The Cinematographer Today: Evolution or Devolution? — Part One


Several weeks ago, I emailed a photo of a 35mm film camera to Phil Radin, a long-time friend. He has been a fixture at Panavision longer than most of the camera equipment (just joking Phil), and has served as its executive vice-president of worldwide marketing since 1995. The photo I sent him is of the 1898 Prestwich movie camera.

Prestwich Camera Model 4, circa 1898.

I suggested that in light of the rapidly changing technology of motion picture cameras, film and video, Panavision should consider a radical design approach for the next generation of Panaflex cameras. Like the Prestwich, it would have a wooden body with a crank handle. Promoted as a “green” machine it would dispense with environmentally polluting batteries, and the camera body and magazines, once they became outmoded, could, unlike toxic video cameras, be readily re-cycled into garden mulch. Moreover, this analog device would incorporate all the hipness of a retro aesthetic—a true “steampunk” camera.

I meant it as a gentle jab aimed at the great American company that had begun in the mid-50s simply as an anamorphic projection lens vendor; but Panavision very soon took the “mumps” out of Cinemascope with its integrated squeeze lenses, replacing the patented Fox anamorphic system with the superior engineering of Panavision.  Even the company name sounded classier.

Emerging from the chaos of competing studios’ multiple wide screen formats in the late 50s, Panavision set a new standard that represented the cutting edge in 35mm and 65mm film technology and camera design aesthetics for decades (thanks to the vision and taste of its co-founder, Robert Gottschalk).

Like other manufacturers of motion picture film cameras such as Arriflex, Panavision has moved into the manufacture of HD digital cameras, even while creating new lens systems for its “mature” film cameras. As if these parallel technologies are not already demanding enough, 3-D movies have once again been thrust into the mix. Despite the marketing hype from several video camera manufacturers who have a compelling interest in rendering all 2-D hard and software obsolete, the path into these deep space thickets has not been universally embarked upon by the filmmakers themselves:—“Resistance Forms Against Hollywood’s 3-D Push” article link

Even as studios are currently filming many of next summer’s bloated budget, VFX films in 3-D, its longer-term prospects remain uncertain. The website Gizmodo recently featured a story that graphed the slowly diminishing percentage of box office receipts for each 3-D release, compared to that of the same film in its 2-D version.—“Is 3D Already Dying? article link

Gizmodo 3-D box office graph.

Many 3-D supporters attribute this to a still troubling shortage of requisite converted screens and 4K projectors, but opinions are mixed. The divided perspective comes even as an IPO for RealD, the dominant 3-D vendor for exhibition, opens strongly on Wall Street. But some A-list directors and cinematographers (many of whom enrolled in Sony and IATSE Local 600's 3-D training classes) are, in fact, questioning whether this new iteration of 3-D is the promised, long-awaited “revolution” or just another periodic 3-D hiccup.  Some studios are now second-guessing the value of 3-D production for anything other than the largest budget and franchise films.

There are, however, many fervent believers—besides Mr. Cameron:—“Will 3D Encounter Resistance” article link

Into this cauldron of confusion about where the future of cinema is headed, the cinematographer, as always, stands over the boiling pot, surveying the bubbling ingredients, trying to divine the nature of the stew and how to serve it up. It is fair to say that it is an uneasy yet exciting time for the cinematographer, especially for those who have careers shaped by and practiced mainly in the era of 35mm film production (I count myself among them). Not only is today’s imaging technology changing at what seems an ever-escalating pace, but the role of the cinematographer itself is awhirl within it. As private discussions and public panels proliferate, debating the changing role of the cinematographer, it may be interesting to take a step back and look at a simpler, clearer time.


