Month: June, 2012

Beyond Cinematography

Over the past few years I’ve begun experiencing an exciting shift in how I think about my work. What sparked this evolution was the realization that I view cinematography more as a design challenge than as an entertainment platform. In a very basic way film is no different than all visual design practice, where the objective is to nurture the relationship between form and function to maximize their combined effect. The end goal isn’t to make movies, after all, but to inspire, to connect, and to transform.

I increasingly see myself not as a director of photography in the traditional sense, but as the principal visual designer of the projects I work on, someone who manages diverse creative teams capable of thinking beyond the medium they are most comfortable with. It’s possible that the role I’m describing isn’t that of cinematographer at all, but rather a new hyper-visual breed of producer, well versed in both narrative and visual design, and capable of projecting vision across multiple platforms. Or perhaps this is what the best producers have always been and I’m only now getting to the party. In any event, after ten years of thinking intensively about how cinematography can push the boundaries of the motion picture medium, it’s exciting to be thinking more extensively about how my practice can support new modes of visual design and social innovation outside of traditional filmmaking.

The new Twitter logo announcement is an excellent example of the kind of work I’d like to expand my repertoire to include: a well-developed concept rendered through exceptional visual design that creates a short, condensed, visceral burst of the Twitter experience. I look forward to working on projects where motion picture photography is but one tool at our disposal, along with animation, graphic arts, and interactive design. As cinema, television, and interactive media continue to coalesce in the age of internet, this sort of multifaceted design platform looks more and more like the mainstream future of shortform motion picture production. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

The view from Anchorage Street: low winds, low clouds, blue horizon.

Reference Material from the Vaults, pt II

From Richard Avedon’s masterful collection, In the American West. Incredibly, in 1985 it was the first major portrait treatment of the western United States to break free from the romantic mold.

The positive response from a recent post about color photography has encouraged me to dig deeper into the archives for black and white work that I’ve found influential in my practice. What strikes me most about the images I found is how clearly the basic formal elements of visual design—line, human form, and the relationship between them—are visible in the absence of color.

It’s difficult for me to talk about the black and white format without the conversation eventually leading to Richard Avedon, whose collection In the American West has had tremendous influence on my artistic practice, particularly my photo work in the South Caucasus. I believe the portrait is to cinematography what the phoneme is to spoken language—a basic building block of design—and Avedon’s work as a portrait artist is unparalleled. Viewed individually his images are easy to dismiss as mere fashion photography, especially next to the phenomenal street work of the early Magnum photographers (Henri Cartier-Bresson, et al.). But when viewed as a body one begins to understand how powerful his work really is, and how consistently he was able to unlock the depths of his subjects. His method spoke to the very essence of photographic practice: we photograph not to record the world around us, but as a means of engaging it. It is about relationships, not documentation.

As with the color material, I was surprised to find how much of the strongest black and white work in my reference archive was only in hardcopy. It’s as if everyone silently agreed to preserve the sanctity of the art form by keeping the best images out of the digital realm.

The window’s high exposure—the unknowable world outside—infuses the scene with intimacy. Photo by Paolo Pellegri.

Mia Farrow, by Diane Arbus. Again: the dim interior shelters the subject from an impossibly bright world. It is the blown out window that poses the question.

Saul Leiter.

David Yurman ads faithfully provide strong black and white portrait material. This one was shot by Peter Lindbergh

Henri Cartier-Bresson. This image was part of the exhibition “East of Magnum” that featured the the work of Magnum photographers from behind the Iron Curtain. Strange that almost no internet trace remains of this photo exhibition, which of all the exhibits I’ve visited has had the most lasting influence on my career (I caught the show in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 2000).

Stunning landscape work by Kristin Klein.

I’ve been studying variations of exactly this kind of top lighting for over 20 years. It is far more nuanced than most people realize. Photographer: Helmut Newton.

My own work.

Exquisite flare work by Tom Munro, whose body of work with Kate Winslet deserves its own study.

Tom Munro

Avedon’s ability to peer through the facade of the even most impenetrable of celebrities was revolutionary, particularly in 1957 when this shot was taken.

Richard Avedon

The Shape of Things to Come

A color data compilation of Paris Vogue covers 1981 – 2011, by Arthur Buxton. The columns run from 1981 on the right, working across to 2011 on the left. Note the sudden change in tones in late 1987, when Colombe Pringle became the magazine’s editor-in-chief, and again in 1994 when Joan Juliet Buck was named her successor.

Last night I attended a seminar on color and LED lighting sponsored by The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. I don’t normally write about the technical side of cinematography, but I’ve grown fascinated by color theory in recent years and I want to share what I found to be some interesting conclusions.

When I first began working in lighting departments on feature films and television (about ten years ago) I was astounded by how antiquated the lighting technology seemed: even the biggest-budget shows had stages filled with forests of ancient, dusty tungsten lighting instruments that have been the workhorses of motion picture lighting for the past 80 years. Huge 5,000, 10,000, and 20,000 watt incandescent units that use massive amounts of energy, only 10% of which is emitted as visible light (the rest is heat). In an industry famous for pushing the technological envelope, these units seem absurdly inefficient.

New innovations in lighting have come along over the years, but solid state lighting technology is really the first to have the potential for such broad reach. LEDs promise exciting advances: smaller and lighter instruments, dramatically less power consumption, dramatically less heat emission, and the ability to more easily control the qualities of the light produced. These developments have the potential to radically change the way movies are photographed. But there is a problem: color. Specifically, LEDs’ inability to replicate it with any reliability.

It is difficult to overstate how much attention is paid to color in a film’s production, not just by the cinematographer, but by costumers, art directors, make-up artists, set decorators, visual effects artists—the list goes on and on. To do their jobs well these professionals must be able rely on some sort of color standard on which to base their work. It is of critical importance, for example, that a make-up artist knows how a certain shade of red lipstick will be rendered by the camera under neutral, “white” light (camera tests are generally used to establish this baseline prior to principal photography). LED fixtures that promise neutral light but render certain colors in different ways are a wild card for filmmakers, and make it nearly impossible for the crew to reliably plan the film’s palette. This uncertainty is of course unacceptable in a production environment where millions of dollars are being spent to create an incredibly nuanced visual experience.

Why hasn’t this been a problem before? For all their inefficiencies, those old, clunky tungsten incandescent lamps that we’ve been using on set since time eternal are able to reproduce a specific color spectrum with remarkable consistency, and at the mere flick of a switch. More importantly, this particular spectrum has been the accepted standard of motion picture photography since the dawn of color celluloid. Filmmakers can rely on the fact that a tungsten incandescent unit will read white on tungsten balanced film, and they can base their work on that standard. Never once have I seen one of these units produce light that had an unexplained green spike, which is something that’s very common in LED lighting. When a crimson dress is lit with a tungsten light, the costumer knows exactly how it will be rendered. LEDs cannot yet deliver this reliability, though they are getting close.

But the days of tungsten lighting days are numbered in Hollywood. California has passed legislation to phase out the use of all incandescent bulbs by 2018. Even if exemptions are made for the movie business, the cost of these globes will inevitably rise as the market shrinks. The race is on to find a reliable alternative and the color of our movies depends on it. Whatever technology we land on, what is of paramount importance is that it allows the artist to control the tools, and not the other way around.

For further reading, check out Ryan Fletcher’s informative article on color and LEDs: Digital Imaging with LEDs: More than Meets the Eye.