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Cinematographers Blaze New Trails in Digital World

The classic image of a cinematographer is that of a middle-age white male squinting into the viewfinder of a bulky 35mm Panavision camera, but that image is evolving, and not just because more women and people of color are working as DPs. The digital revolution has not only transformed the tools used by members of the American Society of Cinematographers — from compact digital cameras and video villages on set to an ever-growing suites image manipulation software in post-production  — but it’s also expanded their individual responsibilities, while creating an ever-greater need to collaborate with other departments.

The new normal is especially evident in the streaming world, where outlets including Netflix and Hulu require DPs to shoot in true 4K UHD, and six-to-10-episode seasons are the norm.

A typical hourlong network series alternates cinematographers over the course of a 20-plus episode season. But on Hulu’s limited series adaptation of Joseph Heller’s novel “Catch-22,”ASC member Martin Ruhe was the sole cinematographer collaborating with a trio of directors (Ellen Kuras and producer/co-stars George Clooney and Grant Heslov), working simultaneously as scenes were shot out of sequence across all six episodes, a practice known as “cross-boarding.”

“Part of the technical challenges were logistical, keeping ahead of the game, sending crew ahead to be prepared for the scenes that were coming at another part of our set on the air base,” says Oscar-nominated ASC member Ellen Kuras, who recently moved from behind the camera to the director’s chair. “And then Martin had a lot of creative considerations to weigh in terms of what would be a post effect, what he was shooting live action, because sometimes we were using two planes that were representing a whole fleet. As a DP, it affects lighting, camera positions and lens choices, so he had to keep all of these in mind as he was considering every single scene and set-up.”

The ASC has been helping the industry prepare for and further the digital revolution since 2003, when it founded its technology committee (now known as the Motion Imaging Technology Council or MITC). One of its major early initiatives was a partnership with Art Directors Guild in 2006-2007 to explore how new pre-visualization tools affect the creative interactions of the director, the DP and the production designer.

“We were all so used to what this color and texture looks like this, then we started to shoot [digitally], and it looked different,” says Daryn Okada, who was president of the ASC at time. “That started a whole dialogue about trying to collaborate earlier and opening up lines of communication.”

As founder of the Producers Guild of America’s motion picture technology committee, Revelations Entertainment CEO Lori McCreary worked with the ASC on rigorous side-by-side comparisons of the imaging capabilities and workflows of the then-current crop of digital cinema cameras in 2009 and 2012.

“At the time, every camera pretty much had its own independent workflow, so, as a producer, if your DP wanted to use a camera that you hadn’t worked with, it was a pretty big learning curve during post,” says McCreary.

But a talented cinematographer brings something to a project that transcends technology.

“Today, anyone can take a photo or film someone,” points out actress-director Angelina Jolie, who received ASC’s Board of Governors Award in 2018. “But there is an art to sculpting with light, to capturing texture, or knowing when to decide to break the form. What the light hits, what it reflects, what it reveals, is storytelling. It is an art and a discipline. There is a patience and spirituality to it.”

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