The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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With advances in technology for motion-picture production seemingly happening on a weekly basis, it sometimes feels as though we’re in the midst of the ultimate overhaul of our image-capture and post-workflow paradigms. There’s been a lot of talk about what a great breakthrough this digital camera is, or what a huge advance that scanner is. With all this talk about bytes, bits and megapixels, it can become difficult to keep the goal in sight, which is to tell stories visually. 

The entire history of the motion picture is a history of evolution and change, from the dawn of sound in the late 1920s to the introduction of color, from the flood of widescreen processes in the 1950s to the proliferation of zoom lenses and handheld cameras in the 1960s. This “digital revolution” is just another in an unending flow of changes that offer us new tools. At the ASC, we embrace change. We take each new technology and separate the fact from the fiction; we find out what it can and cannot do. Then we share this knowledge freely with the world.  

An example of this is the Camera-Assessment Series, tests of seven digital motion-picture cameras (compared with a 35mm camera) that the ASC undertook with the Producers Guild of America and Revelations Entertainment. As many producers have discovered in recent years, reading marketing materials is not the best way to get up to speed on new technology. The CAS is a big step toward forging a better understanding between cinematographers and camera manufacturers, and between producers and cinematographers. 

As cinematographers, we choose the equipment for a particular film based on our knowledge of which tools will help us visually tell that story in the best way. If lens flares are an important part of my visual aesthetic for a particular project, I’m going to use older lenses that give me those great, colorful, scalloped flares, not the newest, sharpest lenses. We do not use something simply because it is new or reject something simply because it is old. 

In fact, our archival safety net is 120-year-old technology. No digital medium currently has the proven longevity of properly stored film negative or black-and-white separation masters. There have been more than 80 formats of videotape since the advent of commercial television, and 90 percent of those formats cannot be played today. I have my own work on 10 different video and digital formats, and I cannot play half of them because the machines don’t exist anymore. 

It is important to use the best of what all our options have to offer. I recently photographed a feature film in 2-perf 35mm, a format that hasn’t been in widespread use since the 1960s and 1970s. Many great films, from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly to American Graffiti, have been shot in 2-perf. It gives you an anamorphic release print and cuts your film-negative budget in half. By way of contrast, I recently shot another feature with prosumer digital cameras because it was right for that particular job. 

Technology offers us more efficient tools to do our job, but the filmmaker’s inner aesthetic is still the final word. There are moments I treasure while I’m sitting in the dark with 500 strangers, and in those moments, I’m not thinking about the format the movie was captured on or wondering what post workflow was used. I’m wondering whether Michael Corleone will remember to drop the gun before he leaves the Italian restaurant, if Elaine Robinson will forgive Benjamin Braddock for having sex with her mother, whether Anna will ever be found after disappearing from the island of Lisca Bianca, if Frodo has the will to throw the ring into the Mountain of Fire, and whether Butch and Sundance will fight or jump. 

We remember those moments because they speak to us in purely emotional ways. They are images and words that plugged into our psyche in the right way at the right time. The technology used to create them will ultimately be relegated to historical footnotes and replaced with newer versions, but the emotional content will remain. 

As Bruce Lee said in Enter The Dragon, “Don’t think…feel. It’s like a finger pointing to the stars. Don’t concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”


 

 

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