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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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  • Scott, although James might not like to hear it, you are right on the money.

    As an indie producer/director I have repeatedly had to deal with the sort of person who insists that 'there is only one way to make a film' and if you disagree then, you are un-professional or worthless. Not all DOP's behave in this way, but many do - check out the Red forum over at to see how nasty a lot of folks get when they feel threatened by technology.

    What is often lacking among industry professionals (across the board) is the willingness to share knowledge with newcomers and to 'cut their cloth accordingly'. the second thing is a big problem if you are an indie filmmaker who has limited means and yet you feel pressured into 'doing things professionally' by hiring 'rockstar' crew.

    On an indie budget, even if you manage to get this level of crew, the chances are that you will not be able to afford the kind of demands that they will make in terms of equipment etc. I've seen this kind-of thing de-rail so many projects especially by newcomers who try very hard to appease the industry and 'do things right'

    Many proffesionals claim that indie production undermines standards and exploits hard working cast & crew - on one hand this can happen and needs to be addressed by treating eveyone with respect and decency, but on the other side of the coin you have to say that a lot of this is the result of people protecting their (over-paid) jobs.

    I wish people would realise that everything is relative to what you are trying to achive and that the industry would quit fearing change and pushing people away all in the name of so-called 'professionalism'.

    What filmmaking requires is rigour, not rigour-mortis.

    If you can do more than one job and do it well then the industry will totally mistrust you and at worst dispise you.

    I know it, you know it.. M-dot Strange, Arin Crumley et all definately know it!

    By Blogger randomfactor, at 10:49 AM  

  • the way, I'm a long time fan of your blog and i'm definately gonna buy your book! :)

    By Blogger randomfactor, at 10:54 AM  

  • Random-

    This is the best quote I've heard in a long time: "What filmmaking requires is rigour, not rigour-mortis."


    By Blogger Scott Kirsner, at 11:06 AM  

  • :) Thanks - I don't for one minute want to 'hate-on' anyone and I feel that it's a real trap when people get into a 'them and us' mentality as it hurts everyone.

    I'm saddened that a lot of people are loosing their jobs in the current climate but I am really enjoying the way i'm now able to pursue my work without old restrictions.

    The sky IS falling and I for one, love walking around with my head in the clouds 'cause the view from up here's AMAZING! :)

    That's enough aphorisms for now..

    By Blogger randomfactor, at 11:19 AM  

  • I'm looking forward to reading your book as well. I'm also doing research on the digital transition among cinematographers and one of the most interesting aspects to me is exactly the tension revealed in the exchange in this post - that DPs helping shepherd in new technologies and techniques while they are at the same time required to be the "guardians of the image" by both the structure of the industry and in protection of their craft tradition and professional interest. It's a great, complicated story.

    By Blogger Chris, at 12:33 PM  

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