Cinematographers Fight for Control of the Image

Ed Lachman, who was Oscar nommed for 'Far from Heaven' (above), recently worked with a director who wanted to color correct every shot with him

Cinematographers live in interesting times, with technological developments offering more options, but also opening the door for others to meddle with the image.

“It’s a changing time and that’s not a bad thing because we have new tools. The bad part is that our influence is diminishing,” Steven Poster, who is a former president of the American Society of Cinematographers, said recently at a session organized by Technicolor at Camerimage, a festival dedicated to cinematography.

Poster, whose credits include “Donnie Darko,” said that this decline in influence started when crews stopped watching film dailies and switched to lower-quality video dailies. With film dailies, everyone could appreciate the look the cinematographer was trying to achieve.

“It gave a sense of the scope, the look, the feel and the emotional output of the movie,” he said. “It created a kind of gestalt that made everybody work in a particular direction.”

“We started living with people watching our work and not knowing what it was we were doing,” he said. “We lost a sense of the magic of what we were doing as directors of photography.”

Poster said that one option was to do the coloring on the set in front of everybody, as he did on his last movie, “Amityville: The Awakening.”

“They are seeing what your intent is. All of a sudden people start to feel the magic is coming back,” he said.

Poster said it is very important to work closely with the digital imaging technician, as “it gives you the control over the image that has been lost.”

Unfortunately some studios had started to say it wasn’t necessary to have a DIT on set, especially on TV productions.

Digital technology offers the director the opportunity to change the look of the film in post.

Ed Lachman, who was Oscar nommed for “Far from Heaven,” said that he recently worked with a director who wanted to color correct every shot with him.

Matthew Libatique, who was Oscar nommed for “Black Swan,” said: “Directors think they have ownership over the color of a movie because they see something they like and they know they can do it on their f—ing laptops.”

He added: “If you are worth your salt as a cinematographer, you’ve already baked in the majority of the look. You are 99% there. Why are we spending four weeks doing it again?”

Shooting in 4K offers the chance to reframe shots. Libatique said that David Fincher sits down with his d.p., Jeff Cronenweth, and reframes every shot.

Nancy Schreiber added that if there are visual effects that can make it even more difficult to control the image. “The VFX supervisors are really trying to take control, and we have to insinuate ourselves in that situation very early on, even if they don’t want us to,” she said.

However, Libatique isn’t persuaded that the cinematographer’s job has changed all that much. “The gear’s changing but the ideas aren’t really changing. I mean we try to tell stories or create an atmosphere,” he said. “Our responsibilities remain the same.”

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