Cinematographers have been called a lot of things over the years, but prognosticator might not be among them. Nevertheless, Leon Shamroy — a legendary ASC member if there ever was one — certainly qualified as our own Nostradamus. While not busy earning one of his four Academy Awards (out of 18 nominations!), he somehow found the time to publish the following statement in the October 1947 issue of this magazine:
“Not too far off is the ‘electronic camera.’ A compact, lightweight box, no larger than a Brownie Kodak, will contain a highly sensitive pickup tube, 100 times faster than present-day film. A single-lens system adjusting to any focal length smoothly by turning a knob will replace the cumbersome interchangeable lenses of today. … The camera will be linked to the film recorder by coaxial cable or radio. … Electronic monitor screens connected into the system will make it possible to view the scene as it is being recorded. Control of contrast and color will be possible before development.”
It’s amazing that someone could have been that precise so far ahead of time. The only way to improve upon what he said would have been to note manufacturers’ names — but you’ve got to forgive him that. Even allowing for his far-reaching genius, how was he to know the manner in which international commerce would play out some 70 years later?
Seriously though, what prompted my noting of Shamroy’s prediction was something expressed by another of our organization’s eternal elite: the late, great William A. Fraker. Having earned six Oscar nominations as well as the ASC and Camerimage Lifetime Achievement Awards, Fraker was no slouch in the credibility department, either. Shortly before he passed away — and during the era Shamroy had so brilliantly imagined — he said to me:
“Regardless of any new technologies or what might happen in the future, cinematographers have always found ways to adapt and to get the best out of whatever equipment they’re using. What’s most important is that you get the image you want onto the screen so other people can share it. The tools only matter in that they allow you to get your feelings up there. So, in essence, it’s really only the artistry that matters.”
I can’t think of a more appropriate addition to Shamroy’s musings, especially when I look back over the past decade and so much of what has passed for conventional wisdom. Despite reams of irresponsible, uninformed journalism and the hysterical blathering of hypesters on a quest to sell equipment, arguments like the ones surrounding film vs. digital never did anything to promote better cinematography. For all the talk of the revolution that has taken place, few seem to have noticed that it was really a load of nonsense. The cinematographer’s job hasn’t changed a bit, except that our table of responsibilities has grown exponentially.
Given the technology-driven characterization of our profession, it’s easy to see how some might think that’s all we have to offer. But as Fraker points out, it’s only by our command of technology that we’re able to create anything more than a simple recording of what’s in front of the lens.
Throughout the history of movies, there have been hundreds of instances in which the refined practice of our craft has resulted in artful images. The fact that they’ve made such a lasting impression on the culture at large indicates something very important: We are not interchangeable. The classic example of a hundred cinematographers tasked with shooting the identical scene will always hold true. You’ll get a hundred different results — and they’ll all be viable. When audiences happen to prefer one version over another, the theory is confirmed. Their choice isn’t based on the type of emulsion or camera the cinematographers used; it’s based on their perception of how those tools were applied.
In the final analysis, we are artists-scientists (emphasis, of course, on artists). Our real job is to get inside the head of the director to help render his or her vision of a story in concrete terms. How we approach that goal is influenced by many variables, but at its heart the process calls on us to express ourselves in intimate, highly personal terms.
That was true at the time of Shamroy’s prophecy some 69 years ago. I trust it will hold true for as long as motion pictures exist, whatever their form.