Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Avatar, Life of Pi and trends in cinematography.

            On March 7th 2010 filmmakers all over the world began scratching their heads, bewildered. Mauro Fiore won the Oscar for greatest achievement in cinematography for the film Avatar, beating out Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Inglourious Basterds, The Hurt Locker, and The White Ribbon. “How can they call it ‘best cinematography’ when 80% of the film was CGI (Computer Generated Image)? Basically, I think the academy confused a beautiful looking animation with real-world cinematography,” cinematographer Ian Kerr said.

            To make the controversy plain for the average filmgoer, look at the traditional role of the cinematographer. Also known as the director of photography (DP), a cinematographer is the person who paints with light, so that the audience is transfixed by the images on the screen whether it is an endless desert in The English Patient or the world through the eyes of the Dutch painter Vermeer in Girl with a Pearl Earring. He uses lights, lenses, and filters in conjunction with various types of film stock and specific cameras to create images that captivate or repel an audience, according to the film director’s vision.

            Since the beginning of film, the cinematographer has overseen visual effects, from a spaceship landing in the moon’s eye in A Trip to the Moon (1902) to flying bicycles in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). But, over the last few decades the role of visual effects has grown so much and technology advanced to such a degree that the world seems destined to forget the magic touch a cinematographer and his camera bring to the screen.

            The shift was evident in Lord of the Rings when new motion-capture technology created the creature Gollum, using a real actor to model physical movement rather than animation alone. Motion-capture, a process using a computer to track and record a real person’s movements by sensing colored dots attached to their body, had not been used so effectively for capturing facial expressions before. Finally, an animated character could have near-human emotions and movements. A less obvious example of the shift in technology, in the same film, is a scene when Aragorn speaks to Boromir in the woods, and his eyes are clearly illuminated. Does the average moviegoer notice that Aragorn’s eyes have been lit using a computer program because the original close-up was too dark? When Howard Hughes crashes an airplane in Aviator, do viewers know where the computer animation ends and Leonardo DiCaprio begins? The integration of computer animation and other technologies are making what the audience sees less camera magic and more computer programming.

            According to James Cowan, a manager at Technicolor Creative Services in Vancouver B.C., post-production processes have become so advanced that many cinematographers no longer try to light a scene artfully, concentrating, instead, on proper film exposure and moving fast to stay on schedule. If their personal schedule allows, they may sit in on the color-timing session to oversee their vision at that point. That’s at least a 30-hour block of time in post-production (time they are not paid for). During the session, a technician known as a color-timer sits in a theatre-like room and works at a computer control board to alter everything from the color of a scene and the shadows cast in a scene to what areas of the image are in focus, or even enhance costumes and make-up. Before digital, color-timers were mainly limited to changing colors and brightness of the overall image, not individual parts. Cowan points out that the technology works best on an image that has not been manipulated during production. In other words it’s better not to use high-contrast lighting for dramatic effect or gels to create special light colors. It seems as if technology is reducing the on-set creativity behind the camera itself. As production manager Bridget Hill puts it, “it’s no longer, ‘fix it in post’ but make it in post!”

            In an April 2004 issue of millimeter, John Seale, Oscar-winning cinematographer of The English Patient (1996) and A Prince of Persia (2010), was not upset by the prospect of losing creativity during the filming process. Seale uses what he calls, “a reality driven style.” In other words, he uses just enough light to properly expose the film and the actions taking place. He claims this saves the production money by reducing the number of times you set-up lights: saving hours in labour costs. This also allows for multiple cameras. “You get three shots for the price of one,” he says. Regarding the digital process, Seale explained, “I can save money in gels and filters and things on-set this way, we can do more with windows, and so on. That’s why I’ve become a convert to the DI (digital intermediate) process.” In the DI process, images are loaded into a computer system - whether they start as digital media or as a film negative that is scanned into the system - in order to run them through the color-timing session and add any other visual effects. By windows, Seale means the various layers and shapes that can be put onto an image during the color-session, using software. The software allows the color-timer to select a specific area of the screen and illuminate it by itself (like Aragorn’s eyes in Lord of the Rings) eliminating the need to re-light during filming, which would involve at least one crew member, or even re-shooting at a later date.

            Ellen Kuras, the cinematographer for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, also makes time to attend the color-timing session. According to an April 2004 article in American Cinematographer, she works with the color-timer to get as much of her vision into the images as possible. She also still uses traditional techniques like lighting and choosing film stocks. For Eternal Sunshine she chose stock that was slightly cyan (blue) in dark areas of the image, to give a little bit of depth to the shadows.

            There are still things a computer cannot replace, like the jittery, hyper-real opening in Saving Private Ryan, and a million other techniques and choices that determine the images that arrive on screen. Cinematographers, now, need to know how to use more tools than ever. Kerr puts it this way, “Post allows more control to the directors which is sort of good, but the best directors will always recognize that a partnership with a DP is to their advantage.”

            However, long before the color-session, films today engage a number of other computer tools to create the images seen on screen. Frequently, films are generated by computers, rather than only enhanced. Chief among the processes now performed by computers is animation. The Oscars and the Golden Globes have recognized the accompanying surge of feature-length animated films by designating a special category for them. Avatar appears to qualify for that classification, in accordance with rule 7 of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences [AMPAS], so why wasn’t it considered for that award? Perhaps the use of live-action and motion-capture blended with animation have put the film into its own category, but awards shows, lagging behind technology, have not defined that new division. Therefore the presence of living actors within the process allowed Avatar to be considered for things like best picture and best cinematography.

