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HomeAwardsCinematography: A Brave New Blend of Film and Digital

Cinematography: A Brave New Blend of Film and Digital

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Jeff Cronenweth lensed The Social Network

ASC member and DP Tom Sigel, who had a slew of releases this year with Frankie and Alice, The Conspirator and Leap Year, considers the way cinematography accolades for 2010 will be assessed in light of what happened last award season: “Last year’s Academy award to Avatar (for DP Mauro Fiore) was quite controversial among cinematographers because of the extent of digital and CGI material in the final product.”

Given that the ASC award went to Christian Berger’s work in The White Ribbon, can we expect a similar split this year? “As an organization, the ASC is more specifically attuned to the intricacies of what it takes to create the look of a film than the Academy,” he continues, “which includes many voters who are not cinematographers. Having said that, I think the cinematographers’ branch of the Academy has a huge influence on what eventually receives an Oscar because of the nomination process. For that reason, the choices are usually pretty similar.”

And yet, the processes of getting that image on screen are not. “Adding to the complexity is the fact that in every one of these large-scale productions, the cinematographer’s role can be different based on their involvement with the VFX supervisor and the director. Today, the cinematographer’s contribution is not as transparent as it once was.”

Cinematographer Matthew Libatique is a likely nominee for his work on Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, and knows a little about moving between both the digitized and “practical” worlds of screen imagery, also being a collaborator with Jon Favreau on the Iron Man films. And he cites Avatar as a clear example of a new aesthetic for judging work: “We can’t disregard photography done digitally, and in postproduction,” he says. What he judges, in terms of overall work is “a person’s effort to follow the craft” all the way from pre-production, or previs, to the film’s completion.

He likes something “well thought out,” regardless of how it might have been shot or rendered, and towards that end, was looking forward to several pieces he hadn’t seen at press time, among them the dual-DP work on Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, where the mostly digital work was overseen by both Boyle-regular Anthony Dod Mantle, and Enrique Chediak, both collaborating so Boyle could shoot at a more relentless schedule, approximating the “no breaks” experience that the subject of the film went through while trapped in a canyon.

He also has high hopes for Roger Deakins’ work on the Coen Bros.’ True Grit, but had managed to squeeze in some pre-Award season viewing already. Of those, encapsulating both sides of the image-capturing spectrum, he liked Robert Gantz’s work in the French pair of gangster biopics, Mesrine, and also Wally Pfister’s dream-realizations in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, which he says, referring to Pfister, “was well done, as always.”

Jeff Cronenweth is another likely nominee for the source-lit, gritty-in-an-Ivy League-way look he gave to The Social Network, which was shot digitally. Busy in Europe shooting the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for David Fincher, he hadn’t caught up on the films he’d be voting on for the ASC and Academy by press time either, though he also cited Pfister’s work in Inception as a possible front-runner in the early handicapping.

ASC Board Member and president of Local 600 Cinematographers Guild, Steven Poster, also weighs in on how to assess images in the digital age. “For the last 20 years,” he observes, “we’ve seen the continual development of image acquisition systems.” Poster feels that we’ve currently reached a “tipping point” for the cinematographers’ art. He’d been opposed to considering digital filmmaking in the same, light as actual “film” making until the first “viable Genesis camera” made its appearance.

Now the role of the cinematographer is to be “the guardian at the gate who will determine the best way to tell the story.” He worries that we may be in danger of “developing a degraded aesthetic,” as image-capturing equipment proliferates everywhere.

Director Boyle, during a recent panel discussion of the below-the-line work in 127 Hours, referred to the consumer camera images used when the film inter-cut with the video diary kept by trapped hiker Aron Ralston. They used the actual Canon that Ralston had, and the director thought audiences accepted “shitty” images as one of the textures in a certain type of story, since it replicated the ubiquitous images that surround them on a daily basis.

But again, the director laughed, and said that “shittiness” served a particular point for the narrative-within-the-narrative, and wasn’t advocating its use for a whole feature.

Which speaks to Poster’s observation that “stories aren’t told with random images. Every frame informs the audience.”

“The bottom line,” he continues, “is that it takes a master to master all forms” of delivering images, and the “intent” of the image – see Boyle’s observation above – was what mattered.

So in an age where light can be captured in more ways than ever before, the intent of award voters – both the Academy’s and the ASC’s – will be revealed, as they assess the many ways that light is reflected back to us.

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