We are all cinematographers now. Using any camera we can afford – Alexa, Red, Sony, Go Pro, iPhone – we are producing now myriads of images.
But, is this a great time for cinematography?
This is a good question. The recent demise of Kodak is not only an economic or technical issue; it is also a cultural life “drama.” The ease with which digital pictures can be produced leads to the mistaken conclusion that an image is no more than just the registration of reality. In fact, the cultural richness and experience of the previous generations of cinematographers, photographers, graphic artists and painters should be understood as part of any visual representation.
Cinematographers are hired for their taste, and taste is cultivated through their experiences in life and knowledge and understanding of film, music, art, literature, photography — everything that helps to define and create a unique point of view.
When we go into pre-production on a project, we draw on all these experiences to shape a look for the film. I feel this is often neglected in pre-production, leaving the look to be achieved and refined in post. There’s nothing wrong with post manipulation, especially as it can often be more precise to adjust an image in a colorist’s suite than on set. But these powerful tools do not mean we can curb our vision until the post-production phase of a film. So much of the look is created by the close collaboration between the director, production designer and director of photography. For example, if the sets are painted the wrong color with too much saturation to begin with, you’re already fighting a losing battle when you get to color correction.
With digital capture and even digital intermediates, it becomes very easy to think of the image in the simplest of terms: contrast, saturation and color bias. But I think too often we forget about texture and sharpness. Film has organic grain texture that simply doesn’t exist in digital cinematography. I’m not a film “purist” but I think it’s safe to say that with the advent of radical advances in digital cinema technology there has been a certain homogenization of the cinematographic image in regard to look and texture. It is common to shoot for an evenly distributed rich digital negative (protect the highlights, see into the shadows) with plenty of sharpness to endure the color correction suite and create the look in post. Everybody shoots the sensor the same way.
Painting is a great influence on me. Whenever I can I go to museums and look at the classics, the Dutch masters, Rembrandt and Georges de la Tour. Looking at these old paintings can be inspiring. These are the basics for cameramen because we can learn lighting from them. We can study the classic paintings and try to use that technique of lighting in our photography. I have lots of picture books at home – photography books and art books. When we did McCabe and Mrs. Miller, I showed a book of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings to Bob Altman and said, “What do you think of these faded, soft, pastel images?” And he liked it. Then I took the same book to the lab and explained to them that this was what we were aiming for. They understood right away why we were flashing the film. So it helps; a picture is worth ten thousand words. A picture can immediately tell you your feelings about something.
With digital capture, we have been given a completely different set of tools, trading physical lab processes for computer-driven non-destructive techniques, creating possibilities for the image to be pushed any way we wish in post. In a time when film is disappearing fast and digital is making progress in image quality improvement, it has become important for cinematographers to master these new tools.
“Kickstart Theft” is a 7-minute movie-trailer/narrative short commissioned by Band Pro Film & Digital. Frederic Goodich, ASC directed and I was cinematographer. “Kickstart Theft” was premiered at IBC and Cinec. The story is inspired by Vittorio de Sica’s neo-realist film Bicycle Thieves (1948), shot in black-and-white on an Arriflex 2C by Carlo Montuori. For “Kickstart Theft”, I used a Sony F65 for the first time, with Leica Summilux-C primes and a Canon 30-300 zoom.
We wanted to work in available light as much as possible, and thanks to digital technology we could use exposures even at low light levels of less than a foot candle. There were times when my lightmeter didn’t even register, and we rated the camera at 800 ISO. But the quality of camera, quality of lenses, that’s almost secondary for me. The lighting and composition are the most important things, as most cinematographers know.
Camera technology is just a medium, and media was, is and will be changing, but an ability to create images that possess artistic and symbolic qualities continues to be the major task of the cinematographer.
We are faced with many changes in the complex world of technology but the art of lighting, the art of camera movement, the art of color, tone and composition are the basic tools of our profession.
How to deal with the demands of the rapidly evolving new technology and yet further the aesthetics of our filmic art? I suggest we must re-educate and retrain ourselves creatively, to learn how to evaluate what we are doing from the technical point of view while at the same time constantly working to raise the standards of visual storytelling to ever-higher levels.
Article by Vilmos Zsigmond as part of series “Cinematography Articles”