Andrew Lesnie, Russell Boyd and John Seale talk cinematography
[Thu 06/09/2012 05:04:35]
By Brendan Swift
This article originally appeared in IF Magazine #146 (April-May 2012).
IF Magazine: People have been predicting the demise of film for years. The recent introduction of cameras such as the ARRI ALEXA seems to have accelerated the shift to digital. What place, if any, do you see for film over the next five years?
Andrew Lesnie: Trying to predict the future raises as many questions as it answers. Film will survive, but in much smaller quantities and limited choice of stocks. Shooting-wise, probably down to a couple of negatives and a single release print choice from both Fuji and Kodak.
What is hard to predict is who will process it. Labs will merge and contract down to one major lab per production centre or even country. The stability of their process will change from being based on sheer throughput, ie big baths and fast processing, to tighter control of chemistry, morphing from a factory to a boutique.
It will almost be a return to the early days of ‘70s and ‘80s when films were basically processed by hand. Another impact that is hard to predict is the support crew that film needs. Neg cutters, camera loaders, scanner operators are all seeing their industry contract.
It’s a skill set and talent pool that is not being replenished – will it be possible to pull together an experienced crew in five years? Film restoration, preservation and archiving are industries that will require some of this expertise into the future.
John Seale: Very sadly, I think that in the next five years, film will be replaced completely. Digital films are already garnering Academy Award nominations and this will simply prove to one and all that the quality of digital imaging is at least equal to and maybe, to some, superior to film.
Some filmmakers will want to persevere with film negative but I feel the industry will embrace wholly the digital negative and eventually will include digital projection worldwide.
Russell Boyd: The ALEXA is a very cinematographer-friendly camera and recording system (for editors too I believe). However, most visual effects supervisors I have spoken to say they still prefer working from a digital file made from a camera negative because of its great depth, from highlights that still hold detail in overexposed areas, to deep blacks, and the inherent latitude that negative has.
I think shooting on film negative will be around for a while still as most films produced have a full digital intermediate made after the VFX have been added and the grading completed, which means the digital file can be screened at cinemas that have converted to digital-only projection.
I don’t hold out much hope for film prints being screened for much longer though.
IF Magazine: Has the latest popularisation of 3D expanded the cinematographers’ artistic palette or added unnecessary technical issues to the process?
Andrew Lesnie: Three-D cinema is predestined by digital cameras. The workflow of digital 3D from on-set, right through post to delivery, is now exceptionally refined. Digital cameras are able to provide an enormous amount of additional data along with pictures to give the information needed to technically create both 3D and VFX. And the pictures they provide are getting better quality – the dynamic margin between film and digital is closing rapidly.
Digital delivery is becoming the accepted norm with ALEXA, Epic and Phantom cameras. Since the filming of Avatar, we have already gone from larger mechanical 3D rigs with tethered recording units to smaller lightweight intelligent rigs and cameras that record onboard.
There are technical issues to shooting 3D although it is not a new concept – the process of acquiring 3D on a 21st-century film set is. The cameras, 3D rigs, 3D analysis, recording media, data processing – these are all pioneering challenges which do have the occasional hiccup. But with the computers analysing the setup and taking care of vertical, rotational, zoom, keystone and temporal disparities (to name a few), it only adds a few minutes onto a lens change.
As a cinematographer it has expanded the palette – you have to be aware of the 3D space, framing for objects in negative space, edge violations etc – there are new boundaries in 3D which you wouldn’t have in two dimensions.
John Seale: The advent of 3D, since Avatar, has added a new dimension and, by definition, new technical issues, which are necessary to the success of 3D. It means there are more technicians controlling the cameras and this new influx can be seen to be usurping the director of photography's (DOP) standing to a degree.
The stereographer, and I.O. [interocular] operator all have an importance to the image that is essential and one that is discussed directly with the director, rather than the DOP. These are all necessary and the final result will still be the desired one, but it will require a much bigger input and consequently crew to achieve the end result.
Russell Boyd: I haven’t shot 3D yet but I imagine the cinematographer has to, along with the director of course, re-think the conventional way to cover a scene (and even light the scene for that matter) so that the shots within that scene make full use of the 3D entertainment and storytelling potential.
