Magic Hour

Do we really have to continue the discussion debating the relative merits of film and digital? In my opinion, that argument has not only left the starting gate, it’s crossed the finish line.

After a recent screening of Side by Side, a feature documentary that probes why digital has supplanted film, directed by Christopher Kenneally and produced and narrated by actor Keanu Reeves, an interesting discussion ensued.

The movie featured the “usual suspects” waxing eloquently about one side or the other, or both. The audience, about 300 strong, was composed of filmmakers, directors, cinematographers, and producers – anyone with a creative stake in our industry.

When I was called on by the Q&A moderator, I made this point (strongly) to all assembled: “What is the big deal here?” Philosophically, there is no difference. In film, we would choose the emulsion, the lenses, and the filtration; design the lighting; and select the appropriate laboratory techniques required to fulfill the director’s vision. In digital, we choose the camera, which is the equivalent of a film emulsion. We select the lenses and filtration, design the lighting, and help find the best digital postproduction technique to complete the director’s vision.

The magic of what we do as cinematographers is still there, and, creatively speaking, nothing has changed. Some of the best examples can be found in the independent, lower-budgeted Sundance-type movies, where we are seeing extraordinary work by Guild cinematographers and their crews. Some of the projects at Sundance this year were shot on film, some of them were shot digitally, and it couldn’t matter less (to audiences or distributors). We’ve arrived at that place where all that matters is what’s on the screen, not how it got there.

That last point is what I find so undeniably thrilling about our industry today. You can make a movie with minimal equipment as long as you have a great script. You can make a movie with hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of tools as long as you have a great script. It all comes down to the artistry of telling a story with images.

Of course, critics will scream: “How can the magic of cinematography still exist when digital moviemaking allows for the instantaneous presentation of the frame to everyone within a light meter’s throw of an on-set monitor?” My response is simple: the best magic that exists today is right there in your face. Professional magicians call it “close-up magic,” tricks and sleight of hand unfolding a few feet from their audience. When everyone on a set can scrutinize an image, a few steps removed from the actors and sets, and it still surprises and absorbs, that’s close-up magic of the best kind, and a real tribute to Local 600 camera crews who helped in its creation.

Here’s what will never change, no matter how protracted the discussion: If you know how to light, it doesn’t matter what you shoot on, and if you don’t know how to light, it doesn’t matter what you shoot on.

Magic, no matter the box it comes in, is what we do best.


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

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