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

By Jamie Stuart | Indiewire December 30, 2013 at 10:00AM

Because the final form is digital, movies are now, by definition, a digital medium.
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"Captain Phillips"
"Captain Phillips"

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.

The Bling Ring

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.

This article is related to: Harris Savides, The Bling Ring, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, Frances Ha, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Inside Llewyn Davis, Awards Season Roundup, Awards, Cinematography, Cinematographers, News





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