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Hey, Academy: Here’s Why the Best Cinematography Oscar Should Be Divided Into Two Awards

Hey, Academy: Here's Why the Best Cinematography Oscar Should Be Divided Into Two Awards

The cinematography of 2013 represented a hodgepodge of capture formats with one thing in common: it was all distributed digitally. Whether a movie was shot on 35mm, RED Epic 5k or RED One 4k, ARRI Alexa 2.8k RAW or 1080p ProRes 4:4:4, 1080p on a hacked Panasonic GH2 or a Canon 5D or a C300, 2D or 3D — that movie was digitally distributed. And because the final form is digital, movies are now, by definition, a digital medium.

As film stocks and lenses — and now digital cameras — have progressed over the years, the look of movies has changed. Whether it was the zooms and grain of the 1970s, or the introduction of widescreen formats in the 1950s, or the use of processes like ENR and bleach-bypass in the 1990s — different eras look different (you can even observe the changes between David Fincher’s “Zodiac” in Viper 2k with “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” in RED 4k/5k) — and, to me, I now feel that the modern look of a movie is entirely digital, usually being graded from a RAW or Log source. Since it’s starting from such a flat, desaturated image, the final product often retains what sometimes looks like a touch of monochrome mixed in. I really love that look.

Here’s the thing: Now that we’re in a digital world, I do feel like we need to redefine what constitutes cinematography. Starting with the Oscar win for “The Fellowship of the Ring” and emphasized more recently by “Avatar,” “Life of Pi” and “Gravity,” we’re seeing movies where a large portion was actually created in a manner pretty much the same a Pixar cartoon. These movies mix live-action with digital environments and full animation — yet they’re not only competing with traditionally-lensed movies for the Oscar, they’re often winning. If “Gravity” wins best cinematography this year (and it’s certainly a front-runner), it will be the fourth time in five years that the prize will have gone to a 3-D movie using a large amount of computer-generated images.

I don’t think that’s fair. The Academy needs to create an entirely new cinematography category just as it did in the old days when they gave out separate awards for color and black and white. There needs to be one award for conventional live-action photography and another for CGI-based filmmaking. The industry should seriously consider this idea, which I consider to be more practical than one might assume.

With the exception of my LomoKino, I haven’t shot celluloid in a dozen years. Recently, while scanning my Twitter feed, I came across an exchange between filmmakers Joe Swanberg and Alex Ross Perry, in which they wondered whether we’re heading toward a situation where big budget movies will be shot digitally, while indies wind up on film. I rabble-roused that I probably wouldn’t shoot film even if I was paid to do so. When Perry asked why, I replied that I no longer thought of images in terms of celluloid, and that I felt that most of the times I’ve seen modern 35mm screened in DCP, it didn’t look quite right. Another reason, which my 140 characters forced me to cut, was that I don’t like the film-to-digital workflow.

This year’s New York Film Festival, featuring a wide variety of capture formats, screened in DCP, strengthened my opinions on the matter. Most of the big movies were still shot on celluloid (“12 Years a Slave,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “The Immigrant,” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” “Captain Phillips”), but it wasn’t until I saw two movies shot on the ARRI Alexa (“All is Lost” and “Her”) that I found images that looked right to me. Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” was shot on the Alexa with a layer of 35mm grain added to simulate film — but to me, it looked more like old VHS noise than celluloid, which annoyed me even though the images were otherwise gorgeous. I even thought the C300 was the correct choice for “Blue is the Warmest Color,” and that, along with “Upstream Color,” shot on the GH2 and which I saw earlier in the year, visualized for me how 1080p will be to Super-16 what 4k will be to 35mm in digital cinema.

Some of the film-to-DCP translations worked better than others. “Captain Phillips” was pretty good, as was “12 Years a Slave” and the fogged-up “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Ben Stiller’s “Walter Mitty” had beautiful photography, but I thought film was the wrong choice for it, especially because it’s a movie with a TV commercial cutting-edge aesthetic. I had the most problems with “The Immigrant,” which was shot to evoke older movies. I watched “The Immigrant” from the front row, where I could clearly see magenta/turquoise digital fringing throughout its grain storm — even though the photography itself was stunning.

