How We Get There

With the many new cameras and technologies on display at NAB this year and new digital systems in abundance everywhere we turn, I found it illuminating that four out of the five Oscar® nominees for Best Cinematography this year (Inception, The King’s Speech, Black Swan and True Grit) were shot on film. Some may call that an unexpected endorsement of the enduring quality of celluloid, but my interpretation is this: “What’s old is new, what’s new is new, and everything in this industry is constantly moving in circles.”

After all, we’ve gone from standard 35mm to 65mm to the introduction of digital technology, which when it debuted was not high quality. Digital capture, of course, progressed incrementally, until the introduction of Panavision Inc.’s first Genesis® system made high-quality digital feature production viable. And just to keep the circle turning, this year we’ve seen an explosion of new digital technology that will no doubt make our lives more exciting, if not, perhaps, a bit more confusing given the multiple file formats and lack of standards inherent in the digital realm.

This long technological roundabout (think about driving in England or Ireland) has also included the degradation of how our images are digested. Maybe that’s due, in part, to the introduction of watching our work on smaller delivery systems (like smartphones, iPad ™s, and netbooks) so that the bar for how a finished image should land in consumers’ laps has been lowered.

People say, “Hey, we live in a culture of instant gratification, so it’s only natural that bar would get dropped in favor of convenience, price, and speed.” But I think that’s a misconception of what’s really going on.

As technology continues to improve, we are going to see, once again, the acceptance, even the embracing, of better quality image-making, no matter how we get there. Take a look at Wally Pfister’s work on Inception. This was as traditional a high-quality piece of work as one could imagine; mostly done in-camera, that told the story well enough to earn Wally an Oscar. That’s no mean feat when you’re not relying heavily on the current digital technology (Inception even had a photochemical finish, not a DI). In fact, it’s almost like going back into a photo darkroom and doing a platinum print.

Of course Inception is but one example of a traditional workflow having tremendously effective and successful results. And, in a way, it makes a case for the future of digital technology because it shows how the capture medium is only as good as the artist behind the lens.

I am, in fact, incredibly excited about the continued potential for digital technology to create high-quality images. Just take a look at the new IFF/ACES system, developed over the past few years by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, that will surely raise the bar back to where it rightly should be. This image transformation system will allow us to achieve much higher amounts of color information and dynamic range out of the same cameras we’ve been working with.

It’s an exciting development, and along the lines of what I’ve been clamoring for the last 20 years: The Holy Grail of digital capture, an end-to-end, device-independent color management system. There’s no reason we can’t have this kind of control over the image. We’ve seen a like system develop in the printing industry, where you can describe a color by a number and that color can go from one country to the next and be delivered back to the source country as a perfect mirror of the original intent.

The power of moviemaking should always rest in the hands of artists and craftspeople, not in the tools they employ. Or as Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, so eloquently stated during his March appearance at Createasphere in Universal City: “The final image is what’s important, not how you get there.”


Steven Poster, ASC
National President
International Cinematographers Guild
IATSE Local 600