Third Year Blogging: A Few (Not Quite) Random Thoughts

Alton in the Thirties.

On September 14, 2009 “John’s Bailiwick” appeared on the ASC website. It was an experiment, for the ASC as much as for me. This is how it began:

This is the first posting I am making on a blog for American Cinematographer magazine. I am doing this at the invitation of publisher Martha Winterhalter and executive editor Steven Pizzello, good friends, who have so far played Ariadne, helping me thread through the labyrinth of my many, I am sad to say, irregular pieces for the AC magazine’s “Filmmakers Forum.” They have asked me to attempt less formal but more frequent postings on topics that interest and concern me.

From the beginning, Martha Winterhalter has been my intrepid adviser and administrator; she somehow finds time to indulge my often-whimsical choices of topics. I am extremely grateful to her to have had this space for three years now — to sound off on issues technical, but more often, aesthetic.

This entry begins the fourth year of writing the Bailiwick. I want to thank everyone who have made comments. Many are deeply reflective, even personal; others are brief and anecdotal. I welcome them all. So, thanks to all of you who have indulged me as I've explored topics besides movies. One of the great lures of writing these pieces is the opportunity it gives me to focus on something about which I want to know more. Research is a personal satisfaction, but, more importantly, it affords an opportunity to share the results with you. I don’t expect everyone to share my fascination with the music of John Cage, the "Red Book" of Karl Jung, or the kinetic sculptures of Jean Tinguely or Theo Jansen — or even my ever-increasing love of silent cinema. But I am continually amazed at the breadth of insights reflected in your comments.

Film is a synthetic art. Our embrace of all  the arts is satisfying and enriching in itself—but it also makes us better filmmakers.

A Nollywood Portrait by Pieter Hugo.

I am not much of a technical cinematographer, tending more to the perspective of my great mentor and friend Nestor Almendros, who was the least technically minded cinematographer I have ever known. He often read an old Weston V reflected light meter from the 50s. On the other hand, as a camera assistant I did many commercials with Paul Lohmann, photographer of several Robert Altman films in the early 1970s including Nashville. Lohmann carried a two thousand dollar light-analyzing meter, just one of the dozens he had in several large cases I lugged from setup to setup, always planting them within reach of the camera.

As we transition deeper into the post-analog era in filmmaking, it may seem that technical acumen, or at least an ability to let techno-speak slide glibly off the tongue, has become more and more necessary — just to communicate. I’m not so sure. There are cinematographers who are geniuses at understanding the intricacies and tech characteristics of a new digital camera almost within days after its introduction at a trade show, even before. Curtis Clark, chair of the ASC Technology Committee, not only is in the forefront of increasingly more accelerated tech developments but works in the AMPAS Science and Technology Council to establish the workflow ACES (Academy Color Encoding System) as the proposed standard of the movie industry. It is described on the Academy website as:

 A standardized architecture and supporting tools for high-fidelity digital motion picture imagery. Addressing the industry's growing concerns about digital preservation and the future needs of the world's most visionary filmmakers, ACES is paving the way for expanded creative choices, precisely controlled color management and archive-ready digital masters.

Just how remote the ACES workflow is from the simple 50 light RGB printer light system and the IP/IN/AP flow of the film era can be seen in the ASC’s roster for its own Technical Committee. It contains nine sub-committees under these headings: Advanced Imaging, Camera, 3D Stem, Digital Display, Film and Digital Preservation and Archiving, Enlightenment, Metadata, Production and Postproduction Workflow, and Virtual Production. A highlight and sometimes time-intensive segment of the ASC monthly Board of Governors meetings is taken by the Tech Committee report. It is a measure of how much information is pushing through the digital pipelines to the on set cinematographer.

The Casa Malaparte on Capri.

I have never kept it a secret that I am a cinematographer who continues to have a deep-seated love for FILM even as I continue to work with digital video cameras. The first feature that Carol and I did on video was in 2001, The Anniversary Party, a movie directed by and starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming; it remains a film we are invited to screen and discuss. Whenever possible, we do so with a 35mm film print.

John Ford during the filming of “Stagecoach,”1939.

Recently, I have been a judge for the Kodak sponsored scholarships for student films from around the world. Exactly here, where one would expect only the most cutting edge of digital cinema, there remains a broad spectrum of media and styles and an ongoing attraction to film where film equipment is available. True, many students today use only digital cameras, their comments indicating it is sometimes the only option. Even as some film schools like USC have abandoned film completely, others are continuing film based courses or are re-introducing them as a crucial part of the curriculum, understanding that the principles involved in making beautiful imagery on film only makes for more creative digital cinematography. Jack Kerouac may have written On the Road on a continuous roll of paper, but that act did not render sheaved paper obsolete, any more than computer word processors made many young contemporary novelists abandon typewriters or even yellow, lined paper tablets and pencils. The simple lesson that ongoing advances in digital cinema do not necessarily make film obsolete may seem to be obvious. They are, after all, different expressive media — as Tacita Dean discusses in a recent blog essay here.

