Cinematographers’ Blues

For Budding Cinematographers

Here’s an article exploring cinematography, post-‘Avatar’.

Every decade of filmmakers feels that it is at the center of a maelstrom. The simple fact is that film, being a technologically driven art form, has always been prone to sudden and disruptive changes. It is one reason there is such a huge turnover in talent, and why so many artists and technicians have shorter rather than longer careers. Yes, it is a stressful business—but the truth is, if you are looking for security and stasis, you should find another career path.

The past decade witnessed the emergence of HD video into mainstream feature film production. Despite the best efforts of some studios to drive a stake through the heart of 35mm. motion picture film, Kodak has continued to improve its signature product and has kept more than a few steps ahead of a quickly pursuing digital raptor: 2K & 4K movies link 4K Digital Cinema link

This nipping at film’s heels has been more than slightly abetted by some of a generation of experienced cinematographers, hell-bent on staying inside the curve of hipdom, who have jumped into the deep end of the digital pool. The irony to this that I see, is that many of the young and emerging cinematographers who were nursed on digital video milk, now are crying to be weaned to the more solid sustenance of motion picture film. Even some directors, who have well-deserved reputations as film stylists, and who, as early adapters, embraced digital video as an auteur’s dream medium, have had to acknowledge that the extended margin of control afforded by a “what you see is what you get” digital camera, can not yet “get” the image subtlety, color, and resolution of motion picture film. Several of these veterans are returning to film for future productions.

Since beginning this blog I have had a lot of communication with young cinematographers and filmmakers, digitally savvy and cognizant of all of digital video’s potential, who, nonetheless, want nothing more than to shoot movies on film. Even more surprising, many of them have expressed a passionate interest in working in the anamorphic format, which was all but given up for dead less than a decade ago. For my part, though I am far from Struss’ or Rosher’s experience level, I have been witness to many of these same changes in technique, style and grammar. I came eagerly to digital photography over a decade ago and have shot feature films and shorts such as The Anniversary Party, Incident at Loch Ness, and The Architect in various digital video formats, with varying degrees of satisfaction. But my abiding love has been, and continues to be, film. I read with interest a statement in a recent American Cinematographer article that Avatar was not only Mauro Fiore’s first 3-D movie but also his first in digital video. What more compelling testimony can you have that it is the artist, not the medium, that is the creative entity?

I’m not so sure that Avatar augurs well for continued use of film. I think it augurs for the likely demise of film as the shooting format. I know cinematographers by dint of their trade are not going into the night without a fight, but if you’re a director working with tighter an tighter budget constraints, I think one of the things you jettison is the fetishistic attachment to 35mm film.

Then there’s this little bit:

I will be the first to admit that movies as I studied them in film school and that for the major part of my career I have been fortunate to photograph, are disappearing. The dramatic, humanist film rooted in real life experience, or some reasonable simulacrum of it, is slowly fading away. Those that are continuing to be made seem more and more to come out of an ever-shrinking indie world or from abroad, especially from developing countries that are still exploring their own poetic myth and identity—and of course, France. I often joke to students that most of the studio films I have photographed the past 30 years would be unlikely to be green lit today by the same studios that had made them. In a vicious spiral ever downward into new levels of mediocrity, the majors have largely abrogated responsibility to produce films for a broad-spectrum audience. The lower the bar is dropped toward the slithering testosterone impacted young male adults that seem to constitute the “target demographic,” the lower they clamor for it to drop; and the digital magicians of CGI visual effects have become ever more adept at manufacturing convincing explosions, car crashes, eviscerations, and gravity-defying punch-ups and shoot outs. Sure, there is room for crap like that; there always has been, even in the days when such fare constituted the bottom half of double bills and when this genre of film only had money enough for cheesey effects. Today, the effects and stunts are the budget. Even sadder, one of these 100 million dollar plus bloated behemoths prevents half a dozen human-scaled, dramatic films from being made. If you think I am exaggerating, talk to the young writer-directors who are being ushered out of studio executive suites with an assurance that their scripts are wonderful, but “too soft” for today’s market.

It is not simply that such mature themed films do not now, and will likely never again, occupy the place of primacy that they did for nearly a century, nor even that of the smaller niche of “art film” that they had during the crazy and heady days of the Nouvelle Vague.

That’s all true. The only way to tell those stories now is to go low budget, which mean abandoning the perforated stuff. I don’t have any easy answers, but I will share my own from another field – music.

It used to be that music production was ponderous and expensive. The arrival of digital temporarily made it even more expensive, but then suddenly the music-making technology became widely available on domestic computers. The subsequent explosion of recorded music that now exists on the web shows that this democratising of the artform has been a grand success. And while I haven’t heard of anybody who has made a lot of money out of their digital music as a result of this development, I have met a lot more satisfied musicians than before the advent of this technology. Overall, it has been good for music.

What this seems to show is that the future of motion picture might be that everybody gets to be a director, but nobody gets to make money – but motion pictures would be the better for it. I don’t mind that future.

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