“Cinematographer vs. Producer”

ONE

Early last week a fellow cinematographer whom I have known since our student days at USC Cinema sent me a link to a short animated video. I watched it, intrigued by the confrontation of its two opponents—a cinematographer and a producer. The sparks from this verbal set-to are, in fact, both incendiary and hilarious. The video's disjunction between a near manic trade-off of ad hominen insults and its sylvan, static setting with “Hello Kitty” figures in a stand-fast dialectic punch out, makes it even more bizarre. After several viewings, I found myself wondering what possible subtext could lie beneath the potty-mouthed, subversive rant of the cinematographer who had created it.

In the unlikely event you have not seen this gem-like dark ditty (or even if you have) here it is in its full two and a half minute screed. Click the "xtranormal.com" link below this photo, not the photo itself:

xtranormal.com—“If you can type, you can make movies.”

www.xtranormal.com—Cinematographer vs. Producer link

In the past few days I have seen this video go viral within the ranks of cinematographers (now well over 50,000 hits) . Clearly, it expresses with witty ripostes a level of frustration that many “below the line” filmmakers have been feeling for some time (it has also spawned an editor's version with the same figures and background engaged in debate with a studio executive about Avid vs. Final Cut Pro). Cinematographer vs. Producer posits with almost surreal irony that the very embrace of cutting edge technology chosen by cinematographers as tools to expand their creativity, is being used to erode this creativity by the ill-informed and the directives of bottom line budgets. The “democratization” of filmmaking made possible by “user-friendly” video and DSLR cameras seems, as well, to have had the unintended consequence of making almost anyone that can push a start button, a self-anointed camera expert .

Last Spring’s CineGear exhibition at Paramount Studios could be an unexpected preview of the future of filmmaking. Many gear-head futurists and movie distributors have been lusting for the demise of traditional film prints for more than a decade. In early 2001, the New York Times Arts and Leisure section ran a photo of Disney and Miramax executives holding metal film cans out over a dumpster. Back then, as I was writing an article for that august paper discussing my first DV feature, The Anniversary Party, even the most digerati-bent of us could not have predicted that before the decade was over some mainstream filmmakers would actually be shooting films with a $1500 juiced-up stills camera. Here is the camera that all the fuss seems to be about.

The CineGear event presented an interesting study in techno-bifurcation. After leaving the Gower St. registration table, you entered an air-conditioned soundstage packed to the perms with cutting edge digital movie and still cameras. Supporting post-production software programs were all neatly presented for the one-stop convenience of the digital (can I still say it?) FILMmaker. I even spotted other DSLR cameras being promoted as movie cameras, one of them even mounted on a standard size gear head--- an interesting inversion of the way these small cameras were meant to be used. Outside the stage, a brief walk toward the back-lot streets in the broiling sun, were installations for large support products such as camera cranes, HMI rigged night-lights, helium lighting balloons—and, oddly, booths for vendors of 35mm motion picture cameras. Was the inclusion of these traditional movie vendors and their “mature” products a kind of over the shoulder glance backwards from the future, a deliberate slight, or a nod that film cameras might possibly still be somewhat relevant? Perhaps it’s just that there’s nothing too sexy about a multi-generational old workhorse like a 35mm Panaflex or Arri film camera, compared to the “newest and brightest” piece of HD video equipment. I noticed, also, that there was no booth for Kodak anywhere, and the recent market aggressive Fuji-film banner was located sedately behind the ASC stall, almost begging not to be noticed.

Even after reflecting on why these booths were so configured, I’m not certain what it meant. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps there was just a desire to escape the outside heat—but it sure seemed to me as if most of the “buzz” emanated from the digital stage, not from the heat-radiating pavement where film vendors were installed. This segregation was no different than what I observed a few weeks later when I was guest of the ABC, the Brazilian Society of Cinematographers, at their weeklong get together at the Cinemateca in Sao Paolo. The Arri Alexa was introduced here with real interest (I sat near Felix Monti, a veteran film cinematographer, who had recently used the RED on the Oscar winning Argentinean film El Secreto de Sus Ojos.

But afterwards, the real clustering of young people and students was out in the auditorium lobby, centered not around last year’s hip HD-DV cameras, but around the DSLRs and prosumer 3-D cameras.

TWO

The history of cinema is one of ever-evolving technology and it appears to be each generation’s birthright to think that it alone is at the swirling center of a technology maelstrom. What seems to be different this time around is not just that new equipment is the generative factor as a new aesthetic platform---- but the business implications that surround, even dominate it. What exactly do I mean?

