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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Cinematographers and Digital Cameras: Why the Wait?

I adapted a section of my new book "Inventing the Movies" to run in the newsletter of the Digital Cinema Society, a group run by cinematographer James Mathers. It touches on the hesitance (as I see it) among top cinematographers to test and then adopt digital cameras.

From the excerpt:

    At least since 1972, there have been discussions in Hollywood about the benefits of using electronic cameras on the movie set. One of the pioneers was Lee Garmes, who had begun his career in 1918 as a camera operator for silent films, cranking the camera by hand. As a cinematographer, Garmes had shot the original Howard Hawks Scarface in 1932, and a large portion of Gone With the Wind. He'd also won an Academy Award for Shanghai Express, directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Marlene Dietrich.

    In 1972, at a gathering at the American Society of Cinematographers clubhouse in Hollywood, Garmes, a past president of the group, announced that he'd just finished shooting a feature on videotape, and “hoped never to see another piece of film.” The movie was Why, a drama about teen suicide, commissioned by Technicolor as an experiment in transferring material shot on videotape to 35-millimeter film for theatrical release. But Garmes may have made shooting with video sound too easy for his peers' liking, as when he told American Cinematographer magazine, “Looking at the monitors, the job was so easy. I could have phoned it in.” Most cinematographers preferred for their work to seem complicated, mysterious, magical.

    Into the 21st century, proponents of digital cinematography - most notably George Lucas - have continued to face skepticism.

Mathers also posts his own reply to the excerpt, in which he says:

    I’m currently well into Scott Kirsner’s book, enjoying it a lot, and seeing many similarities in Hollywood’s technological history to the modern Innovators on the scene today. However, I can’t abide by statements which seem to suggest that Cinematographers are interested in maintaining the status quo only to make their work seem “complicated,” or for fear of looking like “novices,” or only in an effort to maintain their status on set by requiring an unnecessarily large crew.

    Modern Cinematography is indeed complicated, whether captured on film or new digital formats. Why should we Cinematographers seek out new technology only for the sake of being on the bleeding edge? If we have tried and true tools that have reliably stood the test of time, why jettison them before better tools arrive to serve our purposes? And nothing makes the hair on a Cinematographer’s neck stand up faster than the implication that with Digital less crew and equipment are needed, because somehow you don’t have to light as much. We are constantly in search of the best tools, not just the newest; and it’s only fear of Producers buying into this type of fantasy that truly worries us. These misplaced attitudes could rob us of the resources we need to do our jobs in controlling light and shadow while serving as the visual guardians of the motion picture image.

(The book is available here in paperback form, and here in e-book/PDF form.)

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