Cinematographers Put Focus On Art In Digital’s Day

By Sean P. Malone

GCI co-founder Yuri Neyman, ASC addresses the crowd. Photo by Sean P. Malone.

On a warm Saturday afternoon in a packed room at Birns & Sawyer’s rental facility in North Hollywood, professionals from across the movie industry — producers, assistant cameramen, directors and cinematographers — gather around a panel of teachers from the new Global Cinematography Institute in the hopes of hearing them predict the future of cinematography.

Behind every cinematic image is the craftsmanship, technical prowess and artistry of a cinematographer. The cinematographer works to achieve a “look” for each scene that serves the director’s vision, making photographic choices that when woven together, form the larger tapestry of the film’s story. Cinematography is the telling of that story by means of light, reflected off of characters and objects, traveling through the lens and exposed onto a light-sensitive surface (traditionally photochemical film) inside the camera. Since the advent of cinema in 1895, cinematography has continually been refined by its practitioners, and has evolved steadily as an art form. However, the most profound technological changes in the craft have occurred in the last 10 or 15 years, as the film industry has gone digital.

“Cinematography now is coming through very difficult times,” said Yuri Neyman, cinematographer of the cult classic Liquid Sky, and co-founder of the new school.

“An avalanche of technology allowed some people to say, ‘Well, you don’t need to light, you can have nice images without lighting’ or ‘you can do it without a cinematographer.’ For example CNN… fired (many of their) still photographers, because ‘everyone is a still photographer because everyone has an iPhone camera.’ Yes, they are ‘still photographers’ but they are not still photographers. They are just register-ers. They know how to register an event. But it will be no Robert Capa.”

Between speakers, audience members at the Birns and Sawyer event assault the panel with questions about new technologies, the future of cinematography and filmmaking, and testimonials about how their own careers had been turned upside down by recent digital revolutions.

While the whole story is a bit more complex (see the documentary film Side by Side for a decent primer on the topic), the last ten years have seen a near total transformation of the film industry as we know it. Digital technologies have rapidly displaced analog and/or film technologies, and subsequently made their way through the film production pipeline. Digital workflows were first embraced in special effects, then by post-production (editing and color correcting), and are now disrupting age-old practices of capture (on what medium the movie is shot), distribution (what technologies are used to project it) and archival (how the movie is stored and preserved for posterity). Photochemical film used to rule every inch of this process. Now, not.

“(The idea for GCI) started with my observation of what’s happening in cinematography and… what’s not exactly happening in the education of cinematographers. (Current) education is very traditional, it does not reflect new technological trends in any kind and also, it is not systematic,” said Neyman.

With tectonic shifts as large as these come many aftershocks. From a cinematographer’s point of view, digital capture means the abandonment of a technology and way of working that dominated film production for an entire century. It means instant digital playback on large monitors, and as many people able to view the image as there are people on set. Instant playback means instant possible manipulation by editors, producers, and the like. In other words, non-cinematographers.

Add to all that the recent surge of consumer level cameras that can (arguably) produce cinema-like images (like Canon’s 5D and 7D DSLRs), and you could have a recipe for a professional shake up. Not only can more people involved in a film intercept and disturb the cinematographer’s images, but now more people than ever have access to the fundamental tool in the cinematographer’s once prohibitively expensive toolbox: a decent camera to create images with. Now that “anyone” can get their hands on a camera, could some cinematographers suffer the same fate as the CNN photographers?

New technologies inevitably mean new workflow and a new paradigm, realities at the heart of Neyman’s reasoning for starting the school with fellow cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind).

“I strongly believe that the cinematographer should be the one who is controlling the images,” says GCI co-founder and Academy Award winner Zsigmond.

“Because if the cinematographer doesn’t do it, it becomes a chaos. Then it will be the director, the production designer, the editor, they all can jump in… I always think that this is like a temporary period of time when a lot of people think that they should be doing our job.”

Co-founder Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC imparts hard-earned wisdom. Photo by Sean P. Malone.

Zsigmond and the professors at GCI see education as one remedy for cinematographers regaining that control.

“We’ve lost some control of imaging by virtue of being behind the educational curve,” said David Stump, ASC, visual effects director of photography for X2, and instructor at the Global Cinematography Institute.