Some years ago I was on a panel at the Sundance Film Festival that addressed the then embryonic use of digital cameras for feature film production. For years, there had been sporadic attempts to use video cameras for large screen productions, but the results had been pretty unsatisfactory. On the Sundance panel a young “A” list actor/director sat next to me. He was brimming over with excitement and confidence about a low budget film, partly improvised by his actors. The cinematographer, an industry veteran in 35 mm film, was here using low-end DV cameras. The film’s principal location was a legendary downtown NYC hotel. The ambitious independent production company underwriting the film, InDigEnt, was in the first flush of a number of indie hits, all shot with small digital video cameras. They continued producing features until a few years ago when newer technology assumed their mantle and the founder became a mainstream feature film director.

At the time of the panel I had yet to photograph a digital feature, and I felt uneasy being seen as the poster child for traditional celluloid filmmaking, even a 21st century Luddite, possibly for no other reason than the number of studio film credits I had amassed. Within a matter of months, however, I had photographed my first DV feature in PAL format, The Anniversary Party (HD was not yet a viable option for most low-budget films). The young director sitting next to me was proclaiming the end of the studio system, of FILM itself, even of crews that wield all those superannuated cameras with their noisy movements and heavy magazines, the kind that had to be constantly re-loaded. It was a heady time then, and I couldn’t help but remember when my own generation of young filmmakers had trumpeted its own revolutionary refrain as the 70s began. A few years later, the coronation of the summer blockbuster put an end to that brief reign of anarchy.

Also echoing in my ears was the claim of a “B” list director who had given a press conference the previous day claiming that “digital cameras will free us from the tyranny of the cinematographer and the caterer.” “I guess we can debate the primacy of the cinematographer,” I said, "But I’ve never seen anyone make a feature film without a caterer.”

Roger Ebert had been sitting quietly a bit further down the table. He was then, and still is, a champion of celluloid filmmaking. “It’s true that digital cameras will make it possible for everyone to now make a film,” he began. There was a dramatic pause, “And, unfortunately, everyone probably will.” No more prescient words could have ever been spoken—and this was in a pre-YouTube, piano-playing cat, upload–your-own-movie, era.

THREE

Depending on your point of view, this democratization has begun a new era of filmmaking that will open portals of new vision and personal expression (just as Francis Coppola had foretold), or it will promote a headlong rush toward mediocrity. Or both.

Who could have predicted a decade ago that the Hollywood mainstream studios would embrace this ever-expanding technology of digital filmmaking to turn out ever more explicitly violence-oriented product in an attempt to stay up with the latest version of PlayStation or X-Box first person shooter games--- a futile way  to keep their noisome product viable in the ever shifting sands of the marketplace. No less a pro-business oriented organ than The Wall Street Journal has recently sounded off on this very topic. Writer Joe Queenan poses the rhetorical question—is this “The Worst Movie Year Ever?”

online.wsj.com—“The Worst Movie Year Ever?” article link

The studio marketing geniuses that now routinely decide which movies get made, seem to believe that audiences want nothing more than ever more outlandish stunts, explosions and car crashes (a minimum of dialogue preferred), topped off by a requisite amount of evisceration and decapitation. And, boy, can digital vfx deliver that.

Hold onto your CGI hat. I’m not suggesting that there is any correlation between mind-bending digital effects and the employment of more and varied digital production cameras. But as Sheenan points out, there does seem to be a correlation between the mindless facility with which video game style digital effects are rammed down our throats and the diminishing concern for credible narrative and character. In the beginning of the digital and CGI era there seemed to be an implied promise that this new technology would take us anywhere we could imagine. And so it has. Sadly, that direction has often been into a cesspool rather than an empyrean.

FOUR

But let’s return to that irreverent Cinematographer vs. Producer video. Is it just a full-frontal assault on the new digital cameras and their supporting technology? I don’t think so. No one, assuming that the Cinematographer vs. Producer filmmaker is in the movie industry, can sustain a decades long career in the film business by playing the role of a 19th century Luddite, despite novelist Thomas Pynchon’s encomium on King Ludd's timeless reign.

www.themodernword.com—Thomas Pynchon article link

I have been trying without success to find “Nicolas DH” who posted this video on July 22. It would be fascinating to discover what motivated such a witty outburst, one that so caught the moment. It has flown through cyberspace and its YouTube posting has garnered both assent and abuse.

Here is a sample of YouTube comments:

It does not matter what one shoots with if the writing is poor. Most writing IS poor so why waste more money than necessary to 'capture' crap?

For me the bottom line is this: Filmmaking is not as much about the tools we use to carve with as it is the stories we are trying to carve.

If and when film stock ever goes away completely it will be a sad day for sure. But there will be angels rejoicing in heaven when stupid producers stop making stupid films (shot on film or otherwise).

