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Better Tools Offer Cinematographers More Creative Options

When the American Society of Cinematographers was founded exactly 100 years ago, its mission was to help DPs share information about technical issues raised by nascent motion picture technology.

But even back in 1919, those cameramen were also concerned with creative expression, hence the organization’s motto: Loyalty, Progress, Artistry.

In support of those goals, the ASC has nominated two dozen imagemakers in four categories for its 33rd annual ASC Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography gala.

The biggest surprise this year might be the nomination of a director, Alfonso Cuaron, who served as his own cinematographer on “Roma.” Years ago, such a role might have been perceived as an affront to the prerogatives of camera pros, so perhaps the recognition is an indication of the strengthened position of DPs these days. (Cuaron’s regular cinematographer, Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, was unavailable and made it clear that he felt no slight.)

Three other nominees in the feature category are honored for the second time: Matthew Libatique for “A Star Is Born,” Linus Sandgren for “First Man” and Łukasz Żal for “Cold War.” Robbie Ryan is nominated for “The Favourite.”

Ryan shot his project on 35mm film emulsion, framing the pictures at key moments with low angles or extremely wide lenses. At times the images and editing take on a surreal quality.

“The amount of content being made, and the quest for an interesting image that tells the story, lead to diversity in the look of movies,” says Ryan. “We’re so saturated with images these days, so you have to find a clever way to make a film stand out.”

As for using celluloid rather than going digital, Ryan says: “Today, I think shooting on film has a certain resonance because it looks so distinct. With digital, it’s optimal and instantaneous, which is beneficial for a lot of departments. But that can force your hand in some situations.”

On “First Man,” Sandgren also used film, shooting on a wide variety of formats, including Super 16, 2-perf, 3-perf and 4-perf 35 mm, and Imax, as well as a long list of unique lenses. He carefully altered exposure and development in the traditional way for story and character reasons.

“Personally, I feel like it’s not enough to just change the look by changing lenses,” says Sandgren, who was previously nominated by the ASC — and won an Oscar — for “La La Land.” “I think we need the added variable of format. It’s important to embrace what we can achieve in-camera rather than to rely on post-production, like an Instagram effect.”

Sandgren laments the overuse of anamorphic lenses combined with digital formats. “It’s getting a little boring now,” he says. “Everything has its time, and the digital cameras are evolving and improving quickly. Cinematographers are interested in the high tech … but to put a limitation on expression is wrong. I think the next generation understands.”

On “Cold War,” Żal and director Pawel Pawlikowski reprised the squarish format and black-and-white approach that they originally used on “Ida,” which brought Żal and co-DP Ryszard Lenczewski the ASC Spotlight Award and an Oscar nomination in 2015. “Cold War” was shot on digital cameras and benefitted from a significantly bigger budget.

“You can play with it a little more,” says the cinematographer of the 1.33:1 frame. “It’s more like a painting. We were placing the camera high, and thinking more in terms of contrast and the depth of the frame. It’s also a link to the films of that period. Shooting digitally allowed us to work carefully with each frame as we shot, and to shoot almost at the edge of invisibility.”

As for television, a recent survey of DPs revealed a growing diversity in the formats used in TV cinematography as well. Presumably that’s in part a result of the explosion in content, which has had effects throughout the production process.

There’s also growing appreciation for the artistic aspects of the TV DPs’ contribution. First-time ASC Award nominee Zoë White says her personal creative input was valued on the nominated episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

“The prep process is for working with your team to figure out the technical needs,” she says. “Once you’re on the set, that can’t be in front of the ability to communicate. You must truly be in the creative, storytelling mindset. The producers wanted bold, strong work that took risks. I was encouraged to use what I had inside me, and that came through on this show.”

M. David Mullen is also a first-time nominee, for his work on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” “I think that today, every project creates its own visual grammar, and the audience chooses to go along with it,” he says. “There’s more creative variety in filmmaking styles, and they have become part of the vocabulary.”

This also poses challenged, per Mullen: “Rather than one style replacing another, more and more styles become familiar to the audience. That can make it harder to find some new way to tell a story.”

Perhaps that proliferation helps drive greater appreciation for cinematographers and their craft — one of the goals of the ASC. “Everything is being done at a higher level of technical polish and sophistication than in the past, to some degree because the tools make it easier, and also because the expectations are higher,” says Mullen. “Producers and audiences expect TV shows to look like mini features these days.”

(Pictured above: “First Man” director Damien Chazelle, right, with cinematographer Linus Sandgren)

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