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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!

Link: Hey, Academy: Here’s Why the Best Cinematography Oscar Should Be Divided Into Two Awards — Indiewire


We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

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  • David Dearlove on 01.1.14 @ 10:32AM

    Fantastic article, and thank you :)
    I’m a 24 year old graduate, have DPed a feature film, a hand full of short films and a couple of documentarys shorts, and am shooting and ACing around on productions – this article is definitely food for thought.
    Firstly I think the way technology has evolved has changed our perspective on what a DP is and how people get to becoming one, and thus further along the line how we judge beautiful cinematography.

    For example, and by no means do I agree with this now, but people can pick up a 5DII/III and a couple of decent lenses for under 10k, with some other gear to get them sorted and they think they’re a DP by definition, and I think people like this bring the standard of cinematography down.
    I’ve stopped DPing now as I realised I really do know nothing about the field and I want my knowledge to grow considerably before I claim my role as DP again.
    With regards to how we judge cinematography and the way its evolved, I don’t think we should make a differential between how the film is shot. Wether it’s the tree of life, melancolia or 300. I think cinematography has a universal language that will speak to us all (as does story etc!) and I don’t think any type of cinematography has merit over another time (For example the physical type where we create it on set, to the composite type we
    create partially on set and then also in the edit)

    I don’t think technology is changing cinematography at all, I just think, like anything, cinematography is naturally evolving, as everything does over time :)

    • “I think people like this bring the standard of cinematography down.”

      Those people are your brothers and sisters. Don’t look down on them. They bring the standard up merely by participating and adding their voices. You have an obligation to support them and nurture them when you are in a position to do so. So what if they wanna go out and shoot on their DSLR’s and their cheap lenses? Remember that not too long ago there were big nationally released indie movies being shot on 480i miniDV camcorders in natural light. The Dogme 95 people could make movies like “Breaking the Waves” and “The Celebration” with absolutely terrible 480i technology and make them beautiful. Images are images. BTW the guy who shot “The Celebration” and “28 Days Later,” both on miniDV, won the Oscar for cinematography a few years later. Was he a DP when he was working on a consumer camera?

      You don’t have to “earn” the title of DP. You have a camera and lenses and you’re shooting – congrats, you’re a DP. A lot of folks in the biz like to hang onto their titles and prestige like they were earned, they treat cinematography like it’s some sort of mystic sorcery to be kept secret from the rubes. You wanna be a DP, go shoot stuff. Shoot with whatever you have. If you suck, you’ll get better. You’ll still be a DP, just not an amazing one…yet. You want your knowledge to grow, go be a DP on a bunch of things and your knowledge will grow – don’t wait for some dude you AC for to tell you you’re ready. He probably just wants to keep you down so you’ll keep working for him instead of taking his job and being better than he ever was.

      When I worked in Hollywood as a sound editor I -HATED- this mindset. There were plenty of people who told me that by using cheap microphones, by editing on a cheap laptop, by mixing movies with a small 8-fader console in my living room I was bringing the standard of sound editing down. I promptly ignored them, kept working, got into the union, and eventually got my chair at Universal – not because I held myself back, but because I kept pushing myself forward. You won’t be a DP until you start calling yourself one and acting like one. Don’t wait for some mystic pronouncement. You’d be amazed at how many DP’s knew nothing when they started shooting.

      • Picking up a camera and shooting does not, in my opinion, make you a DP – that sounds like you think as long as you have a camera your images will look good. If you want to see an….interesting example of how a camera does not make you a DP, go to Youtube and look up “The time machine (I found at a yard sale)” – shot on a RED!

        Cinematography is a craft, and unless you have some of the technical knowledge behind cinematography you can’t just pick up a camera and make your films look like Roger Deakins (disclaimer: I havn’t make anything that looks anything close to a Deakins film – who has, except Deakins). It is a craft – picking up a camera and shooting makes you a filmmaker, but it takes more than that to be a cinematographer.

        • Yes it DOES still make you a DP. The very definition of a cinematographer is one who cinematographs. What you’re saying is that it doesn’t make you a GREAT DP, and I don’t think anyone disagrees with that.

          But this idea that to have the title of DP or cinematographer you have to be good at what you do first is pure snobbery – who decides when your stuff is good enough to earn that title? Other people in the DP club?

          • 1000% agree. Great perspective and attitude.

