I recently caught up with Newton Thomas Sigel on the patio at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. The sunshine was bright and warm, a marked contrast to our first meeting, more than 23 years ago. I had traveled to Kotzebue, Alaska, an Inupiat village on a gravel spit at the end of the Baldwin peninsula in northwest Alaska. Tom was there to film Salmonberries, a Percy Adlon film with a cast that included k.d. lang, Rosel Zech and Chuck Connors.
The town is about 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle, and only reachable by plane or weather permitting, boat. To prevent sinkage, the hotel is perched on pylons that are kept frozen in order to keep the surrounding tundra from softening in summertime. What I remember from the initial meet-and-greet was Chuck Connors — the Rifleman himself — asking me (in those pre-internet days) how the Rams were doing.
A couple months later, Tom came to the ASC Clubhouse for a follow-up interview. Lurking there was Stanley Cortez, whom Tom was eager to meet. I introduced them, telling Stanley that Tom had a habit of watching The Magnificent Ambersons the night before the start of a shoot, for inspiration.
“Well, he ought to,” came the gruff response. Tom took it very well. Perhaps he sensed what I knew — that Stanley’s intimidating and curmudgeonly exterior hid his true, more kindly nature. Tom became an ASC member in 2000.
At the Century Plaza, we had a wide-ranging conversation. I told Tom that Theo Van de Sande had cited Tom's work in Drive to me as an example of digital cinematography that was something completely new, rather than an attempt to emulate film cinematography.
“Drive has its own beauty,” Theo said. “It doesn’t look like video. It’s a beautiful digital image, and that is not a dirty word. We have to stop comparing digital with film. We have to find a way to make digital look like digital. When we made the transition from black and white to color, our experience with color helped. That is the case with film and digital, too. Drive is specifically digital and beautiful in its own way, a way that you wouldn’t have been able to do on film. It has its own specific character and style that is not trying to copy film. There’s a very new, positive style of making a movie, telling a story in another way than you could do in film. When you look at Drive, you can see that digital is growing very fast.”
Tom gave me a thoughtful reaction. “I remember going to Kodak many years ago,” he said. “They brought a bunch of us out to Rochester, and we were looking at new camera stocks and print stocks and all that. And of course, invariably, the film vs. digital conversation came up. The whole discussion seemed to be oriented towards ‘How do we get video to look as good as film?’ And I remember saying — and getting a lot of quizzical looks for it — ‘Why would we want it to look just like film? Because we already have film, and if you want it to look just like film, you can just shoot film. So shouldn’t we endeavor for it to look like something beyond contemporary film?’
“I thought that we shouldn’t necessarily hold film you up as this gold standard, where if something looks like film, that means it’s good. And if it doesn’t look like film, it’s bad. Because, you know, even with film stocks we’re trying to get rid of all the grain. And then when there’s no grain in digital, we say, ‘Hey, there’s no grain.’ So, I remember saying at that meeting that the goal should be evolving beyond that. And today, I think it’s starting to, actually. I could not have shot Drive the way I shot it on film. It wouldn’t have worked, which is not to say that I’m done with film or that I don’t like film. It’s just a different medium, and in Drive I tried to really celebrate that, and to figure out what this camera could really do.”
I asked Tom for his take on 4K, currently a hot topic in cinematography circles. “It’s funny, because almost every movie now is finished in 2K, even the ones with big visual effects, and very few of the visual effects are being done in 4K because of the cost and the difficulty,” he said. “So I think the whole 2K/4K argument is as much marketing as anything. I’m sure there’s a lot of visual effects supervisors who would argue the case otherwise. But so far, extraordinary visual effects have been done from the Alexa, and I can’t really see the difference with my naked eye. I can’t say, ‘Oh, there’s 4K. That’s only 2.8K,’ you know? So I’m not sure how relevant this whole 2K/4K argument is. Having said that, one day when they come out 6K or 8K cameras, I’m sure we’ll have to revisit what images should look like, and what we like or don’t like about the images.”
Tom shot his most recent feature, X-Men: Days of Future Past, in native 3-D using Alexa M cameras with TS5 3D rigs from 3ality and Codex Digital Recorders. That film hits theaters May 23, 2014.