In the opening minutes of the feature length documentary Visions of Light there is a shot of cinematographers hand-cranking their cameras. In the narration, cinematographer Stephen Burum, ASC tells us that in the beginning there was only the cinematographer, a man and his camera recording life passing in front of him, a veritable flaneur, capturing life’s drama in motion. In the early silent days of feature filmmaking, multiple cameras employed slightly different angles and image sizes, not for simultaneous coverage like today, but to produce multiple negatives for international markets. The cinematographer, after a day’s shooting, would often directly supervise the development of the day’s negative. Billy Bitzer, cinematographer for most of D.W. Griffith’s great films, writes about this in his memoir, Billy Bitzer: His Story.—Billy Bitzer, His Story, (The Autobiography of D.W. Griffith's Master Cameraman) link

It was also common, even mandatory, in silent days for the cinematographer to own his own camera. Bitzer photographed most of the Griffith films with a Pathé Frères’ camera like the one pictured at this site:—Jackman Pathé link

A few years after Karl Struss moved to Hollywood at the end of WWI and began to work for C.B. DeMille as a stills set photographer, he purchased a Bell and Howell camera. He had a plate engraved  with his initials affixed to the side. It is this camera that is seen in the series of photos of Struss taken in 1922 by Edward Weston.

It is also this camera, equipped with an electric motor, which Struss used for the famous overhead tracking shot through the swamp in Murnau’s film Sunrise.

“Sunrise,” the tracking scene in the swamp.

I discussed Struss’ role in this film in the last part of my four-part essay on his work from last December:

John Bailey’s Bailiwick—“Karl Struss a Tripod in Two Worlds—Part Four Sunrise” link

Shortly before Struss bought the B&H camera, fellow New York Camera Work photographer, Paul Strand, bought an Ackley camera and began to make documentary films. He all but mothballed his stills camera for a decade. The last series of photos he made were of the Ackley camera movement itself.

Ackley Camera, Photo by Paul Strand.

With this camera Strand, along with fellow photographer/painter Charles Scheeler, photographed a ten-minute visual portrait of Manhattan.

In the years before the introduction of sound produced a freeze frame in dynamic, even frenetic cinematography, the camera became an almost god-like tool that delivered the entire visual world, real and imagined, to eager moviegoers.  Cinematographers “played” the intricate mechanism of their cameras,creating elaborate in camera  effects with the mastery of a pianist performing a Chopin prelude.  Today, many cinematographers are again buying their own cameras. This time they are digital video, affordable and compact, even DSLRs such as the Canon 7D.

As early as 1922 the cover of the American Cinematographer magazine proclaimed, “Give Us A Place to Stand and We Will Film the Universe.”

This triumphal confidence reflected the cinematographer’s prominence in the hierarchy of filmmaking. Karl Struss and Charles Rosher shared the first ever Academy Award for cinematography in 1927, a year before the Best Picture Oscar was created. The great Russian cinematographer Edvard Tisse achieved a level of fame almost equal to that of director and partner Sergei Eisenstein.

Another great Russian filmmaker of the era, Dziga-Vertov, espoused documentary filmmaking as the true mission of cinema. His landmark film Man with a Camera elevates the camera and the cinematographer to a near deific status. The  film's cinematographer, often seen with his camera and tripod riding atop a speeding car as he cranks away at the passing scene, embodies a contemporary fusion of Socialist ideology with that of Futurist aesthetics, the cameraman as the cutting edge artist of his time. This groundbreaking work was one of the first films I saw in my beginning camera class at USC and it fired my imagination to the potential of the cinematographer as dramatic image storyteller, much as it had Nestor Almendros a generation before (naming his autobiography with the same title as the film). The last ten minutes of Man with a Camera are an intoxicating rush of images bookmarked by a surprising stop-frame animation of the camera itself, as a living character in its own right (beginning at 2:37 in this clip). The jazz score by the Vitaly Tkachuk Quartet is improvised in a live performance at the Mute Nights Festival in Odessa, June 19, 2010.