          • DP’s are one of the most OVERRATED positions in Hollywood. The great films are made by great directors who collaborate with a DP and the REST OF THE CREW on what he or she wants. The DP is like a subcontractor for the director who determines the overall look and feel of the film. Most great directors have a strong cinematography background themselves, having shot their film school thesis projects and early films themselves. So little praise is given to the other members of the crew, ie gaffers, grips, set designers, etc. My personal experience is that when a director hasn’t a clue, and a film’s look is controlled more by the DP, it tends to be crap.

          • Anyway, if I was hired on a set to be a steadicam operator and picked up the camera and gear and filmed a tracking shot, does that make me a DP? No.

          • @MenAtWork

            That’s why occasionally cinematography really shines on TV shows. The director is never a constant, and the cinematographer often is.

          • Daniel Mimura on 01.3.14 @ 6:44PM

            I agree. A cinematographer is one who does the job of lighting things for motion picture photography. The prestigious title isn’t in the word “cinematographer”…that’s just some of the select few to have ASC, BSC, ACS, AIC, HKSC, CSC (and others) behind their name.

            And MenAtWork…if you were hired to be a steadicam operator…um…you would be a steadicam operator. Operating a camera does not make you a cinematographer.

        • Michael H – I don’t think I can ever forgive you for making me see even the few moments of “The Time Machine (I found at a Yard Sale)” which I could bear before having to run from it. Wow that is an extraordinary waste of a RED and those precious seconds of my life…

          It seems pretty clear that what the cinematographer did on Gravity was really a VFX supervision role (he set up the shots knowing what was needed afterwards). I think if there isn’t a distinction between these kinds of films and “conventional” cinematography, you could give a Disney/Pixar animation a cinematography award – after all someone choses all those shots and frames and selects where the light and shadow would be…

          It’s the same with photography. If I take a portrait of, say, a woman leaning against a tree in a sunlit forest, and do some post-production on it myself adjusting highlight and shadow and some basic retouching, and create an award-winning image – I can take credit for the photo and claim it as my work, and my award. However if I take a photograph of a woman leaning against a green box in a chromakey studio, hand that image over to a digital artist and they comp in a tree, the sunlight, the forest and all the other details and that image wins an award – I don’t think it should be me picking up the trophy! It’s not about whether or not any FX are added in post, but about what craftsmanship went into the production of the image and who should be given credit.

      • You are awesome and I whole heartedly share your beliefs.

      • Great feedback!

      • Marcelo Teson “You don’t have to “earn” the title of DP. You have a camera and lenses and you’re shooting – congrats, you’re a DP. A lot of folks in the biz like to hang onto their titles and prestige like they were earned, they treat cinematography like it’s some sort of mystic sorcery to be kept secret from the rubes.”

        Uh, yes you do have to earn the privilege of calling yourself a DoP and if you worked in this business you would understand why. Being a DoP entails more than owning a camera and having some talent. You should also know that one of the tenants of the ASC is that there are no secrets and that knowledge is to be shared and education championed.

        The DoP bears the most responsibility on a set and is the single person who can tank an entire production. At the end of the day you never see all the screw ups and drama that occurs OUT OF FRAME. But if the DoP screws up the shot, all other work has been in vain.

        The DoP is usually the most mature and levelheaded person on set. They are often the glue that holds the inner circle on a show together.

        If the director turns out to be a hack the studio will rely on the DoP to get the footage and coverage needed to cut a movie together. That works because a good DoP is also an editor.

        Good actors don’t need a competent director to turn in an acceptable performance. If they decide that he is an idiot, they will simply turn in a standard performance to not embarrass themselves and move on the the next project.

        You can cut around bad actors and given enough takes you’ll get enough to patch a performance together. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

        Bad audio? ADR to the rescue.

        But if the DoP screws up the shot, all is lost.

        So, yes. You do need to earn the privilege of calling yourself a DoP and if you think otherwise, you are going to have a very, very difficult time working your way up in this business.

        • I disagree. It depends on the political structure of the set. I have worked on films where the director had full control over lens, perspective, lighting, shot selection, etc and simply ordered his crew (DP included) to follow his orders.

          Then there are more democratized sets with younger directors, where the crew add their own skillsets to the mix. These situations are almost always more chaotic and lead to really discontinuous patchwork of results. It all really comes down to the type of director one is dealing with.

          One observation is that the great directors using different DP’s always retain the same signature look to all his/her films, wheras a DP may work on many films and the look is almost always different in his works.

          • Yes, but at the end of the day it is the DoP who is operating the camera and if he screws up the show is SOL.

