All right, everyone, it’s quiz time. Looking at the Oscar-winning features Avatar, Hugo, Life of Pi and Gravity, can you tell me how much of each was photographed traditionally and how much was originated through computer software?
Don’t be so hard on yourself when you can’t come up with the answers. Contrary to what many think, it’s impossible to determine unless you were directly involved with each step of these productions. Therein lies the crux of another boring and unnecessary debate that’s already wearing thin, just like the film vs. digital dustup.
Every awards season, the ASC is swarmed by people from all segments of the industry who want to know when the Society will create a new awards category to recognize hybrids, motion pictures that feature a prominent mix of live-action photography and CGI. We currently have a committee hard at work on deconstructing the issue, but I have set them to this task with a great sense of unease. They are some of the best people in the world at what they do, and still I wonder whether the rules they might develop to judge such an award will stand up to honest scrutiny.
It is easy to recognize the elaborate effects work in some pictures, but what about the titles mentioned in my quiz? Their artful images are strong testimonies to the talents of the cinematographers and visual-effects teams, but at the same time, they offer no clue as to how we can delineate the contributions each has made. Another dilemma is presented by the performance-driven dramas and modestly budgeted films that do not appear to be candidates for extensive image manipulation, but actually are. More and more, digital effects are being used in such films to augment an actor’s appearance, alter wardrobe or production design, or create a familiar environment that is actually just a greenscreen backing. The Wolf of Wall Street, The Social Network, The Hours and Charlie Wilson’s War all fall into this category, and they are excellent reminders of just how unsure the footing in this arena can be.
And even if we could differentiate the real from the virtual, what sort of ratio should determine which projects fall into this new awards category? 70-30? 60-40? 501/2-491/2?
Once again, it’s an impossible call. We should stop wasting our time worrying about it. Instead, we should do all we can to encourage the approach taken by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC, and director Alfonso Cuarón on their amazing film Gravity. As the winner of the ASC Award in the theatrical-release category and Academy Awards for both cinematography and visual effects, it stands as a glowing ideal of how we need to move into the future. Though it marked an intense collaboration among a variety of creative minds and employed a wave of innovative technology, there is no question that Lubezki’s hand shaped every frame of the movie, regardless of whether the material was originated traditionally or through CGI. This notion — that a single pair of eyes governs the overall look — is the only one that makes sense. It is also the only way to guarantee that the director will get a consistent, unified realization of what he or she feels the film should look like.
If the history of cinematography has proven anything, it’s not only that our world is one of steady change, but also that we are adaptable artists who are always embracing the new. Over the past year or two, certain self-interested individuals have been trying to redefine our job title and description to cover the myriad aspects of the hybrid model. That’s just nonsense. Everything it entails has fallen under our exclusive purview as authors of the image since the very beginning, and that will continue to be true no matter where the technology takes us.
This is a most exciting time to be a cinematographer. Let’s all remember that our influence counts, and it counts even more when we use it.