I recently had the opportunity to chat with John Lindley, ASC. He has been shooting commercials, and he just finished a pilot titled Members Only. His most recent feature is the current release St. Vincent, starring Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy.
I asked John to reflect on Pleasantville (1998), which was the first Hollywood feature to employ an early version of what became the digital-intermediate process. Directed by Gary Ross, Pleasantville featured a trip into a black-and-white 1950s sitcom. People and their surroundings transformed into color when they escaped the repressive 1950s mindset. John shot Pleasantville on color negative, and the images were scanned on a Spirit Datacine and color corrected (work that included selective desaturation) at Cinesite.
“What’s funny to me about Pleasantville is that at the time, people sort of accused me of cheating,” John recalls. “They said, ‘What? You’re going to go into a post house to create the black-and-white?’ And I said, ‘Well, yes, that’s what I’m going to do.’
“It took me a year to do it,” he continues. “It cost a whole lot more money than anybody wanted to spend, and as a result, people at New Line lost their jobs. Of course, times have changed, and the DI is now ubiquitous.
"I think art will always be trumped by commerce in most industries, and that is certainly true in the film industry. Change doesn’t happen overnight because the film industry is remarkably conservative, contrary to its reputation. There’s fear of change and worries about what everything will cost.”
Regarding digital’s impact on movies’ archival longevity, John observes, “In the end, whatever is done more cheaply will win. The digital world is appealing to producers on so many levels. This sounds more cynical than I mean it to, but what is lost? What do most people care? All in all, movies are a pretty disposable medium. There are films we all know and love that survive, but for every one of those, there’s a thousand that none of us has ever heard of or seen, and never will. I think that in the end, things that are worth preserving will get preserved, whether it’s films or books or pictures or paintings. Whatever the medium, when people decide something is worth keeping, they will find a way to keep it.”
I asked John if he thinks the evolution of digital since Pleasantville has diminished the cinematographer’s role. “On a daily basis, and there is more to come,” he says. ”This isn’t a monolithic business — there are people shooting $100 million movies who are immune to the kind of interference that goes on with lower-budget stuff. But certainly, in the world of TV, everybody looks at a monitor and sees the lighting and has an opinion on it. And I think that’s only going to get worse. All any cinematographer can do is make himself or herself as valuable as possible and hope that because of that value, someone in power will listen and let us do our job the way we want to."
“More than any other position on the set, I think the cinematographer’s position is changing,” John says. “I don’t want to be the guy complaining about it, the one who says, ‘I loved the days on the prairie when there were no fences.’ I also don’t want to be like the blacksmith at Colonial Williamsburg, a practitioner of a job that no longer exists. I’m an early adopter of all technology, and I always have been.
“Digital technology and the Internet are changing the way all media are handled, whether it’s movies, TV, books or photography. I think the question is: How does one still do good work in these circumstances? The world has changed, but good work is still being done.”