          • Actually you are wrong. the DP these days don’t do the shooting. The cameramen do.

          • Okay yes, technical case by case details may mean the DP doesn’t do much or that they don’t operate or maybe they do and it depends on the political structure of a crew, but the SPIRIT of what I am saying is still true – you don’t need to wait until you gather skills to call yourself a cinematographer, or to let yourself be one. Wanna be one, go be one. Get business cards printed out. Yay you!

            I was responding to two things in the original comment: 1) That people buying DSLRs and lenses were bringing the standard of cinematography down and raining on the parades of real DP’s and 2) That this person had somehow convinced himself that even after DPing a feature and several shorts he was not skilled enough to DP again and should return to ACing for a while until such a time as he could “be a DP again” or whatever (paraphrase). I don’t think either of these things are true, and I think both mindsets are detrimental to anyone who wants to work in the biz. We can argue about whether or not DPs are worth anything or how sets ought to be structured politically 20 ways to Sunday, but that’s totally not really germane to my argument.

            This is also an answer to your steadicam operator question, which isn’t all that germane to me either. The spirit of what I’m saying still holds true – you wanna be a DP, go be one. You need permission from nobody, and your work, even at its worst, is a welcome addition to the artistic output of the world.

        • “Uh, yes you do have to earn the privilege of calling yourself a DoP and if you worked in this business you would understand why.”

          I did work in this business for almost a decade, in post sound. You don’t know me and I don’t know you. Let’s not assume things about each other.

          I can see from your post that you care very much about the role of the DoP and its value. It is indeed a valuable position. As a sound editor I’m not one to wave away sound problems with ADR(it’s not always that simple), but I do respect that the DoP is an important role on the set, though I wouldn’t go so far to call them the most level headed person there – I’ve met my share of butthead cinematographers. But I imagine you feel that my statement that anyone can be a DoP is insulting and cheapening to the DoPs out there doing great and nuanced and difficult work.

          I don’t think anyone is cheapening the role of a DoP by saying that anyone can be one. Anyone CAN be one. People get hired to be DoP’s all the time on indie films, student films, shorts, all sorts of things. Some are good, some are bad. Some have no experience whatsoever. It is true that not everyone can be a GOOD DoP, not without practice and experience and knowledge. No one disputes this, and orgs like ASC do a decent job of recognizing greatness among the cinematography community (though sometimes they’re too political in who they let in for my tastes).

          I think we can draw a line where we can say good DoP’s are hard to find and valuable, but also be welcoming to people who are just getting started in cinematography or people who can’t afford or have no access to a RED and their lil T2i is the best they can do. We don’t have to point down at those people and be all “you sir are NOT a director of photography!” When I had my editing chair at Uni I never looked down at folks with a dinky Pro Tools LE system and said they weren’t sound editors or sound designers or whatever. Were they editing sound? Then they were sound editors. It didn’t matter if they had never worked before or if they used Nuendo or Logic or even Audacity. They were doing the work they wanted to do. Who was I to deny them anything?

          People are SO defensive about their job titles. I don’t understand why it’s such an insult to the profession that this person over here wants to be a DP with their new 5D Mark ii. Who cares? Shouldn’t we be supporting them and helping them get the most out of their gear instead of raining down snobbery about who does and doesn’t deserve the esteemed title of DoP?

          • I agree Marcelo! I picked up a camera (and granted, I’m the director/writer/editor/DP/producer/actor, etc. etc. etc. all at the same time. lol) back in 2011 and 2 years alter I have almost a dozen film awards including a Telly! So I dare anyone to say I’m not a D.P. when I have distributors who are getting ready to get us on satellite! It’s weird that some here are pointing out stuff to you when you already said you worked in Hollywood, and it’s rare to hear someone like yourself being supportive on indie, so kudos to you :)

            Cal Nguyen, E.P., D.P., etc etc
            Day Zero the Series

      • breaking the waves is not a dogme film(incidentally shot on 35mm), perhaps you mean “the idiots”, although waves has dogme ideas in it it wasnt untill a couple of years later that von trier made his dogme film.

    • Not sure I agree with the middle part of what you say because a DP is just that and if you take on such a task then by all means put your name and role in the credits. Being any good at it is another matter and can only be judged by your peers and those who have seen you work, but like all things you get better with practice and I for one love how easy and cheap it is to get creative, and as saturated things may be the really good stuff does tend to stand out and get the attention it deserves thanks to sites just like this one.

