Film Versus Digital at Oscar — Choices, ChoicesMarc Ehrenbold
Always, the language leaves no room for compromise: versus. Film versus digital, take a side!
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. With award season’s biggest evening scheduled for this Sunday, we’ve found ourselves a bit more reflective than usual. 2013 was a brilliant year for film, for storytelling, for popcorn sales. The tentpoles were a huge part of this rise in popcorn sales, from 10.8 billion to 10.9 billion. In other words: let’s not get too hopeful about the future of cinema, especially independant cinema. The business of making movies that don’t revolve around superheros, kids’ stuff, or rehashings/sequels is still a fraught one. But there was one exception, this last year, to the aforementioned trends in blockbuster building. The odd man out was Gravity. Gravity, like Inception and Avatar before it, rocked the film world–the business of film–and did so intelligently. The landscape is shifting and these three films have proved that. Here’s your proof that there are smart movies, inventive movies that can sell with the best of them. Granted, none of the above were small films. Neither were lacking in star power, Gravity and Inception especially. These were no sleepers. Still, it’s nice to know that creativity is still alive and well and, occasionally, rewarded.
One such reward is the Oscar. Alfonso Cuaron will likely snag the golden man for his directing, but let’s talk cinematography, one of the only givens in a night of real contest. To quote Brutally Honest Oscar Voter #1:
I didn’t think any of the other movies were shot on the level of the really great films — Prisoners was excellent but a cut below Roger Deakins’ best work, such as Andrew Dominik’s film and the Coen brothers’ films — but Gravity was.
Another such reward is the ASC award, which Gravity won in early March. To quote Variety:
To virtually nobody’s surprise in the Ray Dolby Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland, Emmanuel Lubezki claimed the top prize at the 28th Annual ASC Awards on Saturday night for his cinematography on “Gravity.” The Alfonso Cuaron-directed drama, shot mostly in digital on Arri Alexa cameras, marked the first time a 3D film took the feature film prize from the 95-year-old, 300-member organization. It was also the third ASC win for the Mexican-born d.p., following previous awards for “Children of Men” (2006) and “Tree of Life” (2011).
That alone does not necessarily make Lubezki a surefire bet on Sunday night–the Academy’s choice has only jibed with ASC’s choices 10 out of the last 27 years–but if Gravity lost it would be called an upset. So let’s assume Gravity wins. Should Gravity win, it would take the Arri Alexa with it. A win for Gravity is a win for digital film. Does it settle the debate? We wouldn’t count on it–like we’ve said before, people love to pick sides. Need proof? The title of Variety’s article “For ASC Contenders, Film Versus Digital Debate is Reflected In Their Work” is exactly what we’re talking about. Versus. It’s a great article, but we just don’t see the “versus” here. What we see are filmmakers and cinematographers choosing the best camera and camera hire for the film’s intended purpose. But here’s an excerpt, so that you might judge for yourself:
Judging by the feature nominees for the ASC Awards, the film-vs.-digital debate that has roiled the cinematography world in recent years has been fought to a draw, at least for now. Digital capture has thoroughly penetrated the market, and standards in format and workflow have emerged. Still, at the highest levels, moviemaking is often still done on film and a surprising number of projects use both, depending on the shot and the subject matter.
On groundbreaking Gravity:
As with “Avatar” in 2009, the line between visual effects and cinematography was further blurred on “Gravity,” the groundbreaking technology for which required the filmmakers to transform their usual roles.
Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki was involved in every stage of the image-making from previsualization through post-production, calling visual effects supervisor Tim Webber “co-cinematographer.” For much of the movie, actors performed inside a box, dubbed “the cage,” that was lined with LED panels. Images projected on these panels depicted interactive light from stars and the sun. The cameras were digital — Arri Alexas.
Regarding “virtual cinematography,” Lubezki points out that marrying actors with backgrounds has been a challenge throughout cinema history. “If a movie has a strong CG element, that doesn’t mean the cinematographer didn’t light it or frame it,” he says. “You can call it ‘algorithmography’ or whatever you want, but I think cinematographers are going to be doing more and more virtual lighting.”
Blending on Prisoners:
“Prisoners” d.p. Roger Deakins, a 12-time nominee and three-time winner, is known for his unfussy approach to the craft. “It ain’t rocket science,” he has said. A couple years back, Deakins’ defection from film to the Arri Alexa was big news in the cinematography world, but eyebrows have since lowered.
Barry Ackroyd’s extensive documentary background made him a natural for Paul Greengrass’ “Captain Phillips,” shot under difficult conditions and with many non-actors in the cast. Ackroyd freely blended Super 16 film, 3-perf Super 35 film and Arri Alexa, exemplifying a trend toward using the right tool for the shot. [Yeah, the Arri Alexa has been known to do that.]
High-speed/slow-motion on The Grandmaster:
Philippe Le Sourd devoted almost three years to Wong Kar Wai’s “The Grandmaster,” delivering meticulously stylized imagery that stretches time, compresses depth of field and defies gravity. Le Sourd also mixed film and digital, shooting the majority on 35mm film, and capturing crisp high-speed, slow-motion scenes with the Vision Research Phantom Flex Digital Camera at frames rates as high as 1,000 per second.
Pushing the boundaries of what’s considered “classic” on 12 Years a Slave:
In Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” Sean Bobbitt’s unflinching camera was loaded with 35 mm film. McQueen brings the instincts of a visual artist to the cinema, and Bobbitt sees himself as a “wind-up paintbrush” for the director.
The makings of modern black and white on Nebraska:
For “Nebraska,” director Alexander Payne always envisioned black and white. For a classic, iconic feel, d.p. Phedon Papamichael combined the latest Arri Alexa digital cameras with refurbished 1960s-era Panavision lenses, and imbued the widescreen anamorphic images with a filmic texture by adding grain in post.