            The process for selecting the winner of the best cinematography Oscar is fairly straight forward, although it may be flawed for today’s swiftly changing technical fields. Cinematographers who are members of the AMPAS must approve films before they are eligible to be nominated. After they have approved candidates (films), AMPAS cinematographers then vote to decide who is nominated, and, finally, all members of the AMPAS vote on who wins. The ‘cinematographer’ must be recognized as such by the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC). Nothing in the rules posted on the AMPAS or the ASC websites defines what the job of the cinematographer must include, nor do the rules explicitly or implicitly forbid shared credits.

            In the writing world, unless more than 51% of the material has been modified, the original creator is considered the author of a work. In a January 2010 article in American Cinematographer, by his own estimate Fiore only shot 30% of Avatar. He wasn’t even hired until most of the film had already been shot. The rest was created by computer animators, and the motion capture process. In fact, most of what appears on the screen cannot be attributed to Fiore. According to cinematographer Ian Kerr, “Most DPs on the boards point out that JC [James Cameron] ‘shot’ most of the film, that [Vince] Pace was as much a DP as Fiore.” Pace, who created the stereoscopic 3-D camera that is essential to the film, is listed as Director of Photography for the L.A. unit of the film, but was not a co-recipient of the Oscar. That’s not where the award discrepancies end.

            James Cameron used a “virtual camera” to shoot a lot of the computer generated shots. The instrument made it possible for Cameron to navigate the animated world where Avatar exists as if he were using a real camera in a 3-D world rather than a keyboard and a 2-D computer screen. It also allowed Cameron to see actors as their characters and in their virtual environment rather than as people in funny body suits on a sound stage. Supplying him with that tool fell to people like Rob Legato and Glenn Derry. Richard Baneham developed a method for capturing the flight scenes that, for some moviegoers, is the finest part of the film. His method included flying wire dummy airplanes whose patterns were motion-captured, then the backgrounds were animated to fit that pattern, and, finally, the actors followed the flight on a screen so that their actions matched the visuals that had been animated. Eric Saindon headed a team of computer animators who reportedly created 1500 different plants to appear on the planet Pandora, where the film takes place, while Wayne Stables made them into 3-D images. The lighting in the virtual world was created and fine-tuned by teams supervised by Guy Williams and Joe Letteri. Apparently, Fiore wasn’t involved or even present for any of this.

            What Fiore did exceptionally well was light numerous green screen sets, using techniques definitely worthy of the old-fashioned title ‘cinematographer.’ He shot using 3-D cameras only just invented by Pace and Cameron. He’s one member of a team of extraordinary innovators that have produced something beyond the realm of human possibility. They have paved the way for truly astonishing things to happen on screen. Letteri, Rosenbaum, Baneham, and Jones were recognized with the Oscar for best visual effects achievement. However, Pace was not awarded a technical achievement Oscar for creating the stereoscopic 3-D camera and support apparatus; nor were the Legato and Derry teams recognized for the virtual cameras they invented. But does the final product of all these separate teams justify giving Fiore the best cinematography award? Current voting members of the AMPAS either mistakenly believe that Fiore did more than 30%, or they believe that computer animation and motion-capture belong in a cinematographer’s department even if most of the creation and direction are not done by that cinematographer.

            The question isn’t whether Fiore deserves recognition, nor whether Avatar is spectacular. The question is whether someone who only creates 30% of a film can even be listed as its prime generator, and whether a virtual world can be considered to be photographed especially when the people in it are captured through a mainframe rather than a lens. These questions don’t have easy answers, but they aren’t going away. What is clear is that the film world is being changed so rapidly by technology that even awards shows need to work hard at keeping up. Film student David MacDonald sums it up this way, “It's just a different kind of cinematography...Whether this…is comparable to the traditional kind is debatable, though. They might have to make two separate categories soon, like digital and film...kinda like how they used to have an award for color and one for black and white.” Hopefully, the Oscars will hurry and catch up, so that everyone who deserves an award gets one for the work they actually performed.

 January 2014

In 2014 there is still no dividing line between cinematography and computer generated images when it comes to awards. Hugo (2012) and The Life of Pi (2013) each received Oscars [AMPAS] for best cinematography, while utilizing techniques well beyond the camera. Blended photographic techniques have been embraced by audiences and filmmakers alike, but they are still not being acknowledged openly by the awards circuit.

            The question of what constitutes photography seems to have been tabled. Is the American Society of Cinematographers afraid of making a fuss for some reason or are they just busy playing with all their new toys? Awarding a special category for special filming techniques is not unheard of: in 1956 the Hollywood Foreign Press awarded Wichita a Golden Globe for Best “Outdoor Drama.” If a new award category were created for computer capture films and digital manipulation, what would it be named? What degree of computer generated material would qualify a film for such a category?

            Pi’s success highlights the continued importance of collaboration. More than ever, the director and the director of photography on a given film must know exactly what they are aiming for visually because they’ll be managing several teams in pursuit of that single vision. And they need to know more about cutting edge technology too. Claudio Miranda, the Oscar winning director of photography on Pi managed at least three different visual effects subcontractors to produce 690 computer generated visual effects shots for the film (about 75% of the film). Perhaps the award title would be Best Director of Visual Collaboration, or, for lovers of fantasy, Best Master of Chaos. 

            When the Oscar nominations are announced on January 16th what type of film will rise to the top of the heap in cinematography and how much of that film was actually captured through a camera lens?

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