    • Hello everyone. A DP is a defined position born out of UNIONS. There is a difference between a camera operator and a DP. Because you pick up a camera does not make you a DP.

      I don’t consider anyone a DP unless he is a member of the ASC, BSC or CSC, etc.

      Also, many directors wish they didn’t have to use a DP, but because they used unionized sets, they are REQUIRED. It’s like the construction industry. If you renovate kitchens as a hobby, that doesn’t make you a foreman, though you can pretend to be one. Don’t you just love unions?

      • The ASC isn’t a union, neither are the BSC nor CSC. They are professional organizations made up of cinematographers who vote on new members who need to be sponsored in – a country club for cinematographers who like each other. There are hundreds of cinematographers working on big Hollywood productions who are not members of any of these organizations, which are very difficult to get into. The union for cinematographers is the International Cinematographer’s Guild. They are the Local 600 chapter of IATSE.

        And even then, being a union member is not a requisite for being a DP either. I was a sound editor LONG before I went into the Editor’s Guid union (Local 700!), because I edited sound on movies, some of which were even in theaters nationwide. I never joined our professional org, the MPSE (though I could have by paying a simple fee and getting a rec letter from one or two of my peers).

        It is true that Director of Photography has a specific definition of labor according to union rules. But what about nonunion pictures that play on the indie circuit? Do they not have DP’s? The definitions aren’t so black and white, and they are constantly in flux. So to go back to my original point – no one can exclude you from that circle. You want to go be a DP, have a blast, don’t wait for someone to tell you it’s okay. You don’t need to AC until you get certain skills.

        • like i said, if i was hired as a steadicam operator on a set, that doesn’t make me a DP

      • Daniel Mimura on 01.3.14 @ 7:22PM

        This is wrong. DP or cinematographer are not titles that can only be used by union members. You can be a cinematographer on a non-paid high school short film or the latest $100M union blockbuster.

        Mabe you’re confusing cinematographer with some other union/guild terms that are more specific, such as a UPM. You can’t call yourself a UPM unless you are a Unit Production Manager in the DGA. If you’re not in it, you can work all you want and call yourself a production manager or production supervisor, but not UPM.

        It would be asinine for SAG to try and say only their members could call themselves “actors”, the word itself which makes no distinction between professional paid actors and non-paid hobbyists or between screen actors and theater actors…etc…

        Back to the steadicam operator thing…if you’re hired as a steadi-op, you’re not the DP, you’re the steadicam operator. A couple different times on corporate shoots as well as a music video, I’ve been hired as a steadicam op (which is what my card says, even thou I also DP—I haven’t made two separate cards), to learn that there was no DP. Well, if I’m deciding exposure and setting lights, guess who is the DP? Not that there are credits for (most) corporate shoots, but I make sure they know that I’m the DP, not just the steadicam op. (& tell them next time to give me a little warning!)…whatever, though…some of the corporate shoots are all over the place when they don’t go through an ad agency or a media company.

        The DP sets the lights (or tells the gaffer what she wants–either specifically or generally) &/or exposure…these people are cinematographers/DP’s.

    • Interesting discussion going on here. What does it take to be a cinematographer? Well, in my mind, Being the guy who shoots the thing makes one a cinematographer.

      Just like you can be a photographer with no knowledge about lenses, exposure or anything. You have a device that takes photograph and you take photographs with it? You are a photographer. Amateur, yes. Probably. And possibly even crappy at your job. But still. You are by definition a photographer.

      You are a driver if you drive cars. A cook if you cook. A writer if you write. There is no distinction made on any qualifications other than having the tools and doing the job.

      A cinematographer takes moving images meant for cinema viewing. at least that’s what I think the “cinema”-denotes.

      A DP. Or Director of Photography is, for me, when you need to delegate work. You are the director of the photography, as the name implies. Wether or not you are crap at this doesn’t matter. You are the person that the operator, grips electricians, etc etc, get their directions from. If you got into that position by accident or not doesn’t matter.

      Again. This is a bit like snobbery. Saying that just owning the tools and doing the job doesn’t mean that you’re one of the crowd. You are part of the crowd. You may be the black sheep in the midst, but you are still in the flock.

  • Filthy Punt on 01.1.14 @ 12:04PM

    Creating in post is totally valid, perhaps even more so for no budget projects as it allows the film maker to do a lot of work on their own and therefore cheaply (I always at the very least buy actors/crew food). I shot a ‘feature’ over the summer for literally no money on a 5D mark 2 largely as an experiment in working methods, although I had actors and some practical effects and shot ‘normally’ it was always my intention to radically (and also subtly) enhance/degrade stylistically in post, and in fact it’s turned into a completely different film as a result of that process.

