As this is our yearly Interview issue, and I’ve been having external and internal conversations for many years about the past, present and future of cinematography, I thought it was an appropriate time to get some answers to those many questions I’ve often asked myself. Blame the copy editor for any typographical errors, but the following opinions are solely those of subject and interrogator, who happen to be one in the same!

Steven Poster, ASC: You’ve been dealing with the transition from film to digital for almost 20 years. Where are we right now within that transition? Steven Poster, ASC: The transition has happened, and we are in the age of digital filmmaking, solidly and forever. We’re not seeing the death of film so much as the ascension of another form of capture. Film is still a viable artistic choice; whether it’s a viable production option is up to the directors, producers and studios for whom we work.

Okay. Assuming that’s true, how different are digital and film workflows?  We choose the emulsion in film and the camera in digital. All of the other artistic choices are the same for both – lenses, filtration, lighting, postproduction styles, et cetera. What is confusing is the word you used in your question: “workflow.” For nearly 100 years before it came into common usage in our industry, we had a transparent approach to making movies [on film] that meant we never even thought about “workflow.”

But now you’re moderating panels titled “Digital Workflows”! Exactly. It was the subject of our ICG panel at Cine-Gear last month, featuring Guild DITs and cinematographers. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to identify. Workflow is a bit like holding Jell-O in your hands – it changes daily as systems get more powerful and software becomes more available. For example, the front-end workflow that’s available to us on set is incredibly powerful. So the cry of “faster, cheaper, better,” which is a producer’s mantra, is possible when it comes to on-set dailies.

Why are on-set dailies important? Traditionally, the DP had a lot of input as to how the one-light dailies would be printed and screened for the director, actors and sometimes the whole crew to view. That was a wonderful era for cinematographers because it confirmed our creative intent from set to screen. What followed was a virtual Dailies Dark Age, with highly compressed imagery on various sub-par formats – VHS, DVD, et cetera. Thanks to technology, we’re now in a Golden Age where the DP can direct the look of the dailies – not only into the editing room during production, but also into the DI suite as an excellent template for finishing.

If this is a “Golden Age” for the camera department in terms of new technology and systems that can verify quality of work, how will technology evolve in the future? The advent of 4K image capture is a great example of that, since the question has always been: “Why do we need 4K?” The answer that always comes back is that it’s the best way to archive the material we gather. Now, if you’re doing a highly technical visual-effects movie that requires moving tons of high-resolution data, 4K is a great choice. But do we need 4K for everything? Given all the extra bandwidth it takes to sustain a 4K pipeline, I would say perhaps Moore’s Law has not caught up to this end of the process. The other downside of 4K is what the kids say: “TMI!” as it may provide too much information to suspend disbelief. Of course, we have tools to augment the images  – lighting, filtration and post practices, for instance – that can offset too much resolution.

Last question. And, by the way, I appreciate your candor. As many a psychologist will attest: being honest with your own inner voice is no piece of cake! Flattery will get you everywhere.

Right. So, here’s a slow one over the plate, but important nevertheless. What’s the legacy of your generation of cinematographers to this industry? We are the bridge to an era that has disappeared forever, and to a new time now beginning. Directors of photography like myself, John Toll [ASC], John Bailey [ASC] and Allen Daviau [ASC] are all people who began their careers when the studio system was still working. We can explain to the generations behind us what it was like to work with the great directors of photography in their prime. They were artists who had complete mastery over lighting, camera movement, meters and film stocks. It was a time before digital technology flattened the moviemaking process for all to see, simultaneously on the set, and the magic of cinema was an intangible thing.

Fraternally,

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