Roundtable: 5 Top Cinematographers on Why 3D Is 'Unnecessary,' Refusing to Give Advice to Actors and Film vs. Digital
In THR's first Cinematographer Roundtable, Barry Ackroyd ("Captain Phillips"), Sean Bobbitt ("12 Years a Slave"), Bruno Delbonnel ("Inside Llewyn Davis"), Stuart Dryburgh ("The Secret Life of Walter Mitty") and Phedon Papamichael ("Nebraska") reveal the biggest surprises about being a DP, the directors who have inspired them and why the movies they shoot aren't always the movies we see.
Have any of you ever been in a situation where an actor goes around the director and says to you, "I'm concerned about how you're lighting me"?
DRYBURGH: Very early in my career, on The Piano, in fact, Sam Neill was concerned that I was shooting him too much in silhouette. He felt we weren't seeing enough of his face in order to get the performance. Luckily [director] Jane Campion came to my defense and said, "No, Sam, I want it that way. Don't worry, we'll know what you're thinking." And I think, "Well, OK." (Laughs.) We've had monitors on set for a long time, which certainly helped opened up the possibility of people commenting on their own performance or producers or writers or whoever else was there getting involved in the credit process if the director permits them. What I do miss is that there were the happy accidents in film; you'd see the dailies and there was something in the way the sun flared in the lens or some reflection you hadn't been aware of. And they're often some of the most beautiful images to emerge.
BOBBITT: And the directors trusted you to do your job. If they weren't going to see rushes till the next day, they would turn to you and say, "Are you happy with that take?" And it would be, yes I am, or no I'm not. That would be it.
PAPAMICHAEL: And now they don't say anything.
What films or directors have most inspired you?
ACKROYD: I'd have to say Ken Loach. He gave me my first real break. [DP] Chris Menges is my mentor because Chris taught Ken Loach how to make films, and Ken taught me how to make films. I'm very passionate about political filmmaking, and making things that the world would actually listen to, and all that comes from Ken Loach. Simple answer.
DELBONNEL: For me, it's [Andrei] Tarkovsky. He's the master because he used every way of telling a story. You have very long takes. He used light. He used acting. For me, he's the ultimate director.
Several of your projects this year are on film, which isn't the case for a lot of your peers. What are your thoughts on film versus digital?
DELBONNEL: What's annoying me is, they are pushing toward digital but we have no choice. And I like to have the choice of saying, "I think this movie should be done on film. On Super 8, or whatever." But I have no choice. The choice is talking about what we want to achieve. And what I want to achieve is related to the script and the story, and then to where the director wants to direct it with the actors, with the production design. They always compare us to painters, which I think is wrong. But there is a major difference between water color and oil painting. So I want to be able to say, "Oh, this is the thing that I could do with water color instead of oil painting." On Tim Burton's movie Big Eyes, we wanted to shoot on film. And we shot in Vancouver, but the Vancouver and Toronto labs shut down, and we had to ship everything to L.A. And it cost a fortune. Going through customs and shipping and X-ray -- we don't want that. So ultimately, Tim decided to go with digital because it's a low-budget movie.
BOBBITT: We've been fortunate because we've been living through that point of transition. And there was a period, which is fast disappearing, where we had those choices, phenomenal choices. In no other time in history have cinematographers had that choice. And it's a shame to lose that. I don't understand why film has to die for digital to succeed.
DRYBURGH: There's been a bit of a rush to the lifeboats with these labs closing in the Southern Hemisphere. Film is going to continue to have a life. It is going to continue to be a choice. Many directors will say, "I think this should be on film. We shot Walter Mitty on film, and it might be my last major film project. I also think a lot of actors look at themselves on a screen shot digitally and then at a screen shot on film, and they go, "I look better on film." And they're actually right. [In digital] you start seeing lines on people's faces that really aren't there. I find myself using diffusion filters that I haven't used in 20 years, just to be kinder to the faces of the people I'm photographing. And it's weird: It's not because you're trying to make them better than they are in person; you're actually fighting the tendency of the digital camera to make them look worse.
What advice would you give actors about how to work better with their cinematographer?
DELBONNEL: You don't give advice to actors!
BOBBITT: The relationship with actors is like with directors. The relationship you develop with them is in reference to what they need. So of course you're trying to put them at ease. The role of the cinematographer is to create a space in which the actors move. And give them the freedom to find the performance. And keep 'em in frame as best you can.
Getting back to digital, besides the fact that you are losing the ability to choose between film and digital, do you have any other concerns ?
ACKROYD: The thing we love about film is that it works in a physical way. You can carry so much of it on your shoulder because it's made of celluloid and chemicals. The chemicals burn up in a way that is very comparable to your eye. Rods and cones in your eye are burning up. It's very sympathetic to the eye. It gives you that grain and texture that we're used to in our real lives. And we're going to lose that.
PAPAMICHAEL: I don't think we're just going to continue to improve the image at a rate that we have been. People already are saying, "This is starting to look strange. It's too sharp."
ACKROYD: The TV screens I see in hotel rooms …
PAPAMICHAEL: Oh, those are horrible. I was staying at a hotel and they had the new LCD. Everything looked like it was video.
DRYBURGH: It's about Blu-ray. Everything like a video game.
PAPAMICHAEL: I have a nice plasma; it still looks OK. But even non-cinematographers, like my wife, are starting to say, "Why does this look like this?" When the projectors and cameras get to a point where you're picking up too much detail and things are too sharp, I think people are going to respond to it somehow. I don't think there is a need to keep developing it. We're going to start being in the business of degrading [the digital image]. That's what I'm doing. For Nebraska, I shot on an Alexa [digital camera], but with old Panavision lenses and stuff.
DELBONNEL: But that's what's wrong. We're using digital cameras and we want it to look like film. So how contradictory is that? It's absolutely ridiculous. And we use filters just to blur the image a little bit because the lenses are too short. So it doesn't make sense. It's an odd medium, but we have to learn the language of digital somehow. It's a new generation. My daughter is 9 -- we have a big plasma at home -- and she's used to watching those kind of images.