As Vilmos Zsigmond insists in his Visions of Light interview, sound brought a stultifying, if brief, change in how movies were made. Dialogue came to the fore in a way that especially in American cinema stilled the manic freedom of the pure image and relegated the camera to the role of a dialogue-recording device. Some would argue that the camera has never fully escaped these shackles. Notwithstanding the Golden Age of American cinema being one bonded to the spoken word, cinematographers and directors continued to explore new ways of using the camera as a dramatic, narrative tool often serving as poetic counterpoint to the literal narrative reality of dialogue. Over a famous liquor-fueled weekend, Gregg Toland is said to have instructed the tyro film director Orson Welles in the principles and techniques of the motion picture camera. Welles was as quick a study as Toland was a quiet and collaborative teacher. Their only film together is one of the landmarks of American film.

Welles acknowledged Toland’s crucial role with a shared credit, unheard of then, perhaps even more so now.


In the late 40s the Motion Picture Academy decided to make a series of short documentaries for general release in order to inform theater audiences what the various craft categories contributed to the filmmaking process. Titled simply The Cinematographer one ten-minute film was a window into the complex role of the Hollywood feature film cinematographer. When I first saw it as a beginning cinematography student, it struck me (smack dab in the middle of the French New Wave revolution) as being hopelessly outdated. Even then, the BNC Mitchell camera featured was about to become a relic; I was also amazed at the formalism of the short’s description of the cinematographer’s “job.” The cinematographer as an executive wearing a suit, sporting a viewing glass as if it were a monocle? I thought this pose was an affectation created solely for the film. But a few years later, as a camera assistant, I came to realize that many such production stills I saw from 30s and 40s movies pictured cinematographers like this, it being their genuine working attire. The cinematographer was a highly paid, even contractual, studio artist, and his dress code reflected his status. The few times I was privileged to work with Philip Lathrop, a gentleman of the old school, he always wore a dress jacket on the set.

Though he is presented in the Academy short film anonymously, the featured cinematographer is Karl Struss, ASC. I only realized this decades later after I had met Struss at a retrospective of his films at LACMA. I have thought this short film to be nearly lost, but I discovered it recently on that paragon of visual archiving—YouTube.

The film is a sort of Cook’s Tour of the many areas of responsibility assumed by the director of photography within a traditional hierarchy. Early on, the narrator intones, “He [the cinematographer] has served a long and thorough apprenticeship in all phases of cinematography.” But even as I was starting in the “industry,” that structure was breaking down. The long-standing movement through the work categories, from film loader to camera assistant, to operator, to cinematographer, was under assault by a younger generation, not part of the studio system, many of them young émigrés from Europe, such as Vilmos Zigsmond and Laszlo Kovacs. Nestor Almendros, Vittorio Storaro and Sven Nykvist arrived soon after. The next were a group of Brits, all renowned in their home industry. Hard on their heels were the Australians. All of these interlopers introduced exciting, new techniques and visual style into a moribund Hollywood system. They also helped fuel the American New Wave of the 70s, and supported maverick American cinematographers like Conrad Hall, Owen Roizman, Haskell Wexler, and John Alonzo-- also inspiring my generation of cinematographers, only recently emerging from the film schools.

Some of my peers followed this maverick route and went directly from film school into independent and non-union filmmaking. Others, such as myself, chose a slower path moving through the apprenticeship and journeyman categories. For me, it was an opportunity to learn from the generation just before me, some setting examples through their newly wrought creative freedom, and others through their hidebound resistance to any change from abroad.

Even as the cameras and film stocks evolved over the next several decades, the primacy of film as the preferred acquisition medium remained the one constant. This gave a relative sense of stability to the process of filmmaking. The evening screening of film dailies for the crew in large screen projection was the norm. This ritual gave all departments a pretty accurate window into how the film from the day before was working—or not. The abandonment of 35mm film dailies starting a decade ago followed the rise of digital editing on the Avid. HD dailies became the new norm, as studios were loath to hire extra editorial staff to conform film dailies to the Avid for previews and screenings. Downward pressure from the front offices soon began to eliminate even HD dailies, replacing them first with standard definition DVDs, and then by transmission of dailies via the internet through a system like PIX. Every phase of this cost cutting has helped Balkanize the dailies experience, neutering the cinematographer and director from collectively evaluating the previous day’s work. This shortsighted decision has also deprived the next generation of upcoming directors, cinematographers, and editors of the time-honored experience of community. Everyone began to watch dailies, if at all, on personal laptops at home or on location in their hotel rooms.

