NAB Show: Cinematographers Express Concerns About How Images Are Manipulated in Post

Janusz Kaminski - 2018 U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum - Getty - H 2018
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At this week's NAB Show, numerous cinematographers voiced a shared concern that the images shot during production aren't always reflected in what appears in the final film or TV program.

With film, the cinematographer maintained “ownership of the image,” as what they shot was generally what appeared in the finished work, but with digital tools, the image can be manipulated at every stage of the production and postproduction process, resulting in “too many cooks in the kitchen,” warned two-time Oscar-winning lenser Janusz Kaminski during a featured session at the confab. "The cinematographer has to be in the process so you can [keep] the soul of the image. That comes from one artist — the cinematographer."

“We’ve been very concerned about [this situation],” said Kees van Oostrum, president of the American Society of Cinematographers. “It came up in a board meeting, and we are going to do outreach [to address this issue]. Creating the images is done on set but [with digital tools] also to a large extent in post.”

“There so much manipulation during postproduction; you can change the contrast, the color, even change the composition, which is probably the most egregious intervention,” explained cinematographer Manuel Billeter. “If it was shot in 4K, you can [reframe the image to] create a close-up that wasn’t a close-up.”

Further complicating the issue are requests for a high dynamic range version that is created from the original images, meaning they are given a greater range between the whitest whites and blackest blacks. At NAB Show, all of the major postproduction equipment manufacturers were showing new tools for creating HDR. Warned Van Oostrum: “With HDR, it’s almost like re-photographing your work in a different environment. The cinematographer should be able to circumvent that.”

The image alteration can occur at various stages, including during the final color grading, also known as the digital intermediate (DI) step. Van Oostrum noted that in the DI process, the colorist may be joined by studio representatives and producers but not always the director of photography.

With that in mind, some cinematographers have it written into their contract that they will be paid to oversee the color grading. Van Oostrum noted that many others do this for free in order to “protect” their work, while additional cinematographers are excluded from the process.

Noting that the cinematographer works closely with the director to plan the look of a film, former ASC president Michael Goi argued that it should be in the contract that the cinematographer will guide the look through post, to “preserve the vision of the director. It’s not an addition to the work, it’s the completion of the work we have done.”

The schedule can sometimes make this tricky, as final color grading doesn’t immediately proceed principal photography. “The DI might be a year later on a feature — you don’t know,” said DP Paul Cameron. “And when it comes up, we might get two or three days' notice.” And at that point, a cinematographer might be on his or her next project.

International Cinematographers Guild president Steven Poster said that to address this issue, “I urge everyone who gets a chance to do narrative or documentary work as a cinematographer to include yourself in the postproduction process early on. Meet the post supervisor, talk about how important it is to be a part of that.”

Billeter admitted he also plans for potential challenges during production. “It is very important for me to choose a set of lenses with a certain desired character," he said. "Inherent and unique lens characteristics like sharpness or exposure fall-off are pretty much the only measures — alongside depth of field — that cannot be altered readily in post.”