“Many Questions (and Answers)?”

The future for cinematography, as envisioned, is quite interesting. This quote from Ken Burns’ recent documentary, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (see Game Changers, ICG November 2014), is an apt metaphor for our craft right now:

“The capacity of the microphone, which allowed Roosevelt to speak to the people as an equal, allowed him to create a new relationship with the audience.”

That’s what this Guild does every day on set. We create new relationships with our audiences based on each new technology. Whenever a new camera system, software or production tool arrives on the market, we, as visual artists, must decipher how best to translate that into cinematic storytelling. It’s a unique process for everyone in the camera department, understanding how that technology will best suit the needs of the production.

Thankfully, Local 600 is deeply involved in assisting every member, no matter his or her classification, to learn each technology as it comes out. One example is UAS (unmanned aerial systems) or drones (see Drone Wars ICG October 2014). This technology has been embraced by this Guild because it is camera specific and allows for new methods of capture never seen in this industry. Likewise for technologies on the near horizon, like the Oculus Rift, which will challenge our directors of photography as to what point-of-view the audience may take at any given moment, as well as those camera operators and assistants who support them.

The critical theme I have long espoused concerns “suspension of disbelief” – a goal that has dominated the conversation of how best to capture motion on film for the last century. This dialogue continues into the digital age, of course, but we are now venturing into mostly uncharted territory. In fact, it may only be this new generation of artisans and technicians, weaned on digital technology, who address such concepts in native form. My question to this new generation is this: Do you perceive cinema differently than those of us raised in a world of two-dimensional (and occasionally three-dimensional) moving pictures captured on film? Do you see and feel the results differently? They’re questions for which we do not yet have answers. But I’m guessing there will indeed be a difference between generations past and those still to come.

This past summer the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hosted a seminar titled “Movies in Your Brain: The Science of Cinematic Perception.” On display were scientists unraveling what I have been talking about for the last few decades: How is the brain excited by the various ways we tell visual stories? One interesting observation, as revealed by the Oscar-winning film editor and sound designer Walter Murch, who was on the Academy panel, was that “editing divides up time and creates a time signature for a film.”

Indeed, researchers have found that, contrary to popular assumptions, films with more rapid editing only started to appear in the mid 1990’s. When movies from all ages were analyzed, the results indicated there is roughly the same amount of cuts in films made before that time, going all the way back to the Silent Era. Average shot lengths (over the last two decades) have gotten shorter, and the amount of motion has increased. Which means that changes within our own brains may account for why contemporary audiences can perceive faster edits.

The seminar also showcased Princeton University psychologist and researcher Uri Hasson, who coined the term “neurocinematics.” Hasson has used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to assess how viewers interact with filmed content – where the eyes track, what parts of the brain are engaged, etc. ¬– and how brain scanning can help crack the code of human perception.

Such scientific efforts are fascinating in terms of what the future may bring. But they offer no concrete answers for our film crews today. What is certain is that the many radical changes in technology and storytelling will forever alter cinematography. Of paramount importance, I feel, is that as a Guild we must embrace the notion of how best to use new tools to continue to suspend disbelief. Do we choose to use HFR (high-frame-rate) capture, knowing it may skew audience perception toward a “live event” landscape? Will that kind of hyper-real depiction of action, typically associated with watching sports at home, still hold audiences in a theater, who have come for a cinematic experience?

Each new capture medium and each new method of consumption and distribution for audiences will bring change, and it’s our job to parse through all the questions and provide the very best answers we possibly can.

 

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