For this special Interview issue, I’ve initiated a series of equally special editorials comprising my ongoing conversations with the leaders of IATSE Craft Guilds. IATSE Local 800 Executive Director Chuck Parker is a veteran Hollywood-based production designer whose credits include Detroit 1-8-7, Monk, and Under the Dome. Chuck took over the reins of the Art Directors Guild (ADG) in June 2016 in a special election. Founded in 1935 (but with roots stretching back to the dawn of filmmaking), the ADG is made up of Art Directors, Graphic Artists, Illustrators, Matte Artists, Model Makers, Scenic Artists, Set Designers and Title Artists. In Part One of our conversation, Chuck and I talked about the challenges of new technology for our respective memberships.
Steven Poster: We now have new digital tools that are virtually limitless in what we can do with on-set capture. How do we continue to sustain the suspension of disbelief that’s so vital to cinematic story telling?
Chuck Parker: As Adrian Monk would say, “[All this new technology] is a gift and a curse.” [Laughs.] I mean, the capabilities for shooting at very low light levels – with natural light and just set-dressing fixtures – are fabulous. I feel like [cinematographers] can realize what Kubrick tried to accomplish with Barry Lyndon (way back in 1975), shooting entirely with natural candlelight. Of course, the downside is how easily the flaws are now depicted, particularly when talking about artificial set building on stage – seams, flats, but also skin complexions when everything is so microscopic.
Steven Poster: More resolution, more colors, more depth, shooting at higher ISO’s – how much farther can we, or do we need, to go?
Chuck Parker: We’ve reached a point in visual storytelling of having to determine what is the ultimate capability of the eye. My own feeling is that when we go past that point, it’s really another kind of reality.
Steven Poster: Yes, and it’s a road [camera crews] have been traveling for the last 25 years! I remember when digital effects were first coming into commercials, and they were asking us to shoot film at 30 frames per second – there was no 24P – because it was an easier translation for their visual effects. I remember thinking back then that moving off 24 frames looked like live video.
Chuck Parker: The soap-opera effect!
Steven Poster: It’s the elephant in the room for all of these new technologies, and something to this day that scientists and engineers still don’t understand. Many people don’t know that every TV in this country is delivered to consumers in “dealer mode,” which has the highest amount of motion interpolation, also called “smoothing,” or sometimes “sports or live mode.” The vast majority of people wouldn’t think to turn that off in order to see imagery the way both our memberships work so hard on set to create, which is, again, aimed at the suspension of disbelief.
Chuck Parker: And I don’t buy the idea that a new generation is so weaned on video displays, they think that’s the only way narrative stories can be told moving forward – this hyper-real approach that puts so much pressure on your camera teams and our art crews.
Steven Poster: I’ve been trying to blow a hole in that theory for some time by calling for scientific testing that can reveal what parts of the brain are lit up by different forms of exhibition. When digital was just coming in, I went to Kodak, to Jim Cameron, to the Academy, to UCLA’s brain-scanning department – everybody loved the idea but didn’t want to pay for it. Finally, we’ve been able to get neurologists and communications experts at Baylor University to undertake this testing – before FMRI brain-scanning is utilized. All forms of physiological tests are being done with more than 200 subjects, including a very sophisticated test where an infrared camera records the blush under the subject’s eyes. Early results from this [Baylor group] have proven that hyper-real imagery does not result in a more compelling emotional involvement with the story.
Chuck Parker: My example is less scientific and more anecdotal. My daughter, who is now a directing candidate at the School of Visual Arts, started working on 8-millimeter film. All of her peers look to film, not digital, as their preferred aesthetic.
Steven Poster: I get the same responses when I speak at various film schools. Maybe it’s nostalgic; maybe it’s a rejection of their digital upbringings…
Chuck Parker: [Laughs.] Or maybe they all just want to be John Cassavetes!
Steven Poster: At the other end of the spectrum is James Cameron, whose Avatar sequels may transform the very idea of physical production.
Chuck Parker: I went onto [the Avatar] stages a few months ago. I walked around with a [virtual camera], with two C-stands and a 14-foot-long piece of 1-by-3 connecting them that represents a fully realized shed on the viewfinder! There was also another C-stand with a spring that pivoted a connected a 2-foot piece of 1-by-3 – I looked at the screen and saw a palm frond waving! It’s amazing, bizarre and so different than how I work.
Steven Poster: Yes, but those virtual sets still have to be created by production designers.
Chuck Parker: They do, and we have some of our top illustrators and art directors working on those films. And those lucky folks will be employed for four years straight.
Steven Poster, ASC
International Cinematographers Guild
IATSE Local 600