From what I understand, the technical issues shooting 3D can slow the production down somewhat – at the moment that is. Technology has a way of proving us all wrong and given time, if 3D survives, the equipment developed may make the process more schedule-friendly.
IF Magazine: Is the creative contribution of cinematographers adequately recognised through current intellectual property, moral and authorship rights? What needs to change in this area?
Andrew Lesnie: The Australian Cinematographers Society (ACS) is part of a worldwide campaign to achieve authorship rights for cinematographers. The body leading the charge is IMAGO (European Federation of Cinematographers), and they've had some success in Europe already.
John Seale: The only moral and authorship rights the cinematographer has is his credit as director of photography. The image is owned by everybody or, more correctly, the studio or producer and can be manipulated and changed by the director, editor or producer or studio representative – whoever is given the right to change that image.
Russell Boyd: I don’t have any moral or authorship rights issues. My personal opinion is that those rights belong to the creators of the projects that we are hired to shoot. I do mention the ethical issue in the answer to the next question though. I guess that the grading of the DI [digital intermediate] would come under the heading of intellectual property.
IF Magazine: There are reports of cinematographers not being adequately remunerated for their work during the DI process or, worse, being locked out. Have you found this to be an issue across the industry?
Andrew Lesnie: The digital grade is based on the relationship of the DOP, director and producer. Some DOPs have been locked out and some DOPs have been actively included (and paid).
Some colourists believe the DOP’s role finishes at the end of the shoot. Others enjoy a collaborative relationship with the cinematographer, which I think yields a much more rewarding finish for all.
It becomes a discussion about the process. Are DOPs sitting in a theatre every day, having an operator push the buttons, or are they coming in for reviews and giving notes and working with a contributing colourist?
DOPs now include the DI process as part of their workflow. Decisions on-set include the possibility of dealing with something in the DI that would take too long in the physical world. A project may be photographed one way with the intention of creating something entirely different in post.
If a DOP has been hired as a collaborator and not a facilitator, they should be with the image right to the end. The DOP has been involved in all the discussion, the theory, the subtext and the philosophy that goes into each shot. Economically, colourists frequently tell me the sessions go much more smoothly with the cinematographer present.
John Seale: Absolutely... there are numerous stories, in truth, of cinematographers being asked to leave, or not being asked at all – certainly not being paid – to participate in the digital intermediate or release print process... myself included.
It is a sad state when the author of the film’s image is not included in the DI, which is that wonderful "polishing" of the image – and more so – now that a lot of technical expertise is not added to the negative but is later at the DI. So to be excluded from the process that would allow this, is not good.
Russell Boyd: This depends a great deal on how much clout the cinematographers (and their agents) have when negotiating their deal with the producer. As to being locked out – and that is pretty serious stuff – there is a whole ethical question around the grading of the DI and the cinematographer’s involvement.
I believe very strongly that we have the right to work closely with the grader (or colourist as they are sometimes called) to ensure our original vision is preserved and enhanced during the grading of the DI.
IF Magazine: What is your view on the current state of the Australian industry? What would you like to see change?
Andrew Lesnie: [No answer]
John Seale: A film comes from a writer and these people should be nurtured. There are a lot of really good writers and producers and certainly crew in Australia. We need more stories that appeal, not only to Australians, but the world, so that our industry can be global, but never lose it heritage and flavour.
Russell Boyd: At the risk of reminiscing here (at my age I’m allowed to): the days when Gill Armstrong, Bruce Beresford, Phil Noyce, Fred Schepisi, Peter Weir, and others, all made three, four, or even five films locally before they were seduced by Hollywood.
They cut their teeth here and made some very fine and memorable films working in the Australian film community. Seems now, after one successful film here the directors shoot through to LA and I can’t blame them really – we lose their talents prematurely.
IF Magazine: Where do you keep your Oscar?
Andrew Lesnie: [No answer]
John Seale: It keeps the back flyscreen door open.
Russell Boyd: In a very safe place.
[Thu 06/09/2012 05:04:35]