Digital Cinematography: Evolution of Craft or Revolution in Production?
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Digital Cinematography:
Evolution of Craft or Revolution in Production?

The debate concerning the impact of the introduction of digital technologies into the filmmaking process and the emergence of digital cinema has been raging for well over a decade. “Evolutionists,” as exemplified by John Belton’s 2002 article “Digital Cinema: A False Revolution,” view new technology and associated methodologies as a natural progression consistent with other technical advancements in cinema (100). “Revolutionists,” including Ganz and Khatib, argue that these technologies have not only irrevocably altered filmmaking practice but have fundamentally changed the nature of cinematic storytelling (and thus the viewer experience) as well (Ganz and Khatib 21). What is interesting to note in both Belton’s article and Ganz and Khatib’s article is that there is a presupposition that the relevant technological evolution had plateaued at the time of writing such that the question of the impact of digital technologies on cinema could effectively be answered. Yet it can be argued that the most significant advancements in filmmaking technology have occurred since these articles were written. Recently released camera systems such as the Red One and Arri Alexa are claimed to have created a brave new world of data-centric production. A recent interview in Variety with Michael Cioni, owner of Light Iron Digital, a postproduction facility catering specifically to data-centric production, sums this up: “You can’t make film smaller. You can’t make 35mm be 8K resolution no matter what you do. You can’t have a [film] camera be four pounds. You can’t fit a 400-foot magazine in a smaller space. It can’t improve at the rate Moore’s Law says we can predict technical improvements [in digital systems]” (qtd. in Cohen).

No longer does a camera department require light-tight temperature-controlled spaces to load camera magazines or store reels of film. Workstations with multiple RAID arrays and linear tape backup systems have taken their place. Dailies, so called because of the time it took to develop the film and create one-light prints to check the quality and aesthetics of a day’s shoot, now take mere minutes to create, no longer requiring the specialist skills of a photochemical lab. But for all of this change, has the process of filmmaking been fundamentally altered? Is this truly a new era in which the cinematographer has become more of a data-capture specialist than a visual artist? Or do these advances in camera systems simply represent the latest chapter in the evolution of filmmaking as Belton originally argued? This article sets out to explore these questions by looking at the craft of cinematography for current mainstream production and how it has been affected by technological innovation.1 [End Page 3]

What Is a Cinematographer?

Cinematography is an art-form but at the same time it’s a craft, and it is definitely a combination of the two . . . You have to light, you have to compose and you have to create movement. Those are the three elements of cinematography.

—Owen Roizman (qtd. in Fauer 1: 234)

Roizman’s definition arguably represents the most common view of cinematography. Cinematographers work with a director to develop a visual means of interpreting the story. In narrative film, this process typically includes the breaking down of scripts first by acts, then by scenes, and finally by dramatic beats. At each stage, primary and secondary themes are interpreted in terms of tone and desired audience response. From this, details of setting and basic production design begin to emerge, leading to a definition of a visual style. For the director, this serves as the backbone of the production bible, providing a framework for more detailed dramatic analysis. For the cinematographer, it represents the beginning of a blueprint to enable physical production to realize the look of the piece. As the process continues, some form of visualization usually takes place. Working methodologies can differ significantly from project to project and director to director, with the cinematographer’s control over visuals ranging anywhere from being a slave to dictated camera positions (such as Hitchcock’s reputedly definitive storyboarding or the tight requirements of visual effects–based work) to...