    Knowing there would be mistakes due to time/budget/skill constraints (for example increasing noise in shots that were under lit) I was really interested in what constructing the film in post would offer and whilst not an entirely successful experiment it’s taught me a massive amount and produced some genuinely interesting shots and scenes not possible on location.

    The scenario/script (it’s a sci-fi about soldiers in a drug trial that goes psychedelically wrong) was deliberately conceived to allow for such experimentation and the techniques employed would not have been suitable for say a romantic comedy or drama.

  • The tools at hand changed, that’s all. Cinematography will always be in essence, the visual look. How you get the look you want doesn’t matter as long as you get it. Whether it’s with old school celluloid and coloured gels or a room full of graders and compositors, the Cinematographer knows how to get the look s/he wants.

    • To take your point further, what this means is we should start seeing Pixar movies get nominated for cinematography, assuming they’re good enough. I think the only movie of theirs that has really gone that far is “Ratatouille,” but that’s just me.

  • The problem with having this distinction is that it’s SUCH a blurry line. Gravity is an obvious example of virtual cinematography – what about O Brother, Where Art Thou, which was one of the first digitally colored films? It was shot on film, but what they shot looked NOTHING like how they finished.

    Or what about Hugo? Hugo has a combination of truly digital fly-ins and such, but other shots like the final loop-around-the-party shot are pretty much done in camera with minor digital assistance.

    What I think needs to happen (and this will never happen) is that voters should take into account the kinds of digital assistance the filmmakers had. If you have an absolutely gorgeous movie and not one frame of it was ever digitized, that’s like bonus points. It’s chutzpah and skill. If you invent whole new processes to create moving images like the kind of tinkering Cameron did for Avatar, that’s also bonus points. You just have to weigh it on a case by case basis.

    Or you could do the sane thing and treat the Oscars like they don’t mean much. I’m sure it’s nice to win one, but it’s not the end-all-be-all of WHO IS THE BEST. If I were a DP I would much prefer to win an ASC award given to me by my peers who know and understand my work than the Academy, which is voted on by every single member, most of whom are retired and haven’t worked in ages and don’t know the ins and outs of the workflow. This is why Life of Pi engendered so much controversy – it won an Oscar on the backs of an underpaid VFX crew and the work they did to enhance was was basically a complete greenscreen shoot, and the voters, most of whom are not cinematographers or VFX people, just don’t have the knowledge to make those distinctions and vote accordingly.

  • Matt Carter on 01.1.14 @ 12:11PM

    I think there should be a distinction and it is important too. When you have Claudio Miranda winning the Oscar for best cinematographer for Life of Pi, when essential he merely lit and shot a green screen, when the vast majority of the film’s visual flare was under the control of Ang Lee (the director) and the massive team of visual effects artists, then there is a problem. He has essentially taken credit for something he hasn’t really done. So there is the big issue regarding false credit attribution. Equally this has happened before when someone wins an award for “best make-up” when the fiIms make-up work has been largely visual effects and CGI facial replacement and therefore has had little make-up work to warrant a nomination.

    I think the distinction should be most clearly drawn between CinematographER and CinematographY. Cinematography, can be made any way, either digitally or in camera, but when you call someone a Cinematographer, they should have created most of the imagery themselves in camera or the film cannot be nominated in a normal way and have the cinematographer accept the award for work he(or she) hasn’t carried out.

    • Matt Carter on 01.1.14 @ 12:15PM

      A parallel example. Would you be comfortable with an actor accepting an award for best performance in an animated film where they had just lent their voice, only a small part of the actual final performance.

  • Filthy Punt on 01.1.14 @ 12:16PM

    Marcelo I totally agree with what you’re saying (fake till you make it) but you’re a little off with some of your examples, on 28 Days Later they had ten XL1s all with cine adapters and lenses and Breaking The Waves was shot on 35mm film and definitely wasn’t a Dogme film although directed by Lars Von Trier.

    • Huh. I knew that about 28 Days Later. I think my point there still stands. The OP talked about how these kids with DSLRs and lenses think that they’re DPs because they have easy-to-use gear. I remember there were folks talking about how 28DL wasn’t really good cinematography because of the DV format. I think Anthony Dod Mantle was really the first guy to truly understand that digital video is an aesthetic choice – that you design the film’s look around what you have to work with instead of forcing it to look like some accepted standard of professionalism and “good photography.”