There are many filmmakers who still adamantly prefer the look of film (including Rian Johnson, who boasted publicly that “Breaking Bad” was 35mm — on TV, where the format is least important), so much so that they’ve convinced themselves that it even looks better projected digitally than digitally-sourced images. I simply can’t agree with that. It’s one thing if we’re talking about 35mm projected on 35mm — but that is not the case anymore. Some filmmakers are just so used to the look of film that they can’t let go, even if it really doesn’t look right. (I can’t imagine anybody actually believing that “Only God Forgives,” shot mostly on the Alexa with some RED Epic mixed in, would’ve looked better if it was 35mm.)

A handful of movies are mixing formats. “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a good example. When I shot an interview with Martin Scorsese last year, it was just before he began production, and I asked him if he intended to use the Alexa again, as he had on the Oscar-winning “Hugo.” He said yes. In the end, however, after viewing tests by Rodrigo Prieto, he shot predominantly 35mm, while relying on the Alexa for nighttime and low-light scenes.

I need to stress here: I am not against celluloid. I love the look of 35mm. Even on Blu-rays of older movies, I’d rather have a grainy image that’s sharp than a digitally smoothed version that’s soft. My issue is just that I don’t really care too much for the way modern 35mm-shot movies look when projected digitally (one really good-looking 35mm movie this year that I haven’t mentioned was “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”). This isn’t the fault of digital — digital is not film and it will never look exactly like film. Filmmakers need to work with digital, and get used to it, just like anything else. If you treat it like it’s a necessary inconvenience, you’ll never adapt to it.

Speaking of adapting, the late cinematographer Harris Savides comes to mind in this conversation. I interviewed him around the time of “Zodiac,” back in 2006, and he confessed to having a miserable experience shooting digital. He did, however, continue to experiment with digital in his promo work, as illustrated by a series of Delta spots he did with Mark Romanek a few years back.

On the Blu-ray supplements of “Frances Ha,” there’s quite a bit about how Harris, who shot Baumbach’s “Margot at the Wedding” and “Greenberg,” helped advise the look of the movie, which was shot with a Canon 5D Mark II. Watching the supplements, I realized I had gotten my 7D around the time Baumbach was doing his initial tests, and I recall discussing with Harris the differences between the 5D and 7D. The specific thing about the look of “Frances Ha” was how they attempted to find a digital analogue for degrading the image rather than trying to make it look like degraded film by adding grain. They achieved their aesthetic by blending a blurred layer on top of the primary grade, resulting in an image that kind of reminded me of what it looked like when people used a 35mm adapter on a Panasonic DVX100a.

Harris Savides’ final film, “The Bling Ring,” was shot on a RED One. Considering his preference for 35mm, I was surprised when I learned he’d gone digital. There was one moment in the movie that really showed how well he understood images that are inherently digital: a nighttime exterior house zoom that was apparently his idea. That shot was a masterpiece — a beautiful final note for him to leave us with.

And that’s all I’ve got for 2013. Now that the digital world is fairly standardized, expect a lot of the same mixed with dashes of the new as we move forward.

Jamie Stuart is a New York-based filmmaker. His personal site is here.

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Comments

Hugo

There is a Change.org petition to dived the award in half or rethink the category!

Kurskij

I believe digital has passed that "point of no return" when Roger Deakins started shooting digital – not to belittle the great Harris Savides in any way.

The change from BW to color was much more sudden than film-to-digital. And it had more impact on general audience.

While digital cameras are not currently at the same level of quality as film, they are close enough to be considered a useful and solid tool through which directors/pd/dp can create the feel and atmosphere of a movie and not as a forced choice because it's cheaper to shoot digital or because labs needed to process film are becoming increasingly less available.

It's quiet sad that this arguement goes strictly film vs digital when both must have a place in the moviemaking world.
Filmmaking is about choice and freedom of expression after all – one should be able to use the medium he likes for every movie or even portion of a movie he/she makes – be it super 8, 16, 35, 70, IMAX or a particular digital camera.

But it seems that film will become the new BW – an auteur choice.

Kurskij

Pretty riveting conversation in the comments – something indie was missing for a while. Interesting article and comment – thanks to everyone involved.

