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Outrunning runaway technology

ASC Awards 2013

Of all the filmmaking disciplines, cinematography is the most affected by what might be considered runaway technology. Today, new cameras and file formats seem to spring up with the frequency of traffic alerts during rush hour, while d.p.’s scramble to keep up with all the options that will best suit their needs. In a sense, a unique workflow must be designed for almost every project.

This past year alone, cinematography appeared to be looking both forward and backward, with such innovations as the “The Hobbit’s” 48 frames-per-second imagery compelling as many detractors as champions to weigh in, and Mihai Malaimare’s 65mm work on Paul Thomas Anderson on “The Master” inspiring a renewed appreciation for a format associated with the widescreen epics of David Lean. (A digital restoration of Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” invited its own debate on how sharp images can be without appearing sanitized.) Meanwhile, more serious filmmakers like Ang Lee are jumping on the 3D bandwagon, adding weight to a technique once considered a B-movie novelty and transforming it into a viable artistic option.

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American Society of Cinematographers president Stephen Lighthill cautions that the tech blizzard must not obscure the real purpose of these efforts. “The tools for making images are evolving in wonderful — and challenging — ways,” says Lighthill. “The progress of 3D into the mainstream, the introduction of new cameras with great dynamic range and low light sensitivity, the potential for higher frame rates as seen in ‘The Hobbit,’ even the use of 65 mm in “The Master” — cinematographers are thrilled by the growing range of options.

“But it’s important to remember that all these advancements lead us back to what we do, which is to make great images that move a story forward. If we’re not careful, the chatter about numbers can distract from the real purpose of images, and demean the role of the cinematographer. We believe strongly that the way things have to work is that the director and the cinematographer concentrate fully on the story and the images that are advancing that story — without being distracted by technology.”

When the ASC was founded in the early years of the 20th century, the then-clubby organization’s mission statement, in part, was to serve as a platform for cinematographers to share ideas and solve the technical problems that arose with the nascent machinery of filmmaking. For most of that first century, the workflow was comparatively simple. Cinematographers chose film stocks, shot the images, and labs developed them. Innovation came at a more manageable pace, often driven by the filmmaker’s imagination.

“If you don’t understand and don’t know how to influence a development, you can be dealt a pretty restrictive hand,” says Curtis Clark, an important player in shaping the evolution of motion picture imaging technology over the past decade. Clark, chair of the ASC’s Technology Committee — where cinematographers and ASC associate members, who represent companies in allied industries, collaborate — is being presented the Society’s Presidents Award in recognition of his decade-long service.

“I think that what we have tried to do with the Technology Committee — and with a certain measure of success in the most volatile of times — is in the spirit of the ASC’s founders,” he says. “I was always fascinated with the technology underpinning the art form, and the impact that it has on creative intent. So much of it is about understanding the limitations — and maximizing what you can achieve creatively with that understanding.”

The committee’s work in developing the ASC Color Decision List, or ASC-CDL, was recognized with a Primetime Emmy Award in 2012. The ASC-CDL software helps ensure that the original intentions of the cinematographers and their collaborators are carried through from set to screen.

The ASC’s membership also played a key role in AMPAS’ development of the Academy Color Encoding System, or ACES, a set of digital image encoding specifications and recommended practices. This framework is designed to add precision and interoperability to the chaotic thicket of file formats behind today’s entertainment images. AMPAS was also recognized with an Emmy Engineering Award for this work.

The ASC, in conjunction with the Producers Guild of America, also recently completed the Image Control Assessment Series, which put several new cameras through their paces and proved that ACES could work under production circumstances.

Lighthill sees things coming full circle. “Ironically, the model we’ve worked with for 100 years — making pictures with a very simple camera, with no fussing on set — I really think that’s what the future holds for us,” he says. “The digital cameras that will succeed in the long run are going to work a lot more like film cameras. I’m sure there will be a monitor on the set, but cinematographers will be using their light meters, and we’ll be able to concentrate more on making great images, and less on the issues that have dominated the conversation for several years: which camera, which sensor, which workflow.”

Lighthill points to the 2013 ASC Achievement Award nominees as exemplary in spite of the buffeting winds of technological change.

“Our nominees run the gamut from ‘Life of Pi,’ a beautifully realized and imaged film, but technologically complex, to ‘Anna Karenina,’ with exquisite images that link back to the theatrical roots of our profession. ‘Lincoln’ is a relatively traditional film, but it carries enormous authenticity and weight because of the way it was photographed. I think the variety in the nominated films is testimony to the vitality of our profession.”


Seamus McGarvey, “Anna Karenina”
Danny Cohen, “Les Miserables”
Claudio Miranda, “Life of Pi”
Janusz Kaminski, “Lincoln”
Roger Deakins, “Skyfall”

One-Hour Episodic Television Series:
Balazs Bolygo, Cinemax’s “Hunted” (“Mort”)
Chris Manley, AMC’s “Mad Men” (“The Phantom”)
Kramer Morgenthau, HBO’s “Game of Thrones” (“The North Remembers”)
David Moxness, Fox’s “Fringe” (“Letters of Transit”)
Mike Spragg, Cinemax’s “Strike Back” (Episode 11)
David Stockton, Fox’s “Alcatraz” (Pilot)

Television Movie/Miniseries:
Michael Goi, FX’s “American Horror Story: Asylum” (“I Am Anne Frank: Part 2”)
Florian Hoffmeister, PBS Masterpiece presentation of “Great Expectations”
Arthur Reinhart, History Channel’s “Hatfields & McCoys”
Rogier Stoffers, HBO’s “Hemingway & Gellhorn”
Half-hour Episodic Series:
Ken Glassing, Fox’s “Ben and Kate” (“Guitar Face”)
Michael Goi, NBC’s “The New Normal” (Pilot)
Peter Levy, Showtime’s “House of Lies” (“Gods of Dangerous Financial Instruments”)
Bradford Lipson, FX’s “Wilfred” (“Truth”)
Michael Price, ABC’s “Happy Endings” (“Four Weddings and a Funeral (Minus Three Weddings and One Funeral)”

ASC Awards 2013
Outrunning runaway technology | Semler: Dean of Down Under d.p.’s | Robby Muller a muse to Wenders, Jarmusch, Friedkin

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