“Closing the Circle”

Have you ever heard this little story from Sam Haskins, a British photographer who was born and raised in South Africa?

A photographer goes to a party given by a New York socialite. As he enters the front door, the hostess gushes: “I love your pictures – they’re wonderful; you must have a fantastic camera.” The photographer says nothing until dinner is finished. Then, as he’s leaving, he turns to the hostess and says: “That was a wonderful dinner; you must have a terrific stove.”

This apocryphal little tale is so prescient to what we do as cinema and television camera crews in today’s “modern” age. Along those lines, I first heard the “modern” notion that “film is dead” in 1972, shooting a commercial for Alberto Culver Hair Products in Chicago’s NBC video studios. The chief engineer insisted that “film will soon be dead, and it’s time to make way for the modern replacement, video tape.”

We’ve come a long way since; but, really, how much has changed? New technology has brought the process full circle, returning control of the image to the director of photography in ways we once had before the “modern age,” i.e., the era of terrible, horrendous, awful (you get the point) video dailies.

Of course, we had to suffer through the loss of film dailies, which the community would all watch together at lunch or after work as a group, and feel so connected to the creative process. (When I worked as an operator on the Robert Altman movie A Wedding, in 1979, it was mandatory that the entire crew come to dailies every night!)

From there we went to horrific ¾-inch dailies, to (even worse) VHS dailies, all analog technology, to (terribly produced, highly compressed) DVD dailies, thinking that all were great “modern” tools that would enhance the filmmaking process. All these representations of our work achieved was a lowering of the quality of the captured image, and diminishment of the show’s creative goals, in the eyes of the directors, producers and executives who had to suffer through the poor viewing conditions. These “new” (and less than adequate tools) also diminished the cinematographer’s influence, and our ability to create and mold those images in the final stages of postproduction.

When the great digital shift came, I was very fortunate to be present for just the third DI ever done, for the movie Stuart Little 2. Working on that show was a revelation: it showed a glimmer of how the camera team could mold the final image with far more accuracy than even in the days of a laboratory film workflow. It left me so excited I vowed never to finish a project without having access to such finishing tools again.

The systems that have been developed since Stuart Little 2 (2002) have helped us create a kind of “digital alchemy” that is unprecedented in our industry. We’re talking about accurate on-set calibrated viewing with the added control of live grading. And when the new Motion Picture Academy color standard, ACES, is fully implemented, we will finally approach what I call the “Holy Grail” of digital imaging – end-to-end, device-independent color management.

I experienced such tools just a few months ago; when used in front of the director and producer, I can vouch that they return the magic to the cinematographer’s craft. When people see an image, on set, with nearly finalized lighting and color, exactly as how the story will (and should) be told, they experience a sleight-of-hand magic that showcases the pride, craftsmanship and artistry inherent in the camera team’s work. Such processes also help to point out the wide gap between amateurs (with access to sophisticated new cameras) and the digital alchemists of Local 600 whose work now shines even brighter on the set.

With the plethora of new “modern” cameras with greater sensitivity and dynamic range, and the new tools for lighting our actors and the sets (or virtual sets) and new tools for moving our images, many seen in our pages this month, we are likely to hear more about our “fantastic cameras.” But don’t be fooled into thinking that the gear is why we help to create such magical stories. It is the talent and craft of our Directors of Photography and our accomplished crews that create the digital alchemy.

 

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