Despite the endless arguments about the switchover from film to digital acquisition — many of which continue, ridiculously, to this day — there can be no doubt that cinematographers now have a number of new tools at our disposal. Whether they actually help us do our jobs more creatively or efficiently is debatable. I believe they do, for the most part, though they demand an intense level of supervision through every step of the process. As for what has been lost in the transition, though, it seems that saying goodbye to our favorite emulsions is the least of it. Many of us who “made our bones” photochemically and have now digitally redefined ourselves mid career would agree that set procedures have definitely taken a hit.
Take, for example, some habits picked up by camera assistants that would have been unthinkable in the film era. First, there is simply too much reliance on monitors as a focus aid. Of course, the image quality of monitors is much better today, but no matter how attentive the assistant might be, he or she must chase the actor’s movements in order to keep the image sharp. The result is an inevitable softness or breathing of focus, especially in tighter shots or shots with reduced depth-of-field. I’ve become so sensitized to this that I can spot it in almost every movie and TV show I see. It’s curious how quickly this practice has caught on, and I’ve heard assistants defend it to the point where I suspect they might need to have their eyes examined.
A bit of advice: Every once in a while, dig through one of those set bags you lug around and get out the tape measure! If you’re worried about your work being instantly judged on high-acuity screens back in video village, my friends, you have no idea what the hot seat is like until you’ve seen the image optically projected a day later on the big screen in the dailies theater. Hmmm … feet and inches and a couple of reference points on the set worked pretty well back then. I assure you, they still work now. Training your eye at the film plane and sensitizing yourself to distance is the key.
Another trend is to take one of the great advantages of digital technology — a smaller, lighter camera — and turn it into a behemoth that dwarfs even the heaviest film-camera configuration. The size of what we often work with now can be hilarious, a complete abrogation of so much of what this revolution was supposed to be about. Manufacturers whose products cannot function without a number of add-ons bear most of the responsibility, but (and I’ll be crucified for this) many camera assistants add to the problem. (For the record, I came up through the ranks of the camera department, starting as a loader and finishing as a focus puller 12 years later. I know the job.) I accept that much of what’s screwed to, taped to or plugged into the camera is there for a reason, but let’s be honest: Some of it is redundant, indulgent or just there for the ride. Compared to the streamlined efficiency of a Panavision or Arri film camera, this is an enormous step backward.
Other issues that have taken root in the digital era to the detriment of our working process: 1) overly casual and noisy sets; 2) letting the camera run without cutting between takes, which in all but a few applications is lazy, sloppy and unprofessional, not to mention expensive and time-consuming in editorial; 3) the fact that everyone is now a critic in video village; 4) the overuse of multiple cameras, primarily in TV (‘Let’s see, we have three on the main action, so let’s put a couple of GoPros up there and a few DSLRs over there!’); 5) striving for as many setups as possible instead of as many good setups as possible; and 6) the overabundance of chefs in the kitchen. And the list goes on.
Lest this come off as a personal bitch session, I should note that everything I’ve mentioned is common fodder for discussion when cinematographers get together, and, as you might imagine, I know quite a few cinematographers. I imagine many of our crewmembers have complaints about us. Maybe I’ll address some of those here one day… but notice I said maybe.
Still, and this is perhaps the strangest irony of all, as much as we might gripe from time to time, there’s nothing else in the world any of us would dream of doing.