Holding out a light on the future

Appropriate advice from a man who ushered in a new era of cinematography while lighting history’s most widely seen motion picture images: Adapt and survive.

“As with any new tool we’re given, digital technology offers the director of photography advantages and disadvantages,” says Dean Cundey, ASC, whose achievements last year in “Jurassic Park” tower as tall as prehistoric trees.

“We’re on the leading edge of this technology,” adds Cundey, “yet still learning how to best use the tool. Because of digital’s cost and a lack of understanding by directors and studios, learning the advantages will take a little time.

“I think you have to dedicate yourself to this,” says Cundey. “It’s like a computer — you either aggressively learn to use it, or it becomes just a typewriter. In a sense, you’ve limited its potential. A cinematographer can be easily intimidated by all this, but the goal of most of the places who offer digital technology is to make it more user-friendly.”

For Cundey, a state-of-the-art digital tech is cooking in the park’s raptors-in-the-kitchen scene, arguably the most successful integration of digital effects, live action, puppeteering, real-world scenography and impelling narrative logic ever accomplished.

Cundey says the recipe to its success was intense pre-visualization and meticulous planning of each shot: “Lighting the scene with a carefully thought-out intention,” says Cundey, “discovering where the light is coming from and what the computer can most realistically represent, what it can do well, and what it can’t do well.”

Cundey balanced the strong, directional warm light of late-afternoon sun coming through the kitchen window with the cool light of the interiors seen in realistic, but complicating chrome surfaces.

“We put a full-size creature in the light and performed shot tests to determine the quality of the light, the correct color reflected off the skin, to bring out the texture without showing the rubber,” he explains.

When people asked Cundey, a veteran of the “Back to the Future” features and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” as well as Spielberg’s “Hook,” how a particular shot was done, he knew he’d accomplished the most important task — preventing the liabilities of any particular technique from revealing itself, and thereby intruding on the storytelling.

As Cundey well knows, the plate tectonics of art and commerce have never been in such tension as today. The presence of digital film workstations shifts some of the cinematographer’s focus from in-camera control to out-of-camera apprehension.

Directors more commonly integrate live action with computer-generated imagery or sophisticated special effect. The future of television may see a digitally delivered “virtual” aspect ratio or one of several proposed high-definition television standards — HDTV VCRs and laser disk players using a 16:9 aspect ratio, and widescreen NTSC monitors are already available to consumers.

Respected cinematographer Vittorio Storaro argues passionately for the aesthetic advantage of 65mm photography, which he used on Bertolucci’s “Little Buddha.”

Yet, the money for studios since the mid-’80s has been video cassettes, and the pan-scanned letterbox sale for television provides a continual, countervailing pressure to avoid widescreen composition.

“Before the divestiture ruling, it was the studios, with a vested interest in their theaters, who pushed technology,” says John Hora, ASC.

“Today all the development is being driven by consumer electronic companies,” adds Hora, “some of which own studios and which have an interest in selling product to the home. Clearly, the movement is toward shooting in a small, easily digestible size.”

Hora’s warning is amplified by ASC Lifetime Achievement recipient Philip Lathrop’s recent comments about the effects the recent studio policy of sending videocassettes to academy voters will have on judging the visual aspects of cinema.

John Alonzo, ASC (“Chinatown”) is one certified, big-screen cinematographer who can relate to the coming changes in television. Alonzo recently imaged the first high-definition miniseries headed for U.S. network television, the four-hour World War II drama “Then There Were Giants.”

Alonzo says he lit the show as he would film, imaging with Sony’s latest CCD high-definition camera, Ultimatte blue screen, and composing in the 16:9 aspect ratio, but protecting for 4:3, Alonzo never felt his authority as director of photography challenged by the new technology.

“In fact, I had my usual crew and gained a couple of other members — an operating engineer and recordist,” Alonzo says.

“High definition won’t replace film,” says Alonzo, “but it will replace television as we know it.”

“Television as we know it is constantly evolving,” says Marvin Rush, ASC, who shot seasons of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and now images “Deep Space 9.”

One of Rush’s intentions has been to disguise the start and finish of the show’s numerous opticals, which are photographed when interior with fast (500 E.I.) 5296.

Visual-effects producers alternate supervision of each episode; many of an hour’s 40 to 50 F/X shots are done on digital workstations such as Quantel Paintbox or Harry at Digital Magic, Santa Monica; motion control elements are shot at another house, Image G, Hollywood; the show is transferred to tape at Unitel Video, Hollywood under the supervision of telecine colorist George Cvjetnicanin.

Rush has to synthesize the show’s entire look based on these separate teams. “Planning for opticals is done in preproduction,” says Rush. “I try not to violate standard principles. Split screens need perfectly matched lock-offs so that shadows don’t pass the split line. However, one of the tricks to selling an effect is to violate the split line intentionally. In this case, we have to be very controlled and specific, so that the rotoscoping this will mean is in the budget and doesn’t cost us extra.”

Because of the effects work done at NTSC resolution, on digital workstations, DS9 doesn’t exist on film after its principle photography is complete. Rush watches rushes on 3/4-inch tape.

But nowhere is the technological promise/threat more clear than in the dramatic rise of film-resolution quality digital workstations. In just the last year, these systems have rushed traditional film optical methods: Kodak’s Cineon system, in use at its new Hollywood facility as well as OCS/Freeze Frame/Pixel Magic, Burbank, and The Post Group, Hollywood; Quantel’s Domino system, available at Digital Magic, Santa Monica.

Also: Cinema Research Corp., Los Angeles, and, at a production and motion-control specialty house, Praxis, Culver City; and a wide ranging host of digital electronic configurations ranging from Buena Vista Visual Effects system at Disney and a number of Silicon Graphics workstations with exciting new software (such as Discreet Logic’s Flame) coupled with film recorders.

“Time is doing to cinematography what earthquakes do to the earth,” says Hora (“Gremlins,””Matinee,” etc.). “There’s a certain amount of entropy involved, in that cinematography is constantly being knocked down to a level of normalcy.”

Hora points out that because of the prevalence (and control) offered by digital-matte painting, at least one noted special visual-effects house has gotten rid of matte-painting cameras, signifying an end to the traditional method of combining glass painting with photography’s ability to force perspective.

In traditional matte-painting method, the cinematographer controlled the image on site. Now it’s postponed.

Faced with the economic imperatives of television, some ASC cinematographers such as Curtis Clark (“The Draughtsman’s Contract”) are “using technology to fight the degradation of the image by technology,” says Clark.

“Working with Aaton and Panavision, we’re in the midst of setting up, conceptually and practically, a mobile facility for on-line dailies for supervising telecine transfers from the site of locations or a studio in D-1 quality images,” says Clark.

Intending to employ fiber optic, new video-assist technology with software image enhancement, and a new application of timecode, Clark says he hopes these efforts “will put the cinematographer’s control back in the image.”

Clark says directors of photography should not be intimidated by new technology, or even the economic realities that have seen such changes as nonlinear editing pushing the digitized image as a substitute for printed dailies.

“We become Luddites if we don’t disengage our creative issues from the march of technology,” concludes Clark. “We must address such issues as electronic digital imaging now, and the ASC is taking more interest in these technologies.”

(Gregory Solman is senior editor/teleproduction (West Coast) for Millimeter magazine.)

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