Cinematographers Worry New Digital Tools Will Allow Others to Alter Their Images

"Technology has enabled ignorance," warned Oscar winner Guillermo Navarro during an international cinematography summit in Hollywood.
Guillermo Navarro

Cinematographers face a "crisis" when it comes to controlling the images they create in the digital age, Oscar winner Guillermo Navarro (Pan's Labyrinth) said Monday at the International Cinematography Summit in Hollywood, where leading cinematographers from roughly 20 countries are taking part this week.

While three-time Oscar winner Vittorio Storaro, whose credits include the classic Apocalypse Now and the upcoming Cafe Society, has called the cinematographer the "author of the cinematography," a lot of the initial discussion at the summit revolved around that fact that, with currently available digital tools, other members of a production beyond the cinematographer now have the ability to manipulate the images the cinematographer creates.

Although some of the delegates said that can be a positive, leading to solid collaborations, many of the others lamented that it's more frequently happening in ways that don't support the original creative intent. "Technology has enabled ignorance — everyone's an 'expert,'" warned Navarro. "We have to convey that we are artists. We are not technicians."

Citing examples, Roberto Schaefer (Quantum of Solace) said that higher resolutions such as 4K and 8K allow editors to use postproduction tools to re-frame, zoom or in other ways manipulate the images, and that some editors use this beyond editorial requirements; others in the room agreed. “They are changing the images we are making. They are re-coloring in the Avid even before the director gets there. In the [color grading] they are surprised when we say, ‘That’s not what we shot.’ That control has been taken away from us due to the cameras and the editing tools. And visual effects is a whole other amalgamation of issues.”

"We have to re-educate," argued Australian Cinematographers Society president Ron Johanson. "We simply can’t say it will be okay. This is going to continue unless we make an active effort to change this."

By midday on Monday, it was already looking like education initiatives could be a result of this week's summit, which is being held at the American Society of Cinematographers Clubhouse.

“Every couple years there will be new tools; it's a Wild West that’s never going to settle down,” said David Mullen (United States of Tara). "These tools have in some ways allowed us to collaborate better with the director [for instance being able to review and discuss looks on-set]."

But he's also seen some unwelcome changes. "[Previously] we were expected to do 20 setups a day — now it might be 30 or 60 or 70," Mullen said. "It’s more of a volume business. We are looking for ways to exert control when we are asked to do more and more. That’s a trend I don’t see reversing.”

Speaking about his experiences in China, cinematographer Yang Shu reported: "Many postproduction companies try to get involved for different reasons — financial reasons. ... They even want to take shares of the box office. They can design the shots in the name of helping the director. They use the word 'Hollywood.' That's how 'Hollywood' does it."

Said Curtis Clark (The Draughtsman's Contract): "The best films are made through collaboration. Creative intent requires collaboration and implementation of a shared vision. Producers need to rally. Director needs to orchestrate this vision. We have [new tools and capabilities] that can be used for good and they can also be seen as obstacles. I propose trust needs to come back. You can do sophisticated color grading at the editing stage. So you need the collaboration of the editor, cinematographer, production designer — all on the same page. And you have to do that before you start shooting."

The discussion served as a reminder that cinematography is the art of "writing with light" — a theme of Storaro's presentation this past weekend at Cine Gear Expo. "[With digital cameras] you can record anywhere [without additional lighting]," said Storaro. "But that’s not always correct use of light for the specific scene or picture — this is up to us. We have to use knowledge of light and color. We use technology, but in the meaning of the art."

Additional lensers in attendance at the International Cinematography Summit represented countries including Brazil, France, Germany, Malaysia, Serbia and the U.K. The summit runs through Thursday.