Cinematography: digital crossroads

It’s not just about shooting on film or digitally. Peter Galvin found that the main challenge cinematographers are facing is being left out of the creative equation.

There is no question, argues cinematographer Laszlo Baranyai (Noise), that digital acquisition has altered the culture of filmmaking, and not just in terms of method and process. The issue, he says, is “about power and control”. In terms of cinematographers and their craft, much of the discussion has been about the effect digital acquisition has had on the back-end of the process. This is because, cinematographer Mark Wareham (Clubland) has argued,  “post-production [at times] is driving the process…so how does a cinematographer maintain their vision through the workflow?”(Encore, May 2008) Baranyai, Wareham and other DOPs have identified another potential dilemma that threatens the value and quality of the work.

Simply put, cinematographers are being cut out of the creative development of a project in preproduction. Part of the reason, they argue, is that there is a kind of ‘romanticism’ that has attached itself to the digital realm, and it is costing projects and the craft of  cinematography. “This is a great issue,” explains Baranyai, “and we need to discuss it publicly…there are so many traps and misunderstandings and false expectations around [the industry in all sectors] about this technology.” “When I speak to my colleagues, we all have the same issue [as Baranyai describes],” says Wareham.

He believes that producers, both veterans and neophytes, are imposing HD as a production solution on the understanding that it offers an economical, time saving process. “Producers go to these conferences and look at a Wolf Creek, and they see it as a model and start to apply it…but that look and feel is not appropriate for all [stories and situations],” Wareham says. He reckons that producers and even some directors are not necessarily looking at the script and considering the schedule and thinking about “working up a look”.
According to Baranyai, a big part of the problem is that DOPs are getting put on the payroll so late in preproduction, because budgets are so tight and the project suffers, impacting on all departments. “You are put on three weeks before shooting, and the locations have been chosen, and they are horribly bad and it will take a lot of money and time to make them look any good. And of course at this time in pre everyone wants to talk to the director,” he says.
“I can certainly understand why producers go down the path of digital acquisition,” says DP Jo Donahue (The Librarians 1 & 2). “They are under constant pressure to go back to the money people with something cheaper, so HD has become something of a ‘pitch point’. But what has slipped through is the consultation with the DP before you get to the point of selecting a camera and a format.” Donahue says that a discussion between the key creatives and DP at this juncture is an opportunity to discuss options and issues: “One point  that hasn’t been recognised enough in the digital capture formats is that it actually brings in new people to the set, like a data wrangler.”

Donahue argues that on-set issues with this technology are occurring because the younger generation of crew are no longer trained in “hot” environments like they do at the ABC, where experience can be gained over time and a broad spectrum of shooting  environments, structures, formats and capture mediums.


Veteran 1st assistant director Jamie Crooks (Dirty Deeds) has worked with the Genesis and the Red. He says that with enough pre-production time “everyone can get involved” but he admits that rarely happens. But, he cautions, it is the digital technology that can impede a fluid working environment on the “floor” as a film is shot, due to the enormous variety of cameras and digital formats (thus workflows) and a professional sector of creatives and crew who must deal with constant upgrades.
“What happens during a shoot is dictated by the technology. With digital everything can end up revolving around the camera, and some projects just aren’t right for HD capture. It can cost a project aesthetically and practically.”

Writer/director David Caesar (Dangerous), producer Vincent Sheehan and cinematographer Hugh Miller (Two Fists One Heart) selected the Genesis for their latest project Prime Mover (released later this year), which involved green screen effects as well as real for real car/truck action scenes.
The experience was positive. “The issue [when considering the potential problems] is that digital capture has to be managed properly and if it is, there are no problems,” says Caesar. The director liked  digital because “there was less fucking about in that you can roll  camera and not have to call cut, so the actors can get a decent run at a scene. As soon as  you do say ‘cut’, crew jump in and start stuffing with hair and make up…I actually felt that, as the director, I was driving the set, not the technology.” Cinematographer Toby Oliver (The Combination), who hasn’t shot a drama on film in the last four years, feels there are real pluses in selecting digital over film, like longer shooting times, quicker turn around in post and, of course, savings on stock and telecine.

He agrees with Caesar that there are real benefits for directors and actors, but he doesn’t necessarily blame the trend toward shorter pre-production schedules for DPs on producers bent on saving where they can. “This atmosphere is coming from the manufacturers and their new formats,” he says. For producers and  cinematographers, what these companies promise can look enticing. “But saving money in one area is not always the best way to solve the problem.” DOP Katie Milwright (Corroboree), says that the issue surrounding the level of cinematographer involvement in any project comes down to “how cinematography is valued…in the end it’s about the relationship between the DOP and the director/producer.”
There is a great deal of debate about the real impact on the budget that a digital acquisition actually represents. “If anything, digital is slower [in post-production] than film,” says veteran colourist Ian Letcher of Deluxe (Melbourne). “I’m mainly doing features and the grading process has gone from four or three weeks to two or three months,” he estimates. Although Letcher has no first hand experience of DPs being ”cut out” of the pre-production, he believes there is some currency in the idea that now with digital tools a lot more can be done [in post].

That in turn impacts on shooting, and to shoot a blander frame a lot of the lighting is taken away from the cinematographer.” Letcher says that a major argument amongst creatives right now revolves around the concept of doing “everything you can in camera,  because everything that is left in post is going to cost money and take time.” All the players Encore spoke to agree that the dilemma the DPs describe here comes from the relatively small budgets that Australian creatives have to deal with.

Elisa Argenzio, line producer of Underbelly, A Tale of Two Cities and producer of Carla Cametti PD believes that it is the producers who are selecting the format, although not always the camera. “I haven’t been in any situation where a discussion at some point has not occurred with the cinematographer about the type of camera, which informs the style of shooting.”
hile budgets seem to be driving the issue, Wareham believes there is something more fundamental at stake: a failure to understand story and craft. “Everyone talks about cutting the cost on production, but I don’t know whether that is going of make the film any  better…On one job I was faced with a camera that I liked, but I didn’t think it was the right camera!” Baranyai believes that a mindset has crept into production, where “a film is no longer made on set anymore, only roughly and quickly, and the tendency is to use post to fix problems.

Producers love this because they can be in control.” Producers tend to only listen to the person they want to hear, he says, and for him that is rarely the cinematographer. He concedes that if one is “clever enough” digital acquisition can be economical but,  “cinematographers are beginning to lose all authorship over the image.” It is not the technology that is important, he says. “The images are almost independent of the technology we use…a DP is not only a technician. The other side of our job is to translate the written  material and the director’s vision into images.

I call that emotion capturing, and that is much more important than any bloody technology… but for producers there is no price tag on those skills, there is only stock and cameras and they are going to pick the cheapest.” ■


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