Cinematographers Deploy Innovative Technology to Create Better Images

Multiple film and digital formats allow more choices than ever, but true creativity remains in the hands of the artist

John Toll Cinematographer.
Courtesy of TriStar Pictures

Cinematography, the original cinematic art, maintained its breakneck rate of change in 2016.

As always, technology and technique intertwined with personal artistic sensibilities and stories to drive changes in filmmaking. New markers were laid down on the road to the future with high-tech endeavors like “The Jungle Book,” lensed by Bill Pope, and “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” by John Toll. But Academy voters were drawn to a number of smaller-scale movies, most shot by relative newcomers to Oscar contention.

Ang Lee’s “Walk” was a particularly intentional attempt to expand what is possible in feature film cinematography. Lee’s curiosity, determination, and vision required a new “superformat” that combined 4K, 3D, and 120 frames per second. Toll, an Oscar winner for “Braveheart” and “Legends of the Fall,” says that the project stretched the capabilities and imaginations of every department. Color, contrast, depth of field, 3D depth, composition, and camera movement all had to be rethought. Rather than simply leaving viewers awestruck by the spectacle, the filmmakers wanted to use the technology to strengthen the connection between audience and character.

“Ang thought that this film could be a great demonstration of how this technology could enhance any story, including intimate, character-driven dramatic material,” says Toll. “Somehow the images are more immediate and more accessible. It feels like you’re looking at reality as opposed to images on a screen. I felt like I was in the movie as opposed to watching the movie. Each step of the way was more confirmation that we were really onto something.”

Toll’s cinematography on the project was not recognized with an Oscar nomination, and the long-term impact of the experiment remains to be seen. Perhaps in a few years, filmmakers will study “Walk” to understand how the building blocks of visual grammar must be adapted when the image is delivering unprecedented clarity and subtlety.

The five contestants for this year’s cinematography Oscar include four first-time nominees. The American Society of Cinematographers nominated an identical list for its upcoming 31st annual ASC Awards. Among the fresh faces are Greig Fraser (“Lion”), Bradford Young (“Arrival”), James Laxton (“Moonlight”), and Linus Sandgren (“La La Land”). Rodrigo Prieto earned his third Academy Award nomination for “Silence,” Martin Scorsese’s long-gestating meditation on faith in 17th century Japan.

The variety of formats represented on this roster does not match last year’s potpourri, which included Ultra Panavision 70, a 50-year-old gauge resurrected by Robert Richardson and Panavision for Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.” But film emulsion continued to hold its own. Two of the cinematography nominees shot film – Sandgren used 35mm anamorphic and 16mm for “La La Land,” and Prieto combined 35mm and large-format Arri Alexa 65 digital, the latter in low light situations, on “Silence.”

And of the nine best Picture nominees, three were shot on film — “La La Land,” “Hidden Figures,” and “Fences” — and the latter two of those were shot by women, Mandy Walker and Charlotte Bruus Christensen, respectively. Laxton combined digital with an anamorphic squeeze, and Fraser and Young shot Arri Alexa with carefully chosen spherical lenses, the latter using some vintage glass.

Sandgren further tailored his imagery for “La La Land” by framing in a 2.55:1 aspect ratio, redolent of golden-era Technicolor musicals.

“We wanted to make a contemporary drama set in a big, sometimes gritty city,” says Sandgren. “But since the characters are dreamers, it was important to bring them to a magical moment, to travel between reality and dream. We aimed to heighten the scenes with a timelessness inspired by the great Hollywood paintbrush from the 1950s, to a great extent in the set design and costume design, but also in the lighting and with unbroken takes shot with crane movies and dollies.”

Prieto relished the opportunity to shoot on film. “There’s something exhilarating about not seeing a monitor with the exact image,” he says. “Of course we did a lot of testing, so I knew the result. But I love playing with it. I love bending it and twisting the film negative to see different textures I can achieve.”

Digital photography continues to evolve as an artist’s medium. The Arri Alexa is a standard tool, while Red and Sony have upped their game. And Panavision’s highly anticipated entry into the digital field, the large format, 8K DXL, made a splash in 2016.

“The technology has advanced to the point where it is allowing us to go back to the essence of photography, where once you learn the technical stuff, you can throw it away and not be bogged down by technique but be empowered by feeling,” say Young.

He adds: “If you’re spending a lot of time trying to figure out what the hell the camera is, you don’t get enough time to figure out what the story is. Now I feel very confident that the exposure on the camera is going to get me exactly what I want.”

(Above: DP John Toll on the set of “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”)