      I didn’t know that BtW was shot on film. It’s also been over a decade since I’ve seen it. I was thinking more of “The Celebration” anyway, which is just consumer camcorders. Thanks for the correction!

      • BtW was a weird one. If I remember my imdb-trivia correctly, They shot it on film. Edited digitally on files from D1-tapes that came from the film-scans. Then they did a regular negative cut according to the edl…. and LvT preferred the graininess of the D1 transfer. So he instead did a transfer of the D1 tape-out to 35 mm and made that the master.

        Sounds screwy? Well, it is the same guy who filmed Medea with video-cameras. Projected the video-image on a wall, filmed that wall with standard16mm and called that the final grade for airing on television… which of course meant that the video that was transfered to 16mm had to be transferred to video again.

        Simply put. LvT laughs in the face of common sense… when he’s not in one of his depressive bouts of course.

    • Daniel Mimura on 01.3.14 @ 7:33PM

      It’s funny how often Dogme 95 is associated with DV and other video formats…one of the origin rules was that it had to be Academy 35mm. Obviously, that rule went out the window by most people making Dogme films.

  • After I wrote the IndieWire article, I suggested that since most CGI-heavy movies tended to be 3D anyway, perhaps the simplest thing to do would be to give one cinematography Oscar for 2D and one for 3D. It would be like how they do Best Adapted/Best Original Screenplay. In the past, they gave separate awards for color/black & white.

    • I agree completely. At the end of the day, digital heavy and traditional cinematography speak the same language while arriving at it differently, but 3D and 2D are significantly different. The essence of cinematography is bound up in a sequence of images not in a single image. A shot is only significant in mean within the contexts of the shot around it. The job of the parties involved in making the image is to direct the viewers’ eyes from one part of one shot to another in sequence. The use of 3D changes this task considerably. Adding a z axis allows shots to me matched or contrasted based on depth and not on 2D positive/negative space alone. This added axis also renders many of the techniques implemented in 2D to create depth moot, even comical. For these reasons, there are sequences in 3D that don’t work as well or don’t work at all in 2D. In my opinion, Avatar and Life of Pi look a tad silly in 2D; Hugo works both ways for me.

  • Cinematography is fine as it’s about the look of the film but it only being DP’s being awarded it is a bit misleading. Rhythm and Hues were just as responsible if not more so for Life of Pi, The VFX team behind Gravity the same. What we need is a separation of the term especially when it comes to awards something like Cinematography Photography Production for DP’s and Cinematography Composition Production for vfx artists. I wouldn’t say it can be put in as a whole sale change but more of a integration of the new digital tools available that need to be recognised and treated as important.

  • The Life of Pi debacle brings up the number one reason why split categories like this will never work. Most Academy voters are uninformed about highly technical issues like this one, and this will never change. The Oscars are given FAR too much weight considering how arbitrary and political the wins actually are (Best Screenplay has long been a consolation prize for when you don’t win Best Picture, and Editing is often just an award tacked on to the eventual Best Picture winner, instead of these awards truly rewarding their respective crafts).

    The solution is to reframe the Oscars so that they’re not so important to people.

  • DP should not win awards for shooting what are essentially backplates for CG created environments. It is not their work. Why should they win the award? It reminds me of the Cinematography Oscar for Out of Africa, when during the entire Oscar show, great , beautiful, sweeping scenes of Africa exteriors where shown over and over. When DP David Watkin was at the podium accepting the Oscar, he briefly thanked the Academy, then pointed out that the African scenes showing throughout the show were all shot by the 2nd unit DP, Rodrigo Gutierrez (although he did not name him at the time). There you have it.

    • Daniel Mimura on 01.3.14 @ 7:42PM

      They, they get it wrong all the time. Dances with Wolves was another one that was the same sort do thing…wide vistas look good…so Dances won and not Gordon Willis, Phillipe Rousselot, or Vittorio Storaro who also nominated the same year (well, dick Tracy was Storaro’s worst, IMO).

  • In the old days of Hollywood, the Academy made a distinction between the Oscars for Color cinematography vs. B&W.

    CGI is just another visual tool used to manipulate what’s on the screen, and filmmaking from its inception has been about integrating such tools seamlessly for whatever sort of magic is necessary. But 2D vs. 3D is the next evolutionary step of the cinema screen once CGI becomes the norm, as was color picture.

