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I recently had a conversation with a fellow cinematographer who was bemoaning what he felt was a lack of truly groundbreaking cinematography today, imagery that is so perfectly partnered with the subject matter that the two become inseparable. He was especially concerned that digital manipulation has made much of the cinematographer’s work look artificially polished to the point that the original photography is reduced to “data” for the computer.     

I grew up during the late Sixties and early Seventies, when a revolution of filming techniques was in full swing. Every week at my local cinema, there were examples of great movies with great cinematography — images so “non-Hollywood” that they made going to the cinema an exciting adventure of unpredictability. These visuals seemed to break the mold of staid, studio conformity and spring out from a place deep within the soul. Witness the opening shot of The Godfather, photographed by Gordon Willis, ASC. When we first saw Bonasera’s face, it was hardly what gangster films of the past had conditioned us to expect; his skin tone is a sickly yellow hue, the background is muddy and indistinct, and his eye sockets are murky and undefined except for a singular, beady highlight in the center of his eyes. It was described by many old-guard Hollywood types of the time as being bad and amateurish. And it was completely riveting. 

Or take another look at Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, photographed by Haskell Wexler, ASC. Just three years earlier, we’d seen Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Cleopatra, captured in glorious color by Deluxe and Todd-AO widescreen, with stunning, Oscar-winning cinematography by Leon Shamroy, ASC. Now here were the same two stars in a black-and-white, almost documentary-like, claustrophobic drama with rough textures that matched the battered psyches of the characters. That Wexler’s innovative approach to the film also won an Academy Award was a testament to the undeniable power the cinematography contributed to the emotional thrust of the movie. 

In the face of evidence like this, are we to agree that the age of the cinematographer has passed, that it’s no longer possible for a single artist to truly influence a piece of mass entertainment by infusing it with a uniquely original point of view? 

I don’t think so. True, we work in a different industry today. The kinds of hands-on studio heads who followed in the footsteps of Irving Thalberg are becoming harder to find, and with the financial stakes growing higher every year, a film must be somewhat of a sure thing in order to be greenlit, leading to safer artistic choices. But talent tends to migrate toward the industry relationships that allow it to flourish. 

Consider the work of Matthew Libatique, ASC, who has given us the high-powered visuals of Iron Man, and who brought his talent for diverse looks into the gritty ballet world of Black Swan. Or Wally Pfister, ASC, who has redefined perceptions of what constitutes spectacular image quality with his in-camera effects for Inception, and the stunning visual clarity he achieved on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight by directly printing the film rather than using a digital intermediate. Or Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, who has brought his uniquely personal vision to the animated films Wall-E and How to Train Your Dragon; the emotionally stunning use of lighting effects in these films was accomplished first and foremost by hiring someone who knows about lighting: the cinematographer. 

As we move toward new forms of media and find new visual outlets for what we do, the one constant will always be the individual artistry with which we see the world. Just as no two conductors will guide an orchestra through the complex rhythms of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 in exactly the same way, no two cinematographers will visually interpret a screenplay in the same way. Accompanying that artistry is a lifetime of experience, which enables us to read a script and instinctively know whether film or digital would be the best choice for the subject, and which makes all the “technical voodoo” that might befuddle others secondhand knowledge to us. 

Great art has always found a way to live and breathe, and great artists will always find a way to make their voices heard.  

 

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