The Cinematographer Today: Evolution or Devolution — Part Two

ONE

This summer Turner Classic Movies has been running films with the banner “Summer Under the Stars.” On Sunday, August 22, actor John Mills was profiled. The major film that evening was David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter. Mills won an Oscar for his wordless performance as the character Michael, as did cinematographer Freddie Young, who won all three of his Academy Awards on consecutive Lean films.

The screening was preceded by a documentary about the movie's making. Ryan's Daughter was photographed in 65mm. Early on, Young's Super Panavision camera is shown tracking atop sea cliffs outside the village of Killary. After the sweeping skies of the title sequence, the opening image of the film is an extreme long shot of those cliffs.

“Ryan's Daughter,” opening shot frame grab.

That tiny speck, hardly visible in the frame grab above, moving along the ridge toward the cliff edge, is actress Sarah Miles chasing her parasol which has just been swept over the cliff. On the 32 inch TV in my Anchorage hotel room, I could barely discern a human figure. The next shot was closer on her. I wisely decided to shut off the TV right then. How can you watch a film photographed in this scale on television?

On location in Ireland for “Ryan’s Daughter” Director David Lean checks the camera angle through the viewfinder, while Director of Photography Freddie Young, BSC (left) looks on.
On location in Ireland on "Ryan's Daughter," Freddie Young, BSC (left) and Director David Lean (right).

Earlier in the day, I had just finished writing the first part of this two-part essay on the changing role of the cinematographer; I was still thinking about how to introduce Nicolas DH this week, as promised; he’s the filmmaker who created the Cinematographer vs. Producer video; we had been emailing each other for several weeks. Nicolas is of a generation of filmmakers who have come of age in the HD-DV era, one that readily accepts the smaller, cheaper cameras as a sort of birthright, and as sometimes the only tools to make their movies. Given the changing imagery of feature films these past decades (quicker cutting, a truncated sense of space and time, greater use of close-ups and avoidance of wide shots as anything other than a quick place marker), I wondered whether anyone would consider today (even in 35mm) opening a movie with a shot like the “lost in the landscape” figure of Sarah Miles in Ryan’s Daughter--- so much has the film grammar changed. But the easy mobility of shooting with these newest DV cameras does come with a price— in often badly compromised resolution, extreme contrast in sunny exteriors and narrow color and exposure latitude. But, yes, these mini-cameras can make possible previously near impossible shots.

TWO

Once I had made contact with filmmaker Nicolas D. Harvard, it became evident that the dialectical debate in his video reflected not just an articulate young man’s personal perspective; it also nailed with humor the cinematic dilemmas of his generation. Nicolas agreed to respond to questions I asked him, in the course of which he decided to step out of the guise of his video’s characters—and speak as himself. Although much of the video does come out of his own experience, overheard and under shooting conditions, neither of us aims to abuse any particular camera system or to extol another. What we do hope is that the following discussion will be a springboard for your own thoughts, not just about specific film or video cameras, but about the wider perspective of the role of the cinematographer today.

Nic Harvard studied film history at the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris. He worked  in Paris in 2000, eventually landing a job as an assistant director trainee on the Franco Zefirelli film, Callas Forever, starring Fanny Ardant and Jeremy Irons. This began his career as an AD. To date, he has over twenty credits, notable among them being The Hurt Locker. He just finished an indie drama in June, From the Head. Nicolas is 29.

John Bailey: Nic, what prompted you to make the Cinematographer vs. Producer video?

Nic Harvard: Although I’m an AD, I've loved cinematography since the moment I started making movies, and I've kept in touch with it over the years. So when a friend asked me to shoot his low budget feature, I was a little surprised, but jumped at the challenge. When I found out that they wanted to use a 7D, I was intrigued, if a little skeptical. What ensued was a daily struggle to make this movie look any good. For some reason, which I don't pretend to grasp, the 7D/5D phenomenon has perpetuated several rather off-putting fallacies about these cameras: "you don't need lights", "you don't need much of a crew", "you don't need camera accessories", "it will make everything go faster". I fielded these misconceptions as best I could for the duration of the shoot. But a few weeks later, when I started hearing these statements during interviews for AD jobs, or reading them on industry forums, they started to really bother me. I felt like the concepts of "you get what you pay for", or "fast, cheap, and good; pick two" were not being applied. I made the video mostly to address these misconceptions, with a bit of passive-aggressive, profane humor.

Is the cinematographer in the video based on any single figure or on a composite, or is it your own musings based on experiences?

This character is a fantasy based on myself and several of my friends. He's a hyperbolic interpretation of many frustrations caused by not being understood. Every trade in the filmmaking process has its set of challenges, and making people aware of them without coming off as the person who says "No" is a delicate endeavor. My character just says it, because in real life, we can't. On the job we're faced with real people, who are also trying to do their job. If their job is to produce an independent feature under a certain budget, then we have to respect that. The frustration comes when the conversation ends.

What is the source of the "technical" banter between the two figures? Overheard on the set or in pre-production meetings? Or listening to an encounter similar to the one you present?

