Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski Warns That Directors of Photography Are Losing Control of Images They Shoot

Janusz Kaminski - 2018 U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum - Getty - H 2018
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Cinematographers are increasingly worried that the images they shoot during production aren't reflected in what appears in the final motion picture. When movies were shot on film, lensers controlled their look, but in this digital age, images can be altered in postproduction — colors can be made lighter, darker or altered altogether — in a way that doesn't always reflect the cinematographer's original creative intention.

Two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski gave voice to that concern on Monday at NAB Show in Las Vegas in a frank conversation presented by the International Cinematographers Guild, during which he warned "ownership of the image" is disappearing as motion pictures rely more and more on digital techniques and tools.

"There are too many cooks in the kitchen," lamented Kaminski, who has been working with Steven Spielberg for three decades, most recently on Ready Player One. "So far the results are good, if you have a good chef, like Steven [Spielberg]. But the moment the director is not involved, [the cinematographer loses] control of the image."

Kaminski reminded the audience that the art of cinematography is about telling stories with light and shadow, but with digital production and postproduction, the intended images don't always survive. "The image become so manipulated, [starting on set] with the digital imaging technician. It's limitless," he said.

Speaking about the virtual reality-themed Ready Player One, in a conversation moderated by ICG Magazine editor David Geffner, Kaminski said it's an "amazing movie" that he's proud of, but he admitted "my contribution was 40 percent."

As director of photography, Kaminski lensed the "real world" scenes, which comprise roughly 40 percent of the finished movie, on film, while the virtual world of the OASIS — populated by avatars of the live-action characters — is fully CG with motion capture-based performances. "To some degree, it's not moviemaking for me," the cinematographer admitted. "I'm making movies with [actual] lights, sets ... I consulted with ILM artists for [the digital parts of] Ready Player One."

Broadly speaking, Kaminski believes the biggest challenge facing the future of cinematography is a creative one. "Cinematography is the art of light and shadows, visual metaphors and nuance," he said. "That is disappearing. It will evolve and come back. But right now [there are not enough young DPs] using cinematography to express themselves."