Haresh

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Eric

So like Sergey said, there's an award for Best Visual Effects that would seem to settle the argument but if the Academy begins treating this category as Best VFX-Heavy Cinematography then the fact that The Life of Pi is an effects heavy film might mean Claudio Miranda's work, though not always performed behind a camera, might go unnoticed. And in the end the cinematographer is responsible for (or in the very least plays a key role in) the look, the shots, and the final image.

So I'd imagine the reasoning behind the color/bw split was because color was such a huge spectacle that the color category could go to the most awe-inspiring use of the latest technology and wouldn't disturb the categories original definition Best Visual Storytelling but without being able to read the pulse of the Academy who, for all I know, might've been voting for spectacle over storytelling I can look back and balk at them for not simply treating all films equally.

And if that's the issue with CGI then I doubt, given the volume of digital compositing going on in cinema these days, we'll still be dealing with this problem years down the line. Do people still raise their fists when a film shot in B&W loses to a film shot in color?

Chaz

Who cares? The Oscars are terrible anyway. If there's a way for them to be more terrible: like giving best cinematography awards to films that are practically completely computer generated, then they're going to…Cause they're terrible.

Zoltán

I completely disagree.

Using framing, movement, colour and light, the Cinematographer is responsible for executing the look of the film (in collaboration with, or as instructed by the Director).

The medium by which the Cinematographer executes the look of the film is completely irrelevant. It is the Cinematographer's responsibility to keep pace with changing technology and methodologies in order to deliver the best possible look of the film with the given resources and guidance from the Director.

Throughout the history of filmmaking, Cinematographers have had to deal with all kinds of fundamental technological/methodical changes to their art and craft: from hand-crank to electromechanical cameras; from black and white to colour film; from Kodak to Fuji (and back again to Kodak ;-); from film to videotape; from videotape to digital video; from tungsten to fluorescent lights; from colour correcting film to colour correcting a digital intermediate; and much more.

And throughout that time, the Cinematographer's basic responsibly for delivering the look for the film has not changed.

The imposing dominance of digital over film does not require the separation of Cinematography awards between the two mediums.

Justin McAleece

The purple/green fringing you speak of is called Chromatic Aberration and is purely a byproduct of lenses. It is not made by digital in any way. It is only more clearly revealed by digital sensors because they are typically sharper and now more resolute. The CA is definitely there on film, you just don't notice it as much.

Juan Miguel LSC

" Starting with the Oscar win for "The Fellowship of the Ring" and emphasized more recently by "Avatar," "Life of Pi" and "Gravity," " … Oh, well. I'm glad you guys alredy know the winner.

Damian D

A comment on Savides and his opinion of digital: He was shooting Zodiac at the bleeding edge of the digital film technology front. The Viper was a very challenging camera to use, with enormous RAW file sizes, and a very field-unfriendly S.Two digital capture device which broke down all the time. Evolution in Digital Cinema capture has come leaps and bounds in comparison to the workflow they chose and were forced to use back in 2006. The RED One was still an R&D nightmare, and wouldn't be adopted by the market for another two years.
It's taken a long time for Digital to become the norm for filmmakers regardless of budget. Yes, there are definite advantages to shooting on film in terms of esthetic, latitude, and organic grain structure. However, there is much to be said about the immediacy of digital filmmaking, and the significant cost savings in terms of re-shoots, lighting and technical errors, etc. As I say about all things in filmmaking: What is the best choice for the project; Super 16, or 35mm? HD? 6K? In the end I echo what other posters have said. It isn't about the formate so much as telling a good story and making sure that people feel what you are telling them.

Relinquis

one award for cinematography works. a film is a film, even if shot on a sensor, or created in some software programme.

also, isn't this article a bit polemical against 35mm?
i disagree that alexa/red/digital cameras look better than 35mm projected digitally. i find many, but certainly not all, mainstream films shot on the alexa too contrasty and far too similar in aesthetic to one another… it's 2013 and you still have most non-CGI focused digitally shot films trying to emulate 35mm.

Film Fan

Hi Jamie – I couldn't disagree more.

Having worked with 35mm for most of my 25 year career (the last 15 as a Visual Effects Supervisor/Producer and Director), and now just working on a film shot with the Alexa and the Red camera, and having spent many hours in the DI suite with Colorists timing these movies, my belief is that film is clearly still the superior media. Not to say that Digital Cameras won't get there eventually, but they're not there now. I'm guessing that if you ask most DI colorists and you'll get the same response. (Many say they spend most of their time getting the digital camera data to "look acceptable", rather than focusing on creative execution).