“So in general what I try to do is educate cinematographers on the use and technology of digital so that we can regain that control by virtue of knowing the technology.”

GCI offers it’s fair share of instruction in these new technologies, listing classes like “Virtual Cinematography” and “Digital and 3D Cinematography” on its website. The school is organized in sessions, teaching about 15 students at a time. Curriculum emphasizes what Neyman calls “Expanded Cinematography,” teaching students the basic technological skills necessary to direct imagery inside the 3D worlds of special effects, animation and video games.

But the school’s emphasis is not solely, or even primarily, on technology. It also teaches students “Traditional Cinematography” and “Lighting and Composition,” helping students grasp the fundamentals of image making as it’s been practiced in painting and photography for centuries. Co-founder Neyman is adamant that “cinematography is a form of art, not a form of technology… We created a school which we think is a sample of how to train a cinematographer. First of all, they have to be trained in the (pure) art of creating images.” Not for the novice, GCI is geared toward working cinematographers, and graduates of film schools.

Milton Santiago, cinematographer and GCI student echoes Neyman’s thoughts. “Cinematography is the art, it’s taking the heart of the story and illustrating that through composition, framing and lighting.”

Lukasz Zamaro, another GCI student and cinematographer puts it this way: “It’s a way of thinking, how you’re using light, how you’re using composition, how you’re building your storytelling and narration in the film with the images. We need to adopt the new technologies into our way of thinking. And make them work for us.”

The aim of the school’s curriculum is to give cinematographers mastery of both art and technology, so that they can assert that control over the images they capture on set, or in the computer.

It is that mastery of the art side that “separates the amateur from the professional,” continues Santiago.

“There’s more access to these (DSLR) cameras but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the art has increased as well.”

David Stump also acknowledges that new, cheaper digital technologies have “probably threatened (the livelihoods of) some cinematographers and some filmmakers, (but) it’s easily empowered that many more. The fact that the technology is changing is really only a measure of a creative person’s ability to embrace the technology and find something creative to do with it.”

That is one sentiment that seems to be shared by nearly everyone associated with the school: Cinematography is an art, and technology is simply a set of tools that help to accomplish that art.

This is not the first time technological changes have affected this field. The advent of sound cinema in the late 20’s, the introduction of Technicolor in the 30’s, and widescreen formats like VistaVision and CinemaScope in the 50’s also changed the art form in significant ways.

“Any time you have this much disruptive technology, people are going to be uncomfortable for a while,” continues Stump.

“But I think we’re starting to settle back into a good level of comfort with the technology as cinematographers in general now. Just because so many people have taken responsibility for their own destiny and begun to educate themselves, embraced the technology, learned to use it, learned how it works… I think the prize to keep your eye on always is that the toolbox has only gotten bigger.”

Regarding the new paradigm of unilaterally digital cinema, Neyman is blunt in his assessment of how it has changed the art of cinematography:

“It didn’t change a lot, honestly. It created a lot of complexities, but it did not change a lot. (It’s like) photography. You are a photographer with an old daguerreotype, and you are a photographer with the latest digital camera. You are still a photographer.”

Yuri Neyman elaborates. Photo by Sean P. Malone.

In other words, film is a tool, and now so is digital. Expensive cameras are tools and so are cheap ones. They are tools serving an art form.

Technology serving art is the constant theme of GCI’s presentation at Birns and Sawyer. Neyman teases the audience with beautiful imagery authored by students and teachers at the school, and emphasizes the importance of the pure art of cinematography. Between pictures, he displays a quotation… and gives the crowd a prognostication of the kind they may have come for:

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

– Alvin Toffler

“The film industry is a very simple industry,” says Neyman. “It’s like a potluck. Bring something, then you’re part of this. If not, you’re not part of this… What did the cinematographer bring before? Knowledge of lighting, knowledge of lab, knowledge of this, knowledge of that. Now, he needs to bring knowledge tenfold. Otherwise he will be assigned to do only what he can do and then other people will take care of the next step. Before, the cinematographer was the universal master of all imagery. We’d like to return the cinematographer to the same position as before. But in order to be in the same position, he needs to know much more.”

He takes the liberty of rephrasing Toffler:

“We are teaching people that cinematography is an ever-changing process. And if you’d like to be successful or simply employable, you have to learn how to learn and most importantly relearn. You have to learn every day.”

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