Taking their shot as realities shift

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This year’s Oscar nominees for cinematography present a particularly varied cross-section of contemporary filmmaking at a time when the very infrastructure of how movies are made and seen is in transition. Consider: 35-millimeter film prints are being phased out in favor of digital projection. Consumer still cameras can be used to shoot high-definition digital video. Video on demand is becoming a popular viewing option. Even the venerable Eastman Kodak, which produces the film stock on which many movies are made, recently filed for bankruptcy protection.

The Scandinavian-modern “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” was shot with digital cameras; the World War I-set “War Horse” was shot on film. “Hugo” was shot in digital 3-D to portray 1931 Paris, while “The Artist” was shot on color film, then transferred to black-and-white to evoke the end of the silent film era in Hollywood. “The Tree of Life” used footage shot both on film and digital and integrates nature photography into its storytelling. (That three-on-film, two-on-digital split is likely an approximation of Hollywood production overall, though changes are evolving rapidly.)

As this moment of transition challenges distributors, exhibitors and even audiences, cinematographers are on the front lines of those responding to the changes. Many of them recognize just what a unique window this particular time presents.


“I think this is a wonderful time for a cinematographer,” said Emmanuel Lubezki, who shot “The Tree of Life” and is a four-time previous nominee. “You can have 65-millimeter, 35, 16 and so on, and then you have all the range of incredible digital cameras that are not like film but allow you to create wonderful images.”

The only vocal anti-digitalist among this year’s nominees is Janusz Kaminski, nominated for Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse.” The Polish-born Kaminski won Oscars for Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan,” and though he recently shot in digital for the first time while working on a commercial, he decried digital as a harbinger of “the death of the cinematographer,” adding: “Generally speaking, I don’t have respect for digital media just yet.”

His concern is that the cinematographer is no longer allowed to fully control the image as other technicians become a larger part of the process and that digital monitors create a laissez-faire attitude on-set toward image-making. “If you see the image on the digital screen I think people become lazy, they get satisfied with just seeing the image, they’re not going for visual panache, not getting the story through metaphors,” he said. “With film there is still mystery.”

In the finale of “War Horse,” a soldier returns home. Shooting outdoors in rural England against a vibrant setting sun with heavy use of filters to create an otherworldly glow that envelopes everyone in the scene, Kaminski suspected that audiences would likely assume the effect was achieved in post-production.

The films have a distinct perspective into the past and cinema itself. “Hugo” deals directly with film preservation in its story line involving the silent filmmaker Georges Melies. “The Artist” also invokes film history. “Dragon Tattoo” and “Tree of Life” deal with memories and the ties of the past, while “War Horse” purposefully captures the spirit of classical filmmaking.

“It’s a very intriguing group of nominees,” said Stephen Pizzello, executive editor of American Cinematographer magazine. “These particular filmmakers all show how cinematic thinking can be extended with the help of modern tools, whether that means digital cameras, camera-movement systems such as the Technocrane or Steadicam, or postproduction techniques. The shaping of a solid movie still demands good ‘movie thinking,’ especially in terms of how new technologies are applied to the creative process.”


For the look of “The Artist,” a black-and-white, essentially dialogue-free film, French cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman referred to “the souvenir,” the feeling of watching an old movie more than specifically wanting to directly make a film in an old style. Schiffman shot on color film stock that was timed to black-and-white in post-production because he found that he could get a broader range of gray tones in the image than if he shot on black-and-white stock (a not uncommon technique). He shot at 22 frames-per-second rather than the current standard 24 to lightly evoke the sense of watching older films.

Schiffman had worked with writer-director Michel Hazanavicius and star Jean Dujardin on two ‘60s-era spy spoofs. The method used to research and prepare those films was similar to the one used to create “The Artist,” paying respect to older films without feeling trapped by them. “We see a lot of movies, we talk a lot, we try to see the codes,” Schiffman explained of the playful creativity behind their working methods, “the cutting, the lighting, the framing, the acting, and then we get all that in our minds and as soon as we start to really shoot we say, let’s forget about it. We know how it should look and how they should act, let’s find our own way to tell the story.”

In shooting “Hugo” for director Martin Scorsese, cinematographer Robert Richardson -- winner of Oscars for “The Aviator” and “JFK” -- worked for the first time both with a digital camera and in 3-D. To re-create the films of Melies in a breathtaking sequence within “Hugo,” Richardson at first tried locking two old-fashioned hand-cranked cameras together, but found the only way to get the desired effect was with current cutting-edge digital systems. Throughout shooting, Richardson found himself particularly taken with how 3-D, often thought of as a tool simply for spectacular action, could be used to vividly express and bring forward emotion and the actor’s performance. “It’s akin to entering into a new relationship. You don’t know the boundaries,” Richardson said in a professorial air of the new formats. “It’s vastly more technical than an emotional entrance, but what you find as you tap into the technical you become more accustomed to it. 3-D is in many ways the bastard child, we don’t want to look at it as if it can be an art form. And I think it can be seen as something vastly superior emotionally.”

Jeff Cronenweth stepped onto the set of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” on just a few days notice, answering the call of his frequent collaborator, director David Fincher, to replace Swedish cinematographer Fredrik Backar a few weeks into the shoot. Cronenweth, who received an Oscar nomination last year for his work on Fincher’s “The Social Network,” was able to get up to speed quickly by seeing all the previously shot footage online before arriving on location in Sweden.

Cronenweth, son of cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, with whom he worked on many projects, also worked on seven films with Swedish cameraman Sven Nykvist. Once in Sweden to shoot “Dragon Tattoo,” Cronenweth immediately recognized the soft light conditions that Nykvist had always spoken of. In particular, he found shooting the film’s star, Rooney Mara, in extremely low light levels remarkable as her pale skin popped out of the darkness, an effect heightened by shooting in digital.

“I think that choice is going to go away as film gets harder to get, harder to deal with, more expensive,” Cronenweth said. “And don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge supporter of film and I wish it would never go away. I wish I could shoot everything on film and then project it digital and have the most control and the best of both worlds.”


Lubezki, the charming, Mexican-born cinematographer of “The Tree of Life,” described how director Terrence Malick wanted to be as free as possible while shooting his powerful evocation of family, at once startlingly specific and mystically universal. Usually shooting with only available light, using hand-held cameras and at times allowing the camera to continue to run as scenes take shape are all frequent descriptions of digital productions, but Lubezki still found film the better option overall than digital. “In a movie like Terry’s it would have been catastrophic,” Lubezki said of shooting only with digital. “We were trying to hold information in the highlights in the brightest clouds close to the sun and in the dark shadows of a dress in the foreground. Digital cannot do that. It will be able to, probably in a couple of years, but it cannot do it right now.”

Forces outside aesthetic considerations of cinematographers likely will make the main decision for them sometime in the next handful of years. Even the issue of digital preservation and migration -- having to do in part with the speed at which technologies now become obsolete -- has become part of the conversation as the transition is underway.

“It’s going to be less of a debate,” Cronenweth said. “In all fairness, we’re at the infancy stage of digital cinema.”