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Cinematographers: they could be making trouble... by Dominic Case

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Cinematographers: they could be making trouble... by Dominic Case ~ Reprinted with the kind permission of Screen Hub.

Cinematographers: they could be making trouble... by Dominic Case

Screen Hub
Monday 29 July, 2013

The cinematographers slipped shyly onto the SMPTE program to run two sessions which quietly revealed the flashpoints in a changing profession. Boundaries, health and safety, training, undercutting, dumb budgeting, massive data levels and control over the image in post - all the issues are here revealed.

SMPTE, primarily an organisation of engineers, has been reaching out in recent years to get away from its rather soulless geeky image. Both the conference and the equipment exhibition this year are notable for their mix of technology and humanity.

The exhibition included the usual mix of production, post-production and broadcasting equipment from autocues to zoom lenses, from 4K TV monitors to wearable cameras. But as well as the toys, there were several stands representing the training institutions (AFTRS, North Sydney and Randwick TAFEs and Charles Sturt University among others, with students providing live streamed images via an OB van from the exhibition on the SMPTE website.

In the conference rooms, alongside talks on electro-acoustic measurements, adaptive streaming and other mysteries, there have been presentations from the Australian Society of Cinematographers. Two panel discussions looked as though they would deal with the issues that cinematographers think are important right now.

The first session was called “What Rules – Creativity or Technology” and asked, “Why doesn’t the cinematographer have ultimate control over what tools they use?” The high-profile panel, led by Cal Gardiner ACS, included cinematographers Denson Baker ACS, Ben Allen ACS and Tom Gleeson, post supervisor Henry Karjalainen, colorist Adrian Hauser, editor Scott Gray ASE and VFX Director Chris Godfrey. Moderating the discussion was movie expert and presenter Renee Brack.

Discussion revolved around the choice of camera, and how that choice was dictated: sometimes simply by budget, sometimes for reasons of workflow or advice by the post house. The curve settings, LUTs and choice of recording format all need to fit with the selected workflow through post production, but these settings can have a profound effect on the “look” of the image, traditionally the DOP’s preserve.

Denson Baker said he chose not to be in charge of all camera or post settings: he concentrated on creative decisions: camera placement, lens and lighting. Tom Gleeson agreed that a DOP doesn’t have the automatic right to choose the tools as the post house may need a different format for many reasons. However, if the camera has been selected because of a good deal on price, but he felt it was the wrong choice, then he would make the effort to find a better price on a different camera. He railed against smaller post houses that over-compressed large image files - “oh there’s such a lot of footage!”

As a post-production supervisor, Henry Karjalainen believed DOPs were indeed in charge of their tools “because we need them to be”. He said his role was to “bring the shot films to life, by putting together a package that would achieve the director’s desires”. Post supervisors are often brought in too late though.

Like Denson, editor Scott Gray said he concentrated on the creative decisions: he wasn’t the data wrangler. But at this point he produced what should have been a game-changer in this discussion: within his creative control as an editor, he said that he was able to zoom in or reframe the shot “to direct the audience’s attention to where I want it”.

Astonishingly (to this writer), none of the cinematographers on the panel picked up on this. In a discussion on the DOP’s loss of creative control, this should have been a red rag to a bull. Framing is fundamental to the cinematographer’s art. But the conversation simply continued along the lines of camera and workflow choice, even in the light of Denson Baker’s earlier comments about controlling camera placement.

Chris Godfrey said that every shot was a compromise between everyone’s needs, but that all participants needed to agree on those compromises at the start of the shoot. He said that there were hundreds of blow-ups and reframes in The Great Gatsby, easily managed because they were shot in 5K resolution. (Admittedly 3D productions do need different framing treatment to manage convergence issues). He noted that every 5K frame (in a 3D pair) was about 100Mbytes.

Adrian Hauser noted that he only started colour grading on Gatsby after principal photography had been completed: but there was sufficient image quality in all the material to achieve the required final look. Smaller or cheaper productions weren’t always so safe, he said.

Chris Godfrey agreed, emphasising that “the most expensive VFX shot is the one that doesn’t work”. CG backgrounds could always be fixed, but if the live action foreground element isn’t working, then there is no shot.

After a lot more discussion Ben Allan really summed up the session when he said, “if the camera is the most interesting thing on the set, then you’ve got problems”.

The second panel on Wednesday, entitled “The Future Vision” was moderated by Erika Addis. The speakers were cinematographers Kim Batterham, Rob Moreton, Dan Freene, Callan Green, Vivyan Madigan and David Peers. Discussion revolved not around futuristic technology, but about the changing work practices in film production, and the skill levels of newer entrants.

Kim Batterham led in by reflecting on the increasing complexity of technology and practices over the last thirty years, noting many entrants to the industry now lacked any qualifications. Rob Moreton questioned how many more pixels, how much more speed and dynamic range we needed in our cameras.

Callan Green reckoned there were so many people now getting involved in cinematography that the sector was in danger of falling apart. Like several of the panellists he was a keen advocate of mutual support within cinematography, spruiking the benefits of belonging to the ACS and attending meetings and conferences.

Dan Freene commented that the explosion of websites for even the simplest business meant that everyone needed visual content, and there was heaps of work for young cinematographers. However, this explosion pushed budgets down throughout the range, resulting in producers and production managers with absolutely no experience.

For example, if a cinematographer insisted on hiring a low-loader in order to shoot moving car scenes, he or she might be replaced by another one who would do it cheaply (and illegally) from a motorbike. Ultimately this would become the norm. David added that the dodgy shots might also have problems that could be fixed in post – but the post house would get “drilled” to fix these unbudgeted problems.

Vivyan Madigan advocated a traditional learning path, learning on set as an assistant rather than simply picking up a camera without knowing how to shoot. There was a general sense that no amount of experience shooting solo with a DSLR equipped the shooter to work in a crew or follow the disciplines of more structured productions.

Dan pointed to press photographers who were asked to shoot movie clips on the same camera they were using for stills – a slippery path to an expectation of being a fully-blown cinematographer, but lacking any knowledge of lighting or crew work.

They all felt that the availability of DSLRS and other cheap cameras meant that few people now were prepared to enter the industry as runners, focus pullers or second assistants. Kim said that AFTRS set out to teach structure, and how to express a vision: David said, “if people have a passion, we can give them the skills”.

Looking to the future, David predicted that the flurry of new equipment and methods would settle down within five years, and training and crew issues would be resolved, and the balance between technology and storytelling would be resolved. He pointed to similar disruptions in editing when non-linear systems were introduced (twenty years ago), and in animation. Dan said this was a weird period – this was “the year that Atlab (Deluxe) closed (stopped film processing) – with hardly a murmur”.

Both discussions clearly agreed with the maxim that “the technology has only arrived when it’s gone away”, aching for a time when creativity would once again dominate. For the time though, technology was the obsession. Maybe it really is, or maybe the surroundings – a large exhibition full of high-tech equipment with engineers crawling all over it, influenced their thinking. But it’s high time ACS put on a panel discussion about editors and reframing.


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