I've had all of the conversations that are portrayed in the video, with lots of people. I was never as sarcastic and patronizing, and to be fair, my interlocutors were never brain-dead cartoon animals, but they were just as misinformed. The technical banter came from identifying the limitations of the camera as they became apparent, through my own experience as well as through conversations with disgruntled cinematographer friends. The "skin tones that clip at a stop over key" comment I'm sorry to say came from my DI session, when I asked to bring a young lady's exposure level down a touch. My colorist looked at me and shook his head "It's clipped." I remember metering that and thinking, "It's one stop, I'll be fine."

Have you worked on film as well as digital movies? How were they finished and distributed or screened?

I've worked as an AD on movies shot on both film and digital cameras, and have learned that the choice of a camera system can have a major impact on many other aspects of the filmmaking process, more than the budget and the look.

I see cinematographers dealing with a narrower dynamic range on the digital cameras; they are forced to use more lights, or cut more sunlight. They deal with these issues usually very successfully. I've seen some digitally shot movies that are very impressive. They hold up to their photo-chemically shot counterparts very well in the distribution world.

I think it's a question of what the script can handle. In the summer of 2007, I was lucky enough to work on The Hurt Locker. And although I can't speak for our cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, it's hard to imagine shooting that movie on anything but film. Not only because of its better handling of high contrast such as you encounter on sunny Jordanian afternoons in the desert, but also because of the rugged nature of the environment and the adequate robustness of the cameras Barry chose. You can put those Aaton cameras through a lot of abuse, but they will still come through for you.

Do you find any consensus regarding film vs. video shooting among the young and emerging cinematographers that you know and work with?

With a lot of film schools ironically removing photochemical cinematography from their curricula, many of the young cinematographers that I encounter are coming out of a strictly video world. It isn't until they get their hands on some film and spend time color-correcting it that they really start to prefer it. That experience speaks to the broader issue of "film vs. video", the question of an image looking "good". We've gotten to the point where some of these digital cameras look really good, "cinematic", "film-like", when used in the right circumstances. What the debate too often omits is the fact that capturing an image is the first half of the cinematography process. What you do with that raw image is the rest. And what film brings to that step is a wealth of stored information, which helps you craft a superior image.

Is digital video the future of movies? Will film (35mm) survive? Or will both media be options?

Digital cinema is here and should be embraced. If your budget doesn't allow for film, and your story can take being shot on a digital camera, then that's what you have to do. Some of these cameras are wonderful tools and I am thrilled that they exist.

That being said, I don't think that film is going to disappear any time soon. I believe that most of your colleagues at the ASC would agree that film is still the best medium to photograph a motion picture. And above a certain budget level, the camera system's cost is negligible enough to allow the use of film. I read a few weeks ago that Wally Pfister had expressed the desire to shoot the next Batman entirely on 70mm film. I can't imagine anyone disagreeing with the fact that that promises to be a beautiful movie-going experience.

Digital cinema cameras have a lot of ground to catch up. But where digital cinema has become a permanent fixture is in the post-production and exhibition stages. A movie shot on film, run through a 4K DI, and shown on a 4K projector is something spectacular to see.

Although you have worked as cinematographer, it is not your primary job. From your perspective as an AD, how would you describe the role of the cinematographer in traditional filmmaking, and how do you think that role has changed (if it has) with the growing ubiquity of digital origination—"capture?"

As I understand the history of the position, the cinematographer has always been responsible for the capturing of the visual component of the story being told. In so far as filmmaking still requires the use of a camera and a crew to light the set, the cinematographer's role hasn't really changed as far as I can tell. But with the advent of digital cinema cameras, what I have noticed is a slight shift in the cinematographer's status. With these high-resolution monitors on set now, and LUTs being applied to the raw feeds in real time, some of the apparent sorcery is gone. On some sets, the light meter doesn't have the final word anymore, the monitor does. That leaves a lot more room for second-guessing, and micro managing. Not to say that it happens all the time, but the door is ajar for those who choose to kick it in.

Do you have an opinion about 3-D, about whether it's a "gimmick" that will be employed for special, large-scale films or will it be chosen for intimate, dramatic films as well?  Will 3-D run its course, as it has several times in the past, or will employment of the new digital technology prove to be transformative and condemn 2-D to the dustbin?

3-D is one issue that I have a hard time sounding. I've talked to people who love it and people who hate it. It seems to have a natural place in the large-scale action oriented films and has a chance of remaining popular the same way color, widescreen, and surround sound all did. I think the discussion is going to further concentrate on the type of 3-D to use: stereoscopic 3-D, 2-D–3-D conversions, or even the future 2-D digital cameras with high enough resolution to potentially achieve the feeling of 3-D.

I personally would love to be able to make 2-D dramas on 35mm film and show them to my future grandchildren, if they're so kind as to indulge me.

One of the most intriguing comments I received responding to the essay about your video was from a Portuguese filmmaker named Tiago Carvalho. In part he said, "These are for sure exciting times, for the people, who, like me, still have the dream of making cinema. It has never been cheaper. But one thing is certain; there is no respect for cinema anymore."