    I strongly believe that 3D cinema can not become properly mainstreamed until there is a modern Oscar distinction between 2D and 3D cinematography. (Avatar, Hugo, and Life of Pi were all exclusively CGI films designed for 3D presentation). If the Oscars were to award both cinematography in 3D and 2D, it would offer the “real” cinematography a chance for proper recognition alongside the 3D CGI spectacles.

  • VinceGortho on 01.1.14 @ 3:25PM

    Can photographers consider themselves artist? A question being thrown around lately.
    Or is it the subject being captured the art and the photographer no more an artist like a DJ is a musician?

  • DP’s are one of the most OVERRATED positions in Hollywood. The great films are made by great directors who collaborate with a DP and the REST OF THE CREW on what he or she wants. The DP is like a subcontractor for the director who determines the overall look and feel of the film. Most great directors have a strong cinematography background themselves, having shot their film school thesis projects and early films themselves. So little praise is given to the other members of the crew, ie gaffers, grips, set designers, etc. My personal experience is that when a director hasn’t a clue, and a film’s look is controlled more by the DP, it tends to be crap.

  • As Gravity made painfully clear, it takes much more than digital filmmaking and snazzy visual effects and motion capture to create a classic movie. First, you must have a great script, a talented director, superb talent, etc. etc. etc. Hollywood has it backassward.

    Gravity and films like it will be relegated to the cobweb filled, musty attic of cinema history while gems like Casablanca, The 400 Blows, Lawrence of Arabia and countless other masterpieces (yes, even commercial pop films like Jaws and E.T.) will be long remembered.

    Special effects movies with little to no story or character development, though great for a quick buck, don’t leave a lasting impression in the movie going audience. Unfortunately, it’s all about the quick buck nowadays.

  • This is a ridiculous argument. Titles allow people to do their jobs, to get the project done. Awards can’t be given for art that is collaborative.

  • shaun wilson on 01.1.14 @ 5:40PM

    I come from the view that cinematography is the visual language of what the audience sees when timed by the editor(s), that is, a part of the emotional conversation between script and camera. So whether this is a physical camera or a virtual camera, I don’t see a difference because the two both use (in different ways) the fundamentals of movement, f stops, focal lengths etc and moreover, visually navigates the audience through the film’s journey from start and end. That’s the job of a DP and whether this is a physical or virtual camera, that job is guided by the same kinds of principles.

  • Giving a cinematography oscar to Life of Pi to Claudio Miranda only was a mistake, mostly because he wasn’t so active during post production as most of the beautiful images were crafted by vfx artists, on the other hand we have Gravity, which was one of the first “post production driven” films to incorporate the DOP throughout the process, in that case they basically changed the gaffers and grip for vfx artists and kept the DOP as the maestro.
    In my opinion in Life of Pi, the best cinematography oscar should have been shared with the VFX supervisor.
    As directors are learning more and more how to deal with post production, meaning how to direct post production artists for best results, cinematographers will have to learn that as well for certain types of production. It’s a different workflow, different languages but in the end the product will earn the results.
    Gravity is a great example for final result but not a good one during production, it was quite painful for everyone involved.

  • It’s funny that one of Lubezki’s most beautiful and purely created films, Tree of Life, lost to the CGI driven cinematography Hugo. Now Lubezki is praised for the same. Chivo’s work is just astonishing.

  • There’s additional blending between camera and post and that’s footage grading and everything that can be considered grading but not editing. As been mentioned earlier with “Oh, brother” and with something like “Saving Private Ryan”, the final “look” itself can be heavily altered in post. And now there’s technology that can create pseudo lighting, blurring/DOF, etc.

