'Avatar' raises the question of what constitutes lensing

When “Avatar” d.p. Mauro Fiore was nominated by both the Academy and the American Society of Cinematographers, it not only raised a few eyebrows — after all, 70% of the film was created digitally without his contribution — but brought into sharp focus the big question now looming over such awards: How does one effectively and fairly judge cinematography in a rapidly evolving digital world, where a d.p.’s live-action contributions might only serve as a template for teams of visual effects artists?

ASC president Michael Goi is quick to note this issue, “which applies not just to cinematography but to the whole visual end of the industry,” didn’t start with “Avatar.” “The reality is that cinematography has always evolved and changed with advancing technology and tools.”

Curtis Clark, chairman of ASC’s Technical Committee, reports that the digital world has evolved far faster “and had a deeper impact” than anyone expected. “To put it in context, when our committee was launched in 2003, we did a survey of films using the digital intermediate (DI) process, and we estimated maybe 15% were using it. Today, maybe over 90% are using DI,” he says. “And the rapid evolution of digital cameras is even more striking; now we have 3D thrown into the mix.”

Regardless, Clark says the role of the cinematographer, while in transition, is more vital than ever to a production, “to give an overall cohesive look to a project.”

Adds Goi: “This is a really good time to look at the technology and the awards and assess what constitutes qualifications for a particular award. But that’s an important discussion that should happen after this awards season.”

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