The range of color and contrast of film is still far beyond that any Digital Cinema Camera is currently capable of capturing, plus the actual amount of information on film seen in the final DCI is only limited by the scanning equipment chosen.

The reason many films are shot digitally these days are financial (and perhaps workflow ease) – not creative ones.

To say that a movie looks "wrong" because it was shot on film is clearly your own personal opinion, which you're certainly entitled to, but don't assume the rest of the film industry, or audiences for that matter, share your feelings.

Sergey Mavrody

A Production Designer or P.D is the person ultimately responsible for the overall look of a film. Working directly with the director and producer, they must select the settings and style to visually tell the story. From early in pre-production, the Production Designer collaborates with the director and director of photography to establish the visual feel and specific aesthetic needs of the project. The Production Designer runs a large art department (art directors, decorators, costume designers, make-up, props, the special effects, etc.) to establish a unified visual appearance to the film.

Adam

I Disagree, The responsibility of the look of the image the Director/Producer approves is still the responsibility of the Director of Photography. Nothing changes about that. the DP does not necessarily have to be the Wo/man behind the camera, they need to be responsible for that person and the Visual Effects director to make sure both elements merge. that is the job of the DP. a great example of this would be "Slumdog Millionaire". very simply shot, but the picture made the story, and even up against an epic like "The Dark Knight" which still burns in most our brains, it was an easy win!

Sergey Mavrody

Well, we do already have an Academy Award for "CGI-based filmmaking". It is called "Academy Award for Best Visual Effects" (VFX).

Any movie imaging which is not captured by the camera lens (and created outside the context of a live action shot) is considered a "visual effect".

However, I do not necessarily like this kind of cheap sounding name of the award "visual effects".

The Academy could also split the VFX in two separate awards and have an award lineup like this:
– Best Live-Action Cinematography,
– Best Animation Cinematography (or CGI Cinematography),
– Best Visual Compositing.

While the animation is done in parallel with live action cinematography, The visual composting is a done on post-production stage. It would be a sort of a sibling to the "Best Sound Mixing" Oscar.

Max

For cinematography it's not simply a matter of what the actor is standing in front of (green screen or a real street). The cinematographer and his/her team is responsible for making the image we see on the screen engaging and real, regardless of the actual authenticity. Should we have the cinematography award also split for movies that shoot on location and on sets? Filmmaking is turning a lie into a truth, always has been.

mary rachel

i couldn't agree more. real cinematography should be rewarded and stand alone. all that wonderful scenery that is created and special affects…that AREN'T REAL…should have its own category indeed! david, re casting, i agree, who's found should be rewarded, not so much already attached.

C'mon man

Come on, let Lubezki have this one. He's been passed over too many times.

Have you noticed that all those 3D driven movies like Life of Pi and Gravity and Avatar spend years in development and the cinematographer spends every waking hour on how to shoot something? Yeah I would say they deserve it for all of their hard work.

David

I agree that too much CGI muddies the issue, but I wouldn't introduce a second cinematography category. Rather, I'd like to see them simply disqualify movies with too much CGI the way the music branch disqualifies scores with too much unoriginal music. And while we're at it, Production Design and Costume Design categories should do the same (designers I know were appalled when Alice and Wonderland won those in spite of excessive CGI).

As for the casting Oscar, I think that would only make sense if it were made clear which actors were "discovered" by the Casting Director, and which ones came attached or were brought in by the director/producer/studio. Casting is a very important process, but not one that is decided by a single person.

Reid Rosefelt

I don't think that anybody should be talking about any more Oscars for anybody as long as there are no Oscars for Casting–which unlike many of the Oscar categories is a highly ranked above-the-title credit. It gets that credit because everybody but the Academy knows how vital it is. No casting Oscar is a remnant of the days before Marion Dougherty and it should be changed.

Brandon

DO YOU ACTUALLY KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THE ROLE THAT THE CINEMATOGRAPHER HAS IN HELPING TO CREATE AND LIGHT THESE DIGITAL IMAGES?

Savides shot "Zodiac"

David Fincher even introduced a screening of it at MoMA's tribute for Savides, so it shouldn't be a surprise that he would shoot anything else in digital.

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