Have Computer Generated Images Changed the Definition of Cinematography?
In the past four years, the Academy Award for best achievement in cinematography has gone to a film with heavy amounts of computer-generated-imagery three times. In 2009, Avatar took the top prize in cinematography, followed by Hugo and Life of Pi in 2011 and 2012 respectively. These films, while visually stunning in every sense of the phrase, don't necessarily conform to the traditional definition of cinematography because much of the time the lighting, composition, and camera movement are created digitally by a group of compositors. This begs the question, should there be a distinction between traditionally-shot films and digitally crafted ones? Or has the definition of cinematography changed as digital technology has become more prevalent?
There are certainly a couple of different sides to this question. In one sense, it's an entirely technical matter. Films like Gravity and Ain't Them Bodies Saints were created in two vastly different ways, and therefore it would be silly to judge their images by the same standards. On the other hand, however, it can be argued that the method and technology don't particularly matter as long as the images have the same effect on an audience. Let's take a more in-depth look at these two sides of the cinematographic debate of the decade.
It's Purely Technical
In modern filmmaking, there are two basic methodologies which pervade the cinematographic landscape. The first, and more common (especially in independent film), is one in which the images are created in a physical environment such as a set or on location. This method is one that we talk about frequently here at No Film School, as it's all about composition, physical camera movement, and lighting with physical fixtures. Being able to competently create meaningful images in this way is not only the traditional definition and method of cinematography, but it's a unique technical (and artistic) skill that requires of the DP an in-depth knowledge of many different technological facets and processes.
As an example of this first type of cinematography, here's the trailer for Ain't Them Bodies Saints, which was shot practically (and quite beautifully) by Bradford Young on celluloid:
The other methodology of modern cinematography is one in which the images are created digitally through compositing various elements and pieces of footage together in order to create the final image. This method often uses green and blue screen keying (which is a tremendous technical skill of its own) as the basis of the image. While the characters are lit and framed by the cinematographer on the set, these decisions are often unrecognizable after the digital effects team has finished with the footage. In these cases, much of the lighting and composition actually happens in a computer.
As a prime example of this type of filmmaking, here's the trailer for Gravity (just in case we haven't shown it enough times already).
Both Gravity and Ain't Them Bodies Saints are stunningly gorgeous films, but their respective methods of image capture and manipulation are so vastly different that it seems borderline ludicrous to judge them by the same standards. In these cases, the vast differences in the cinematographic method absolutely demand that the Academy (as well as other motion picture institutions) create two separate distinctions in the craft. For the sake of this article we'll call those distinctions "Traditional Cinematography" and "Virtual Cinematography."
Of course, in modern filmmaking, most cinematography exists somewhere in the middle of these two sides. Even films that are shot practically are rife with extremely subtle digital effects. Conversely, films that are heavily reliant on compositing often have scenes that are shot practically with a minimum of digital effects. In order for traditional and virtual cinematography to exist independently of each other, there needs to be a line drawn between the two. Where that line exists, however, is a question for another day.
Does Method Matter?
Around the time that Gravity was released, we talked extensively about the role that famed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki played in creating the stunning images in that film. Not surprisingly, he was present in every stage of the process, and was largely responsible for all of the digital lighting and composition. Even though he had captured the characters and created stunning camera moves on the set, he remained present in the entirely effects/compositing-driven post production process in order to ensure that the images maintained his unique cinematic touch.
This begs another question. Does the method of cinematography actually matter if the end results are used to affect audiences in the same way that traditional cinematography would? Whether or not the image is created on location, on a set, or with a computer, cinematography is used for the same purpose, to drive the story and to convey/strengthen the emotionality of the characters in the film. Even in a computer, the core concepts remain the same. You have camera and light, and it's the manipulation of these elements which creates the cinematography, not the method of manipulation.
Here are two examples of westerns that were shot with these different methodologies. The first, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, was shot practically by none other than Roger Deakins. The second is The Lone Ranger, and it was shot by Bojan Bazelli.
This is a bit like comparing apples to french fries, as these two films couldn't possibly be more different. One is a subtle character drama and the other is a big-budget action flick. However, in terms of cinematography, it can be argued that the aesthetics of these films, though created in two vastly different ways, accomplish the explicit purpose of the craft in that they drive the story and tell us about the characters.
Personally, I think method does matter and that we need to create a distinction between traditional and virtual cinematography. However, a strong case can be made that technology is simply changing the definition of cinematography and that the core principles remain intact. For a little bit of extra reading on this debate, as well as a solid read about digital distribution, head on over to Indiewire and check out this fantastic article by Jamie Stuart.
What do you guys think? Should we separate traditionally created images from digitally created ones? Or is that a pedantic distinction given that the end result is the same? Let us know down in the comments!