Lately we’ve been hearing about the standard model in physics, which claims that finding one more subatomic particle will yield the so-called “God” particle, thus explaining all we need to know about our physical world. There is, however, one wildcard that doesn’t fit this standard model, and for which science has no answer – gravity – and it’s an apt metaphor for this moment in our industry’s evolution.
We essentially have all of the technology, systems, and methodologies, all the cameras, lighting, and software (a touch screen away) we could possibly need to create the most sophisticated and moving entertainment in history – except for gravity.
What is the movie industry’s equivalent of gravity? It is the director of photography’s intuition – experience, talent, instinct – that translates into the ability to transform the elusive qualities of light and shadow into a compelling visual narrative.
Now that we are in the deep end of the pool with regard to digital capture and new electronic workflows, I want to reference a recent professional experience that provided much excitement and encouragement. This was hardly a given; early impressions inspired fear and loathing that these new technologies would create an industry-wide knowledge gap, as in: “Hey, this stuff is so easy to use, anybody can be a cinematographer!”
In fact, the project I shot proved the opposite. The digital workflow actually enhanced the DP’s role, as I was able to provide an instantaneous “proof of concept,” an exact visual representation of the director’s vision, just moments after capture.
Let me explain: The pilot episode of the upcoming Netflix series Hemlock Grove, directed by Eli Roth, was shot with a Canon EOS C300 and was unique in my experience for several reasons. The first was being able to shoot at a very high (and noise-free) exposure index of 3200, changing the way I saw and manipulated light.
The second was bringing postproduction elements onto the set. We used viewing LUTs on the monitors, and once the master was shot, the media would be delivered to our on-set coloring station, which was a full Resolve system. This included using secondaries and windows to manipulate highlights, shadows, and color, much like in a final grade. It was all I could possibly ask for in an on-set review, and, strangely enough, the whole thing reminded me of shooting still frames with my Polaroid many years ago: instant gratification.
This new way of working also had a magical effect on our director, producer and cast. Walking over to our color-correction monitor (expertly calibrated by the digital imaging technician), they could see exactly what my photographic intent was for each shot. The result was that the nucleus of the creative team immediately understood the complexity of what we were doing, tremendously enhancing the value of the entire camera department.
Gravitas in any language means having weight, establishing inertia. And in the brave new world of film and television production, it means grounding a production in the innate creative and technical value of Local 600’s membership. Sure, technology can take us to places far beyond what were once perceived as our physical limits, but if we can’t return to Earth, what good is it?
Steven Poster, ASC
International Cinematographers Guild
IATSE Local 600