American Society of Cinematographers keeps standards high

Digital revolution requires a fresh focus

Last year's "Zodiac" was a film watershed. David Fincher's digitally made frightener terrified audiences -- but also made cinematographers sit up and take notice. So when Paramount's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" opens on Christmas, they'll be less surprised, but no more concerned than in 2007. By fully embracing the digital workflow from start to finish, Fincher will have proved "Zodiac" was no mere aberration: A major studio filmmaker has abandoned all tape and film -- for digital.

"Fincher is on the cutting edge," says Curtis Clark, chair of the American Society of Cinematographers' technology committee. "He's the one that said, 'I don't want to have any tape-based elements. I want it to all be file-based data.'"

Such directorial decisions have a ripple effect throughout the industry, and among those caught in the waves are the cinematographers who comprise the ASC. Speak to a member of the by-invitation-only Hollywood fellowship of top-notch directors of photography -- whose organization turns 90 this year -- and the conversation is likely to center around digital intermediates (DI), digital issues and archival road bumps.

In a sense, that's just business as usual. For the past nine decades, the ASC has subscribed to the motto of "loyalty, progress and artistry," and since its 1919 founding, there's been plenty of "progress" to contend with: Members have borne witness to the advent of sound, the introduction of color, myriad widescreen theatrical exhibition formats and the creation of the U.S. digital broadcast standard that goes into effect in 2009. From the early implementation of stereoscopic imaging and the introduction of the latest digital camera systems, ASC members -- both "active" (working cinematographers) and "associate" (industry support professionals) -- have played vital roles in those advances, helping their peers understand advancing technology.

But the increasing use of digital in Hollywood has progressed in fits and starts that dazzle even experts. Clark notes that when his committee was formed in 2003, it was estimated that perhaps 15% of mainstream pictures were using digital intermediates. "Cut to today," he says, "and you invert those figures: It's hard to find 15% that aren't using DI. That's a radical sea change."

There's a bigger picture worth considering, however, says ASC president Daryn Okada. "Of the utmost concern is that Hollywood does not rush to implement practices that impose a limit to maintaining and improving image quality for the audience."

When a film goes through its entire process without resorting to traditional tape media -- utilizing portable hard drives instead -- that technological leap can make executives nervous. The task of decoding many of the technological issues that each new film raises has fallen largely on the shoulders of the cinematographers involved in these productions.

"The creativity of filmmakers has always driven the appropriate imaging tools for a story," explains Okada. "Cinematographers have weeded out the options with directors to ensure the visual world of the story has the competence to reach the audience in its finest form. To settle on a postproduction pipeline -- (in an age) that is bursting at the seams with data from devices in existence at the moment -- is dangerous to the industry."

Some of the hype surrounding the digital revolution, says ASC vp Owen Roizman, is leading filmmakers to believe they can do without the image experts who have long been considered staples in any professional project. "People are being told that with a digital camera you don't need a cinematographer ... (that) anybody can look at the image on a monitor and decide if they like it or not," he says.

As he explains, cinematography is about lighting, composition and movement, which help propel the story. "Even though I can technically use one of the new cameras to shoot at night under available streetlight and get an image, that doesn't mean it's going to look good, or be right for the story. And you still have to decide where to put the camera, what lens to use and how to compose the frame -- all things a cinematographer does."

Filmmaking workflow and division of creative responsibilities have largely been set in stone since cinema's earliest days. But the switch from film to digital is a change of medium, which leads to changes elsewhere. With film, an individual contributor's role was neatly defined; with digital tools the lines are blurred, says Clark.

"The promise of digital technology has been that it would deliver unprecedented flexibility and control over the image," he adds. "But a promise can be a bit mythical. People will believe what they want."

If any group can process the changes digital wreaks on filmmaking, it should be the ASC. Hollywood's oldest professional collective was formed by 15 leading cameramen to promote the free exchange of technical information among peers and collaborators, a mission accomplished in part through their monthly American Cinematographer magazine and essential technical manuals. Their success has inspired similar groups worldwide.

Today the ASC is as strong as ever, yet in a sense it is in a fight for its life. As Okada says, the belief that digital acquisition does not need the care and artistry required when shooting film is a dangerous myth.

"It's assumed that digital is cheaper, so the process does not have to be crafted as well," he says. "That leads to another misperception: that everything can be fixed in post. Well, it won't be better or cheaper at that point. We're concerned there may be a trend toward the dumbing down of technology for short-term perceived cost savings."

In time, the ability to photograph and deliver the best possible images could even be lost, forever eliminating one of cinema's main marketable attributes.

Now that digital is a permanent fact in the industry, there's another looming challenge: Using the new medium as an archival format. While film versions of classics have suffered from poor storage practices and required expensive restorations, the retrieval of a digital project from today's storage solution may prove impossible just a few years down the road.

"The only sure way to protect a motion picture -- regardless of origination format -- is archiving back to black-and-white film separations," Okada says. "Digital imaging data is flexible when it's online, but fragile when archived. Would you want your multimillion-dollar production stored on a digital format that may not readable in 15 or 20 years?"

"A big misperception is that anything digital is always perfect and nondegrading," Okada adds. "But when was the last time you got a digital picture e-mailed to you that had compressed pixels and will not print as good as it looks on your monitor?"

Still, the ASC is not resisting the eventual transition to digital production. "Digital is here to stay," Roizman says, "but we have to challenge it -- dissect everything and figure out what works and what doesn't -- in order to help make it even better."