives and others who are promoting hi-def video for image capture because, they say, “You don’t need to light,” and, perhaps more crucial for them, “You can see exactly what you get?” It doesn’t take a genius to follow the logic of this chain of reasoning. If you don’t need a cinematographer to light the scene, or if an executive says you can “relight” it in post, or if you don’t need the cinematographer to answer-print the film because the DI fixes all things, including poorly exposed negative, why do we need the cinematographer at all?  

That was the missile I saw a director launch at a student audience several years ago. His memorable statement was, “Digital technology will forever free us from the tyranny of the cinematographer and the caterer.” My response was, “I guess we can debate the role of the cinematographer, but I’ve never seen anyone make a movie without a caterer.”  

• • •

I’ve had a queasy feeling about the stampede toward digital image capture, mastering and finishing for a long time. However, as I read more stories from the trenches about the problematic and costly maintenance of digital-cinema projectors and their penchant to drop out information, our old, noisy, rickety film projectors take on benefits that have nothing to do with nostalgia.  

Late last year, the Science and Technology Council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences published a report called “The Digital Dilemma,” and it makes for frightening reading if you’re a filmmaker who has finished your film with a DI. If that film did not enjoy stellar box-office earnings, you have even more reason to feel uneasy. Among the many crucial issues of archival storage and preservation that it engages, the report details the high cost of “safe” storage of DI files — especially 4K —compared to storing 35mm film. I won’t scare you with the numbers, but I put quotation marks around the word “safe” because that is a really relative term, especially when it’s compared to the proven long life of film negative and YCM separation masters.  

Lest you think I’m a quirky Luddite trying to hang onto an antiquated technology, let me say this: the Council’s report recommends that digital masters be “migrated” every five to seven years to ensure their integrity, and to ensure the data won’t be imprisoned in a format that can no longer be read. If the film you finished with a DI performed poorly at the box office, ask yourself what kind of love it will receive in the virtual vault.

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