"It´s a soul problem, not a physical one, and it´s something that cannot be undone. Unfortunately it seems that the “soul” will only be regained if the “body” itself starts getting the same respect. The cinema image has to evolve, and keep itself on a high pedestal. It has to become more elitist then ever. Something that will certainly not happen, and that will proclaim,  for once [and all] the death of cinema. It will be/is the start of a new age of cinema."

So, Nic, do you have any reaction to this dystopian view?

I do sense a kind of soulessness. I felt the same thing when I was studying in Paris. DV cameras were everywhere by then, and every day I met people who wanted to make movies with them. But the respect for the craft wasn't there. It was almost like these young people wanted to play filmmaker for a while, but never went deep enough to become real storytellers. I think that these inexpensive cameras offer a glimpse into filmmaking. They can be excellent learning tools. But when there's a real story to be told, they become a hindrance to it.

What are your own plans for the future?

I've been getting some 2nd unit director work and hope to pursue that aggressively. But really, I plan on being as close to the camera as possible, whether it's an Arri 435, a Panavision Millennium, a Red, an Arri Alexa. That's where I learned to make movies. And that's where I hope to continue to learn, watching and helping great filmmakers tell stories, and someday telling my own.

Curious about what format had been chosen for the most recent movie Nic had worked on, I asked him.

Martin Matiasek, a very talented DP, and great friend, shot From the Head on super 16 anamorphic. Panavision Hollywood got us the camera from the UK. The whole movie was shot on 7217, 17 days at Mack Sennet stages in Silverlake, 1 day at a club location.

I told him that the thesis film I photographed at USC Cinema in the late 60s was B/W 16mm anamorphic. The format was an oddity then, but in our catch-all DV age, it just may have a new viability.

THREE

Although Nic Harvard’s technical referents in today’s mixed film and digital worlds are of their time, the fundamental issues and concerns are, it seems to me, to be those of earnest filmmakers of any generation. One of the greatest challenges we have is finding how to blend the technical and aesthetic elements of filmmaking into creating a compelling and engaging emotional experience for the viewer. Throughout film history there have been cinematographers who have excelled at this. Here are two of them, different generations, both great artists:

James Wong Howe, ASC at his BNC
Raoul Coutard at his BNC, opening shot (anamorphic frame grab) from Godard's “Contempt.”

In a panel discussion at CineGear in 2006, George Spiro Dibie, ASC moderated a discussion with a group of esteemed ASC cinematographers, among whom were Owen Roizman, Lászlo Kovács, Daryn Okada, Rodrigo Prieto, Russell Carpenter, and Darius Wolski. Asked to name the “best of the best,”  THE cinematographer of film history—they all chose Gregg Toland.

Toland died young at 44, on September 26, 1948, of coronary thrombosis. He won an Academy Award not for his work on Citizen Kane in 1941 but for Wuthering Heights two years earlier. Between 1936 and 1942, Toland received five Oscar nominations. For many generations of cinematographers Toland has represented the “gold standard” for a level of creativity that all cinematographers aspire to.

Gregg Toland, ASC at his BNC

Last fall, I had decided to write an essay on Gregg Toland’s work, but I set it aside to do the four-part series on Karl Struss.

John Bailey’s Bailwick—“Karl Struss, A Tripod in Two Worlds: Part One”—New York link

But thoughts of Toland’s work have stayed with me for months, and have led me to a viewing of many of his lesser known films, including the anomalous Disney film, Song of the South, a film rarely seen today, partly because of its racial cliches.

A few days before last Christmas I decided to make a spiritual pilgrimage to visit Gregg Toland. He is interred in Los Angeles at the final resting place of so many legendary movie stars, the Hollywood Forever cemetery on Santa Monica Blvd., abutting the northern perimeter of Paramount Studios. A guard at the gate pointed me toward a low structure just west of the main entrance. I parked next to a non-descript low structure. Once inside the mausoleum, I discovered a sky lit arcade with a central fountain. There were a series of polygonal columns containing small vitrines housing various shaped urns.

Gregg Toland's final resting place.

I found Toland’s urned ashes and read that his middle name is Wesley. Surprisingly, the urn is shaped like a bronzed book. It is placed behind a glass panel without ornamentation, but clearly in a place of regard. I stayed there for some time reflecting about the man, and of a life cut short before reaching its prime. The brilliance and kinetic pace of Toland's career belies this quiet resting place. Had Gregg Toland lived a full span of life, my generation of cinematographers surely would have known him.

Toland was not only among the greatest cinematographers in all film history; he was a tireless technical innovator. Seen from this perspective, his work on Song of the South was an inevitability, not an aberrance. The deep focus lensing that he began even in his mentoring years with George Barnes became his own signature style. Having reached an apotheosis in Citizen Kane and The Little Foxes, it was provident for this artist to try something new, such as combining live action and animation.

One can’t help but wonder what might have been his thoughts on the challenges and opportunities facing today’s young filmmakers in a world of mixed media and digital legerdemain. What would he have thought about the discussions we are having concerning the changing role of the cinematographer? Just how, one can ask, would Toland, Struss, Howe, Coutard or Young have responded to tyro or bottom lined producers and executives bent on dictating to them how and with what equipment they were to photograph their films?

Gregg Wesley Toland, 1904-1948.
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