By James Mathers, Cinematographer and President of DCS
As a Cinematographer, I’ve had to get used to the fact that my role is constantly changing, and while I don’t think it is necessary, some have even suggested a new name for what we do. Whatever the specific skill-sets employed, we are still charged with guiding the cinematic motion image to the screen. That screen might be theatrical, TV, or mobile device. It does not matter the display medium or the capture format. I’m not now a “Digital Cinematographer” any more than I was a “Film Cinematographer” over the many years I acquired images on celluloid. The technology doesn’t define us; it is rather just a tool to help us achieve our creative intent. It is a means to an end, not the end itself.
A sign of the changing times is that for the first time, a Cinematographer who works exclusively in Feature Film Animation has been invited to become an Active Member of the ASC. As would any Cinematographer, Sharon Calahan, ASC, (whose credits include Cars 2, Ratatouille, Finding Nemo, and Toy Story among many more,) works to control Lighting, Color, Movement, and Framing. Although she may be directing “digital light” on a computer, she is shaping and controlling the way the audience perceives the image, and protecting that vision throughout production and post. In my estimation, there is no reason she shouldn’t be recognized as a Cinematographer.
Visual Effects play an ever-increasing role in what we celebrate as the best in image creation. Awards season is now in full swing, and it’s interesting to see how the Industry categorizes and honors our work. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been recognizing the technical contributions of special effects to movies since its inaugural dinner in 1928, presenting an award for “Best Engineering Effects” to Wings, (which also happened to be the first Best Picture Oscar winner.) More recently, it is interesting to note that the last three Best Cinematography Oscars went to movies that also claimed the Best Visual Effects awards. In fact, I would not be surprised to see it happen again this year on Gravity, with well deserved nominations for Director of Photography Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, ASC, AMC, and VFX team Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk and Neil Corbould.
If Lubeski does take the honor this year, it is likely to reignite the debate that started when Mauro Fiore, ASC won the Oscar for Avatar, a movie where only 30% of the pictures resulted from physical photography. In the case of Gravity that ratio reportedly dropped to only 20% of the images being photographed with a camera. Some ask how then can you reward the Cinematography on such movies? I would argue that it is the synthesis of these art forms that makes the masterpiece, just as the Maestro combines the many parts and players in an orchestra to conduct a symphony. It’s more about directing the final images that end up on the screen through control of every aspect that goes into making those images.
I would hate to go back to subcategories of Best Cinematography Oscars as was the case from 1939 to 1967 when there were separate awards for color and for black-and-white cinematography. We especially don’t need to differentiate between movies shot on film or acquired digitally. However, DCS does track such details, and of the features that are in awards contention this season, the percentage is about 50/50. See more at: www.digitalcinemasociety.org/news/informal-survey-shows-50-major-features-acquired-film
No matter who wins the Best Cinematography Oscar for whatever movie, it is clear that the Cinematographer’s job has gotten to be a whole lot more than just focus, framing, and lighting. We need to master the art of collaboration, understand various workflows, and how to facilitate getting the image seen in the manner intended. We all go to the movies and watch TV dramas because as human beings we love stories. They move us, inspire us, transport us and above all… they entertain us. The Cinematographer’s job is to be responsible for the visual aspect of this storytelling. Making movies is a collaborative art form, and the traditional disciplines that make up the various professions in our industry continue to meld and cross pollenate. If we are to continue to thrive as Visual Storytellers, it seems we must get used to wearing many hats and learn to use, as well as combine, the best tools available to us.