“Truth and Consequences”

Way back in 2000, at a Society of Motion Pictures & Television Engineers (SMPTE) meeting, I stood up with some degree of forcefulness and let everyone in the room know that this industry must never let the technology we work with dictate our art. I emphasized that technology should be completely “transparent,” as we move back and forth between film and digital. In the fifteen-plus years since, the technology has not only changed immeasurably, but, unfortunately, there’s much less film being shot.

That means that fewer crewmembers, these days, get to experience the joys (and sometimes the pains) of shooting on celluloid. The joys, of course, include film’s unmatched aesthetic qualities, as well as that alchemy-like “magic” that only the director of photography would feel before the next day, when the dailies arrived. To be sure, there are clear joys with digital, like being able to shape the quality of the image as it’s being shot (while everybody’s seeing what’s being done at any given time is more pain). The question really at this point is: How difficult is it to learn digital filmmaking versus learning “anew” how to shoot film with a camera that hasn’t been meaningfully upgraded since back in 2000, when I made that pronouncement?

The answer, I believe, is that Local 600 crews have the unique opportunity to train in both formats. And when I talk about “both formats,” I’m really talking about the unique characteristics of each technology. Cinematographers traditionally used varying film emulsions to achieve different results; now that goal is accomplished by using different digital cameras, each of which responds as if it has its own “emulsion.” As many digital cameras as there now are (typically five to six new models every year, with upgrades to existing cameras coming on a monthly basis), there are probably dozens of workflows that can be achieved, depending on how the project will be finished. Those workflows have to be understood by every member of that project’s camera department, meaning it needs to be developed from the very beginning.

I saw this reality in its infancy – on my last film project, and on my first digital project, I began to convene workflow meetings in advance of production. Included was my entire crew, as well as the director, production team, editors, and a representative from the camera vendor, all working to strategize how best to go from “camera negative” to post finish in the most efficient way (and with the highest quality) for that particular technology we were using. These days, it’s a foregone conclusion those meetings will take place.

People may forget that in the early days of digital technology, studios had very little appetite for digital intermediate. Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) – formed in 2002 by the major studios to find a consensus on the architecture of digital technology – didn’t come to an agreed upon DCI Specification for a DCP (digital cinema package) until 2012. So for more than a decade, production executives were not convinced that a DI would save time and money. Of course now the converse is true; finding a distributor who wants to do a film finish (and a corresponding lab) is virtually impossible.

I believe it’s the camera department’s job to consider the unintended consequences of technological innovation. We just witnessed the release of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, shot by John Toll, ASC, for director Ang Lee, at 120 fps, with each camera photographing the left and right eyes for native 3D capture. This meant the Sony F65 camera rigs John used could weigh as much as 120 pounds! Did this new application succeed in a way that would engage the audience more effectively? Would it, could it become a learning experience for the entire industry? I saw the film projected at 120 fps for each eye (as it was intended), and while it was certainly immersive in a way never attempted before, I’m not sure it made the story being told that much more compelling.

Billy Lynn was produced for a live audience, while the advent of VR (virtual reality) brings up an entirely different technological innovation. Either way, the unintended consequences of both these new innovations mandate that Local 600 continue its unrelenting emphasis on training and education. How else can we remain the masters of whatever capture (and storytelling) format comes down the pike?

The ICG was, and always will be, out in front of every technology this industry has ever seen – those that have sustained over time, and those that have fizzled out. And that is as it should be. Our broad grasp of all forms of technologies – from celluloid many decades ago, to digital today and beyond – is the best way to ensure that new technology’s unintended consequences will be “headed off at the pass,” and that cinematographers remain strong and true guardians of the moving image.

 

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