ASC to honor Deschanel

He observes the state of cinematography and 2009's films

Five-time Oscar nominee Caleb Deschanel (“The Passion of the Christ,” “The Right Stuff,” “The Natural” and others) is the latest recipient of the American Society of Cinematographers’ Lifetime Achievement Award, which he’ll officially accept at the ASC’s 24th annual gala awards dinner Feb. 27 at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel in L.A.

Deschanel — who is prepping a suspense drama called “Dreamhouse,” to be directed by Jim Sheridan and scheduled to shoot in Toronto in February — took a few minutes with Variety to reflect on the current crop of Oscar hopefuls and the state of cinematography.

Which films released in 2009 have most impressed you and why?

I loved ‘The Hurt Locker.’ It was difficult to watch, it was so tense, but Barry Ackroyd did a brilliant job of lighting and putting you right there with the quality of his camerawork. You really felt the terror and tension.

I also loved ‘An Education,’ ‘District 9’ and ‘Precious,’ and to me, when they work like those do, I don’t really look at the cinematography. I find that when it’s really in sync with the story — and it can even be really ugly and gritty if it helps tell the story — I don’t notice it. I may go back and study it later, but I don’t analyze it at the time if the film’s working.

I even liked ‘The Hangover’ a lot because so often I see comedies that just aren’t funny, and that was truly funny.

Visually I liked ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ especially the first part. With so much CG stuff now, you really got a sense of the characters being alive. And I loved ‘Julie and Julia.’ Stephen Goldblatt did a great job of lighting and shooting it, and it’s not spectacle — just everyday things and food, which can be tricky.”

What are you views of the state of cinematography in general?

Obviously there are a lot of changes happening because of digital. Even if you shoot on film, it’s mostly finished digitally as you go to DIs (digital intermediate), which give you a lot of room to do stuff in post, and if you shoot digitally it’s digital all the way.

It’s the same as what’s happening in so many areas today, like music. You can have a recording studio in your living room now because the technology exists.

Look at the Dogma films. They’re made with simple video cameras, and now I have a Canon HD camera that sits in the palm of my hand. It doesn’t work in low light levels, but at high light levels the image looks great.

And there’s no question that as time goes on, everything digital improves. The whole world’s being revolutionized in terms of communication — images and both sound and music — and it opens up the possibilities of having so many more people have access to the medium.

Already in music you see a lot more being available, as the big companies that ran the record labels aren’t able to control it anymore. And even now in movies you can actually shoot a film for next to no money at all with digital technology.”

So is film dead?

Not yet, but I think we’ll see the end of it for sure. Digital isn’t there yet, and I happen to like film and the certain irregularity to it. But directors love digital because they can shoot as much as they want and it gives them a lot of freedom and more choices. Digital will definitely take over.”

But don’t digital tools sometimes sacrifice quality for speed and efficiency?

I think you’re right. I certainly resist change in the sense that I don’t want to lose quality. My worry is always that advances in technology don’t always improve quality. It sometimes improves convenience more than anything else.

Look at music. The sound quality of MP3s isn’t nearly so good now as it was with CDs and records, and yet what people really want is the convenience of having 5,000 songs on their iPod. It’s just a whole different value system taking over.

Then people get used to a lesser quality, and seeing little video images on their iPod instead of beautiful images.

But then every movie has different requirements. Some succeed in part because of the quality of everything in them, while others don’t need that.

There are films that are wonderful character portraits and great documentaries that may not have the sweeping visuals but tell a wonderful story.

There’s so many different ways to tell stories that I think it’ll just open it all up to many more people who want to make movies.”

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