The next phase in this process, digital acquisition, eliminates film in the entire production chain, often sending a signal to crew that the viewing of dailies is no longer important. After all, don’t the on set HD monitors reflect everything that is being captured by the digital cameras? So, a long history of mentoring relationships has been largely undone by technical progress, helping marginalize the role of the cinematographer as a crucial interdepartmental linchpin. Not the intended consequence, for sure, of what digital acquisition promised. One could ask a simple question, “Must technical progress so often come at the expense of creative values?”


One of the issues that has emerged in my recent consideration of the much-viewed on-line Cinematographer vs. Producer video by NicolasDH, centers on a simple issue. Has the emergence of digital cameras, especially lower-end ones, into mainstream Hollywood features irrevocably altered the role of the cinematographer in contemporary filmmaking? In the world of 35mm film, the experience and judgment of the cinematographer was crucial to a full realization of image creation. In the democratizing era of digital video, in a what you see is (more or less) what you get environment, it is tempting for nearly everyone to express an opinion about what is being displayed at an on-set HD monitor. This extends downstream into the editing suite as the movie is being cut. Too often, the images are seen as just so much “data” to be moved around, reframed, flipped and blown up, as though the cinematographer’s care in image creation has lesser currency because it is “digital.” Everyone has Photoshop on his or her laptop; everyone knows how to alter images. The current generation of Avid editing machines has lots of bells and whistles that make shot alteration all too easy. This practice is further abetted by the often-heard mantra by harried cinematographers, “Don’t worry, we’ll fix it in post.”

I have been fortunate, so far at least, that my own experiences in digital video have been spared this forensic dismembering by well-intentioned collaborators and, for the most part, my work has been treated not much differently than it has been on film for the past 35 years.

But I have experienced a few “meetings” involving laborious on set discussions with filmmaking partners concerned with things such as lighting ratios and exposure levels. Years of experience  in 35mm film does not seem to make any cinematographer immune to second-guessing by a recent film school graduate planted next to an HD monitor. And this sense of entitlement may be carried through into the mastering process in the DI suite. Actors may become unexpected “collaborators” when their contracts permit them to supervise digital, cosmetic “fixes.” This is not always a welcome surprise, as such concerns may be substantively different from those of the director and cinematographer, prime partners in creating those images. Colleagues have told me of physical fights that have erupted in the DI suite among opposing factions. And sadly, I have witnessed directors marginalized, caught in the midst of these power plays. It has led me to wonder what it may be like for younger cinematographers still trying to establish their reputations. They often deal with the polarities of having on one side less life and film experience in dealing with volatile and unruly egos, and on the other with trying to create a personal vision amidst the chaos of contentious opinions displayed at the video village and  inside the DI suite.


Many young cinematographers and directors are facing challenges about what kind of camera to use, in what  medium and format. Often, they tell me, the choice that is made is not an informed one. Equipment price, not aesthetic criteria, is the determinate.  This issue is the subject of the Cinematographer vs. Producer video. Because there is no more bottom line decision to be made than what camera a filmmaker uses (with crucial downstream consequences), I have been eager to find the creator of this video, obviously made by someone with close proximity to the subject. In case you have not yet seen the video or want to review the essay again, here it is:

John Bailey”s Bailiwick—“Cinematographer vs. Producer” link

When the essay about this video came out several weeks ago, it generated many thoughtful comments. I made many personal replies. I also made phone calls and sent out emails trying to find the filmmaker.  A week passed with no success. Then he contacted Martha Winterhalter at American Cinematographer magazine and I was able to begin a conversation with him. It became immediately clear that he was indeed a young filmmaker for whom the discussion in this video was not hypothetical, that it had immediate personal relevance.

In next week’s essay, Part Two, you will meet “NicolasDH.”  He will explain his thoughts behind the creation of the video as well as his own modest thoughts on the role of the cinematographer today.



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