John’s Bailiwick: “Tacita Dean at the Tate Turbine Hall: A Farewell to Fim?”

But the profit incentive for camera manufacturers, as for home computer and smart phone companies, lies in rapid obsolescence. Last year’s must-have digital camera now sits on Panavision’s shelves begging to be rented for a song.

"Ocean Park #83" by Richard Diebenkorn.

I am currently shooting a digital feature in Brooklyn, my fourth feature film this year with the remarkable Arri Alexa. This is not an epiphany by a film holdout now abandoning film, nor is it a lament on the death of film. I’m tired of the whole debate, aren't you? I only wish that the more vociferous digital missionaries would lighten up. If they don’t want to shoot on film, viewing it as a dead medium—fine. But those of us who want to continue to photograph movies on both media — even better. This ongoing dustup is taken on from multiple perspectives in Chris Kenneally/ Keanu Reeves' new documentary Side by Side, which will be the topic here of several upcoming essays.

Woody Guthrie

Kodak is in crisis. There seems to be some Schadenfreude hullabaloo from some quarters declaring that the company will founder within six months: “Buy all the film you may ever want because it will be gone, gone, gone,” is the oft-heard caveat. Yes, the studios have made their position clear. There will be no film prints for domestic distribution a year from now. DCPs will rule — like it or not. And under the best of conditions, there is a lot to like. “Under the best of conditions,” but regular maintenance of tricky digital projectors is not a given in far-flung multiplexes. Many of the early digital projectors will become obsolete with the anticipated release of high profile films by James Cameron and Peter Jackson.

I hope that the apparent lack of faith in its founding product that seems evident at the top of the Kodak executive food chain in Rochester will not become a self-fulfilling prophecy. What a loss were Kodak to become just another manufacturer of consumer copiers and printers, its signature products sold off one by one to venture capitalists —  or even abandoned.

"Untitled" by Richard Stankiewicz.

In the previous year-end postings for this blog, I reviewed some of the pieces that I hoped had been compelling, or, if you missed them, provide an opportunity to catch up. Martha suggested that there is already a steady flow into the archives and perhaps this wasn’t necessary again. So, if you want to review any of the essays, they are archived. The link is just below the comments column on the site. There are now over 140 postings.

John’s Bailiwick: All Post by Date

Rather than looking back at the past year’s work, I’d like to look ahead. You’ve perhaps wondered about the photos posted in this essay that bear no relation to the text.

Boris Kaufman during “L'Atalante,” 1933, photo by Roger Parry.

They are just a preview of some of the topics I will write about in the months ahead:

1.) The career of cinematographer Boris Kaufman whose two brothers remained in Russia after the 1917 revolution and who were major forces in Soviet cinema. Kaufman photographed the films of Jean Vigo and won the Academy Award for his first American feature film.

2.) A look at Chris Kenneally's documentary on film and digital "Side by Side."

3.) The Casa Malaparte, featured in Godard’s Contempt, its roof framing a nude, sunbathing Brigitte Bardot. It’s an anomalous residence built by one of Italy’s most enigmatic literary figures, a man who himself directed a strangely religious film.

4.)  A 1928 silent short photographed by the legendary Gregg Toland.

5.)  “Picturing Atrocity,” an anthology of articles about the ambivalence and conflicting agendas of photojournalism and human suffering.

6.)  “Nollywood,” photos from Nigerian cinema by Pieter Hugo.

7.)  “My Morning with John Ford,” a tale told by a Pilsner beer glass.

8.)  The “Ocean Park” paintings of Richard Diebenkorn.

9.)  A celebration of the centennial of Woody Guthrie and his anthem, “This Land Is Your Land.”

10.)  The junk sculptures of Richard Stankiewicz.

11.)  The “noir” genius of cinematographer John Alton in a new edition of his book by UC Press, Painting with Light.

12.)  My three months shooting with Norman Mailer on his dark, dark comedy, Tough Guys Don’t Dance.

13.)  Buddy Guy’s memoir, When I Left Home, the Louisiana born, Chicago bluesman, at 76, still wailing.

Last summer, I visited the studio of Carole Bolsey on the Massachusetts South Shore. She is a painter of large canvases of barns and boats. An area in her light filled space is devoted to relics of her father’s work. He is Jacques Bolsey, inventor of the Bolex camera. Here is his 8mm cassette camera next to my iPhone. There’s a story here, too.

A Bolex 8mm camera next to an iPhone.


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