Judging by the feature nominees for the ASC Awards, the film-vs.-digital debate that has roiled the cinematography world in recent years has been fought to a draw, at least for now. Digital capture has thoroughly penetrated the market, and standards in format and workflow have emerged. Still, at the highest levels, moviemaking is often still done on film and a surprisingly number of projects use both, depending on the shot and the subject matter.
As with “Avatar” in 2009, the line between visual effects and cinematography was further blurred on “Gravity,” the groundbreaking technology for which required the filmmakers to transform their usual roles.
Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki was involved in every stage of the image-making from previsualization through post-production, calling visual effects supervisor Tim Webber “co-cinematographer.” For much of the movie, actors performed inside a box, dubbed “the cage,” that was lined with LED panels. Images projected on these panels depicted interactive light from stars and the sun. The cameras were digital — Arri Alexas.
Regarding “virtual cinematography,” Lubezki points out that marrying actors with backgrounds has been a challenge throughout cinema history. “If a movie has a strong CG element, that doesn’t mean the cinematographer didn’t light it or frame it,” he says. “You can call it ‘algorithmography’ or whatever you want, but I think cinematographers are going to be doing more and more virtual lighting.”
“Prisoners” d.p. Roger Deakins, a 12-time nominee and three-time winner, is known for his unfussy approach to the craft. “It ain’t rocket science,” he has said. A couple years back, Deakins’ defection from film to the Arri Alexa was big news in the cinematography world, but eyebrows have since lowered.
Barry Ackroyd’s extensive documentary background made him a natural for Paul Greengrass’ “Captain Phillips,” shot under difficult conditions and with many non-actors in the cast. Ackroyd freely blended Super 16 film, 3-perf Super 35 film and Arri Alexa, exemplifying a trend toward using the right tool for the shot.
Philippe Le Sourd devoted almost three years to Wong Kar Wai’s “The Grandmaster,” delivering meticulously stylized imagery that stretches time, compresses depth of field and defies gravity. Le Sourd also mixed film and digital, shooting the majority on 35mm film, and capturing crisp high-speed, slow-motion scenes with the Vision Research Phantom Flex Digital Camera at frames rates as high as 1,000 per second.
In Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” Sean Bobbitt’s unflinching camera was loaded with 35 mm film. McQueen brings the instincts of a visual artist to the cinema, and Bobbitt sees himself as a “wind-up paintbrush” for the director.
“Louisiana in the time of Solomon Northup is a beautiful place,” says Bobbitt. “Steve’s instinct was to embrace that beauty. It is a truth. And it also works as an important counterpoint to the horror and inhumanity of what is happening. Steve also quickly recognized that if you didn’t give the audience a little bit of breath and a little bit of beauty in all that horror, they would probably just get up and walk out of the cinema.”
On “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the Coen brothers’ tale of an irascible, unlucky troubadour in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s reportedly made for a relatively modest $11 million, Bruno Delbonnel’s instinctual, comparatively low-tech approach earned him the Bronze Frog at the Camerimage Intl. Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography in Poland. Delbonnel, who shot on 35mm film, says one key image for him during the shoot was photographer Don Hunstein’s album cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.”
“I thought of the script as a folk song, basically, and a sad one,” Delbonnel says. “The main idea for me was no sunlight and low contrast. It was all ambient light and fill light, basically — very, very soft light. The goal was to evoke the sadness in the story, and to maintain continuity throughout.”
For “Nebraska,” director Alexander Payne always envisioned black and white. For a classic, iconic feel, d.p. Phedon Papamichael combined the latest Arri Alexa digital cameras with refurbished 1960s-era Panavision lenses, and imbued the widescreen anamorphic images with a filmic texture by adding grain in post.
“With that big, open landscape, with the roads and cornfields and skies, everything fell into place,” Papamichael says. “Bruce Dern’s face is quite fascinating with the texture, and his hair and his eyes. It was nice framing close-ups of him with a widescreen frame in the middle of nowhere. And you’re not struggling with a cacophony of colors and skin tones. It was just a lot of fun.”