Future of Cinematography: Past as Prologue

How days gone by and great artists of their time embraced and anticipated change, and how our technical and creative landscape challenges us today.

At top, ASC members Leon Shamroy, John Bailey and Gregg Toland. (Shamroy photo courtesy of the Roy H. Wagner, ASC Collection)

The October 1947 issue of American Cinematographer featured an article by “the cameraman’s cameraman,” Leon Shamroy, ASC. Only in his mid 40s, he had already received six of his eventual 18 Oscar nominations (a record he shares with Charles Lang Jr., ASC). That article, also titled “The Future of Cinematography,” includes observations about the creative role of the cinematographer that are as relevant today as they were then.

A director of photography makes something more than a mere technical contribution to a motion picture. What the writer has created in the written word must be translated to the screen [through] the eyes and minds of the director and the cinematographer …. The creative cinematographer continues to experiment. He looks for new ways of intensifying mood and projecting the emotions of the actor beyond the screen.

As we look back at this magazine’s century-old history, which features many revealing contributions by ASC members (especially in the early years), we cinematographers find validation in a defining principle of our art: the collaboration between director and cinematographer that is near sacrosanct. Nowhere has it been more clearly expressed than in Orson Welles’ shared main-title credit with Gregg Toland, ASC at the end of Citizen Kane. Our greatest directors have long given credit for the success of their work to the cinematographer’s magic cocktail of light and composition.

Legendary cinematographers like Shamroy and Toland were not merely impresarios of the camera, outsized alchemists of the now-receding photochemical age. They understood that cinematography’s key elements of composition, movement, shot selection and light creation and control were means to visually express our shared human story: created by writers, given the breath of life by actors, and molded into a coherent, emotional whole by directors, cinematographers and editors. It is this, the frame-to-frame, shot-to-shot, scene-to-scene creation of fictive imagination become real — “the movies” — that informs the past, the present and the future of our art.

Last November, I was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Camerimage International Film Festival in Torun, Poland. Festival Director Marek Zydowicz asked me to introduce screenings of half a dozen films I had photographed. I told him I preferred not to present work that showed only artful imagery, but movies that presented cinematography supportive of the film’s visual/dramatic arc. I have often spoken of Ordinary People and The Accidental Tourist as two films that I hope exemplify how cinematography informs the contours of a movie while being subsumed into a unity of drama and character. 

I’ve referred to myself as “an accidental cinematographer,” not one gifted with a Kodak Brownie in my cradle. As a student at USC Cinema, I envisioned a career as a writer of film history and aesthetics, certainly not what the trades still dismissively label a “lenser.” One evening after work in 1969, when I was still a new camera assistant recently initiated into the IATSE camera local, I went to see The Conformist with my mentor, the techno-whiz cinematographer Jim Dickson. I was learning from Jim the mechanics of the motion-picture camera: lenses and apertures, depth of field, field of view, exposure. That evening, watching Bertolucci and Storaro’s work in a quiet Laemmle Westwood theater with Jim, I had a “Road to Damascus” revelation of the power of filmmaking thanks to the rich marriage of technique and aesthetics these two supreme artists had created. It is a conviction that has sustained me for more than 50 years.

From the very first public screening by the Lumière brothers in the Salon Indien du Grand Café on Dec. 28, 1895, to our present home streaming of theatrically intended movies during the Covid-19 stay-at-home order, the side-by-side march of technology and aesthetics has remained a defining hallmark of cinema. It gives us great pleasure today to extol the near-daily advances of digital technology as if it were the edge of a new Golden Age in filmmaking. During last year’s Camerimage festival, dozens of companies and vendors exhibited a mind-numbing array of cameras, lenses, recording and storage devices, postproduction software, and large-screen monitors — the future of cinema here in the present. Booths were packed with eager young film students as well as working veterans, all exhibiting hands-on concentration. As a veteran of the Analog Age of perforated film, one who’s still working in the shifting landscape between film and digital (my first foray into digital was 2001’s The Anniversary Party), I find myself increasingly swamped by it all, reliant on a crew of digital natives — not unlike the great cinematographer Chris Menges, ASC, BSC on his as-yet-unreleased film Waiting for the Barbarians (from John Coetzee’s novel). Menges wrote to me about how quickly technology had changed during his six-year hiatus since the dark drama Redemption (2013). Yet, as if by instinct, his cinematography in Waiting for the Barbarians is revelatory, as always.

Near the end of his article about the future of cinema, Shamroy envisioned what this future might look like, and his comments are remarkably prescient:

Not too far off is the “electronic camera.” A compact, lightweight box no larger than a Kodak Brownie, it will contain a highly sensitive pickup tube, 100 times faster than present-day film stocks. A single-lens system will adjust to any focal length by the operator merely turning a knob, and will replace the cumbersome interchangeable lenses [of] today. Instead of waiting for a day — or days, in the case of shooting with color — electronic monitor screens connected into the system will make it possible to view the scene as it is being recorded. Control of contrast and color will be possible before development.

Shamroy wrote this at the start of the movies’ electronic age. We recognize elements of his “future” as our own present. But what is our future?

Shamroy and Toland witnessed seismic changes in motion pictures early in their careers, technological and artistic shifts that included the introduction of sync sound and three-strip Technicolor. Shamroy’s first credit was the 1926 silent feature Pirates of the Sky. His last silent film was in 1928, a short from Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. That same year also saw Toland’s experimental silent gem, The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra:

These two shorts, shot by iconic cinematographers then in their mid 20s, are stunningly experimental, embracing the new film style of German Expressionism in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Nosferatu, movies whose visuals still astound us.

Film scholar Sohail Daulatzai has written an insightful essay on The Battle of Algiers, a film that, like The Conformist, revolutionized cinematography. Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo and photographed in a seemingly documentary style by Marcello Gatti, this film, in its nervous intensity, continues to influence our camera style, a grammar reflected in the rough cellphone videos shot today by witnesses to real events, disturbing images that are redefining our society. In ways never imagined a generation ago, the “democratization” of image making has become a weapon for social justice. Sean Baker’s edgy, streetwise feature film Tangerine, breathing an urgent documentary immediacy, was photographed on an iPhone with an anamorphic attachment. It was not an anomaly, but a harbinger.

Today’s high-concept, VFX-larded filmmaking factories churning out mostly escapist diversion are swamped in a tsunami of chaotic images grounded only in their own memes. It’s difficult to see beyond this wave’s leading edge to know whether our movies can regain some correspondence to the real-life dramas unfolding before us. 

These ever-propagating tentpole/franchise movies are certainly challenging for a filmmaker like me, one admittedly steeped in classic film history. I’ve become increasingly anxious that the dazzling image-making tools we now wield might become instruments for creating not “cinema,” but “content.” I recall the subtitle of Daulatzai’s essay: “Past as Prologue.” We recognize that the great cinematographers who came before us are kindred spirits, colleagues in a seamless creative continuum that explores new pathways in technology — but as a means to deepen our own human experiences. Great images document a continuous present regardless of the time of their creation.

Confined by the Covid-19 lockdown and facing an uncertain socio-economic and political future, we may find solace in the thought that although none of us knows what the technical future of film will be — VR, yet another round of 3D, or something like the deeply immersive experience of Iñárritu and Lubezki’s Carne y Arena — cinema’s power to move us individually and collectively to give ourselves over to this magical synthesis of visual storytelling is not only the art form’s past, but also its present and future.

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