Seems to me that this was made by someone fresh out of film school who doesn't really know what they're talking about when it comes to cinematographers or producers but felt they should vent because they heard this argument from two friends who are equal idiots with just as little experience in the field. Stop acting like you know what you're talking about. Technical knowledge isn't all you need to make a movie. And a producer wouldn't act like that.

Most people don't know or care if a painting is oil or acrylic but we still preserve the art they are. We DP's want to maintain the strictest quality of our craft. Christopher Nolan has a good take on this. All DP's know that most people can't tell the difference- this is not the point. Film is a visual medium, not just about capturing narrative (i.e. Terrance Malik). Film is more like music. BTW, I have a DSLR too.

I suspect (or at least my reading of the video suspects) that NicholasDH, like many of us, is angrier about the erosion of the primacy of the cinematographer as a key creative partner in the filmmaking process, than he is about any new DV camera.

At the beginning of the digital intermediate era I recall sitting in Board meetings at the ASC, listening to fellow cinematographers discuss the potential of the DI process to “expand our toolkits.” Having a long time interest in film archiving and preservation, I expressed guarded concern about what we even then knew about digital degradation and format migration, and what it could mean for the future of filmmaking. Sadly, those concerns have become even more crucial as the decade comes to a close and as we move ever faster into DV at the point of production origination.

Even five years ago, cinematographers had to fight to have a DI. Today, they have to fight not to have a DI. And even as the DI process becomes mandatory to serve the studios’ post-production pipeline, more people want a hand in overseeing it. And predictably, just as with the production phase, some cinematographers are now finding themselves marginalized. I know this is true. These weekly essays have given me a window into cinematographers' rising concerns that are way beyond what they choose to post as comments on this blog. Even Nicholas DH has not, so far as I know, revealed himself.

FIVE

Smaller cameras that are easier to use, more sensitive to low light levels, more “film-like,” and especially more affordable—are being bought in numbers unheard of for 35mm film cameras—by people who only a few years ago had never dreamed of being able to make films with their own camera. A camera operator colleague in Canada told me recently that despite his love for celluloid, he has invested in a venture to purchase dozens of RED cameras to fill his rental demands. The ballyhooed democratization of production has very quickly devolved, like much in our society, into a rush by those with enough disposable income or good credit, into a for profit bonanza. For the emerging and struggling filmmaker with modest means, the small HD cameras offer an affordable opportunity to make his or her cinematic vision come to life. Everyone would appear to be a winner. But what NicolasDH has taken note of is, that all this easy access to cameras also makes anyone seem competent to shoot a movie, or decide what equipment we should shoot it with. Herein lies the crucial subtext of Cinematographer vs. Producer.

I have enjoyed a hiatus between features part of this past spring, a welcome respite from filming, and have taken advantage of it to engage with film students—at UCLA as Kodak’s “Cinematographer in Residence” under the guidance and support of Bill McDonald; at the AFI with Stephen Lighthill and Mark Woods; and with the ABC and Lauro Escorel in Brazil. It has been a great opportunity for me to meet with cinematography students and to listen to their technical, aesthetic and career path concerns. What I have heard is great hope for the role of the cinematographer as we progress deeper into the digital video era--- but I have also heard an abiding anxiety. Across the board, from eager students to grizzled industry veterans, at both ends of the career spectrum, I find uncertainty about how they will be able to express themselves as creative artists in a world where anyone can turn on a camera, get a viewable image---and argue that their perspective is as good as someone who has dedicated their career to exploring visual narrative.

Cinematographer vs. Producer is not a debate about technology. It’s a cri de coeur, a voice crying out into the digital void. The expressionless bottom line question that often comes bouncing back at you, the one that is the most heartless barb of all, is:

So, do you want the job or not?

This is the crude put-down that is often the final refuge of the money people, more to the point of today's employment hungry society  than that of our beleaguered national motto, E Pluribus Unum. It’s a sad observation by NicolasDH on the very nature of how he may perceive his (and our) diminishing creative choices in this brave new cinematic world. Nor is this a problem only for young and  emerging filmmakers. We can hope it is just a passing aberration, much as these same money people once claimed that steadicams were going to eliminate the dolly grip, and the synthesizer was going to eliminate movie orchestras. Last time I turned around and looked behind the camera there stood off my shoulder a smiling dolly grip; and motion picture scores are as lush today as they were in the days of Max Steiner and Erich Korngold.

This, of course, is just my perspective. I hope it will spark those of you who read these essays (cinematographers, editors, colorists, composers, production designers, directors) to sound off here. We need to think together to bring real solutions,not just complaints, to our current dilemma, in contrast to the barbed-mouth yahoos who insist cinema is nothing more than an opening weekend “product”.

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