Holding the camera isn't cinematography

Michael Goi is a director of photography whose credits include the TBS movies "Red Water" and "Christmas Rush." He shot the upcoming feature "Call Waiting" on the DVCam format. He lives in Los Angeles.

The article about how Robert Rodriguez used a Sony digital camera to shoot "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" ("One Director's Take on the Latest Digital Camera," by Patrick Day, Sept. 12) was filled with so many false statements regarding high-definition technology and the moviemaking process that it made my head spin. Let me comment on a few of them.

Rodriguez states that shooting film is "like painting with your eyes closed. The next day [after shooting] it gets developed and sent back to you and you get to see if you even got what you were trying to get. A lot of times you don't. It's why movies take a long time and cost a lot of money."

Perhaps this hit-and-miss success rate is true of Rodriguez's cinematography, but it certainly is not true of the many talented cinematographers who work in this industry. Further, I've found that assembling the right mix of people who excel in their specialties results in an efficient and cost-effective production. Maybe he's just wearing too many hats?

Yasuhiko Mikami, national marketing manager for movie and TV applications for Sony, states that "shooting in film is very much like improvisation, like jazz. Sometimes, if you're lucky, you get the results right. There aren't many people in this town who are very good at it."

Yeah, I guess Gregg Toland was pretty damn lucky he got the exposure right on that burning sled in "Citizen Kane." I suppose Gordon Willis should thank his lucky stars that "The Godfather" just happened to look as good as it did. And what a lucky break that Conrad Hall didn't just end up with a lot of blank film when he shot "American Beauty."

As someone who has photographed features in both Hi-Def and film and has lectured on this topic, I can tell you that there is no "magic pill" in cinematography. Hi-Def is very good digital video, but it still carries with it a range of contrast that is much smaller than film.

And for archival purposes, film beats digital hands down. Note that "I Love Lucy" episodes, which were shot on film, still look great today, while most of the shows shot on tape at that time have deteriorated. Who knows where the current crop of digital tapes will be 10 to 20 years from now? Formats change so fast. Remember C-VHS camcorders?

At a seminar recently in Miami, someone said to me, "Don't you think that with the new digital cameras, your job is obsolete? Everyone who picks up a digital camera today instantly becomes a cinematographer." I said to him, "If I gave you an electric guitar, would you instantly become Eric Clapton?"

This article gives fuel to these misconceptions. The different media available for photographing images are merely tools. They require a skilled practitioner to use them effectively.

The article was a slap in the face to all of us who, contrary to Rodriguez and Sony, know what we have when we roll that camera. Great cinematography doesn't happen by accident; it happens by endeavor.

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