  • First and formost. I love your website NFS. Love Love Love this site!. Secondly. I think that this is a good topic, and I hate that digital effects have taken up so much of the screen for so long. honestly Teenage Mutant Ninja turtles was the first film that made me really go “WOW” this is Magic on the screen, over time after that there really weren’t many live action films I think another had good use of make up and costumes Thirteen Ghosts. These are two examples of movies that just sold the illusion well. And Now EVERY-MOVIE has CG in it, and they all do well, Im referring specifically to action movies here, but, unless you have something like 300, or avatar where its REALLY completely made around the CG, and not just thrown in here and there, its really a waste and takes away from the illusion. This is why The Dark Knight Trilogy did so well, its believable, the dark knight is the closest thing we have to live-action today. The Dark Knight Also is a top-movie because of that. I think that CG for the past 10 years has REALLY took away from the cinematic story in general, I just didnt belive it most of the time. With the exceptions of the First matrix, which was mostly live action, or at least tried to get as much as possible in camera, and The Fifth Element. Up until 300, where they used subtle CG on characters and people, and only on backgrounds, its just wasnt believable until avatar, now transformers is so detailed and avengers is REALLY life like looking stuff, its gotten to the point where it makes a statement yes. But WHY NOT MAKE-UP? Why not? Yes The CG Gets better, which makes it more believable, but all in all, if the cinematographer doesn’t manipulate the audience to view and understand the story correctly, with focus and lighting, framing and movement, then the illusion doesn’t exisit, and the story will suffer every-time. I’m just making some general statements here, but I think as a rule of thumb it should be: If the movie is 90 Percent or more CG and the rest is Live Action and Camera Movement and Lighting, then It can work; and If its is 10 Percent CG and The rest of it is all Live Action then I also Agree with this. But If the movie is 50 50 or the movie is 70 30, it gets into some muggy territory. AS the CG improves, Yes we will be more tolerant, Avatar, The Avengers, Thor, and 300 All Prove it can Work, as well as Gravity(which I’ve only seen the previews but it looks amazing). It still comes with a sense of telling a story first when done well but, it should BE Depended on LESS and less, and not more and more in my opinion, the Dark Knight Proves that, but I guess What can you do if you want to tell a story about a 12 foot tall tree fighting bad guys? or a Small Hobbit running around Wizards…. Gotta Deal with the changes as the come, but Why are people even in the movies if they want to use so much CG is the real question.

  • cinematography is cinematography…
    I think too many people have a very poor idea of what actually happens during the making of a film with a large amount of CG (or an all CG feature)…VFX artists DO NOT determine camera angles, lens choices or lighting decisions – these decisions are made by the Director through the Cinematographer/VFX sup/Art Director etc
    the mention of Roger Deakins is an interesting one as he worked as Cinematographer on WALL-E, How To Train Your Dragon, Rango etc – though he was credited as ‘visual consultant’…I was at a talk he gave in 2012 at SIGGRAPH where he talked specifically about how he worked on these kinds of films and it was clear that he made the same kinds of decisions that he would have make on a live action film like The Assassination of Jesse James, the only difference was that it was a lighter (VFX artist) who actually moved the lights into place in the scene.
    Have there been CG features or VFX heavy films that have had little involvement from a cinematographer? sure – but they have suffered for it, believe me. You don’t get very far allowing some 20 year old fresh out of technical school picking your camera angles and lenses or lighting a shot without direction.
    A Cinematographers is responsible for achieving the artistic and technical requirements of an image – how they accomplish this is changing as digital technology becomes more accessible and better able to help them in their work – but the job hasn’t changed. Did Miranda deserve the Oscar for Life of Pi? Given what I’ve heard from people who worked on the film regarding his day to day involvement, probably not. Does Lubezki deserve an Oscar for Gravity? Absolutely yes.

    • I feel so relieved I’m not the only one who got that impression about Miranda and Life of Pi from what they’ve heard/read.

  • Harry Pray IV on 01.2.14 @ 2:05PM

    I hope Gravity wins best cinematography this year. I think it’s time for DP’s to embrace the variety of tools they can make use of to solve more and more impossible-to-film conditions. I believe cinematography will evolve to be part of the post process as well. Gravity was Chivo’s creation visually; he was a larger part of the way the movie looked than I have yet witnessed.

    • I agree. I’m sure (don’t actually know) that the DoP not only worked through the post process, but also almost ripped his head off trying to think of how to actually film it in production in regards to lighting and camera rotation and… blughughuguh

  • If I were to sum up my response to the question posed in the title it would be NO.

    Why? If you read the articles about what Chivo did in Gravity it fits everything that a DP should be doing. Even though his toolset is expanded from the physical tools into the digital one, he was still using the most basic of principles of cinematography (applied in a digital space) to create the amazing footage we saw in Gravity.

    Where I have a problem is where the DP’s role is reduced to “guy who shoots the green-screen” and the decisions about the image are either left up to the post LDs or Director. That was the impression I got from reading about the making of “Life of Pi” (partly leading to my ire at it’s Oscar win, but I digress). I think producers and directors need to understand that Cinematography is both art and science and essentially excluding them from the process because it’s VFX is a wrong move that will compromise your end result.

    That said, I think both Ain’t them Bodies and Gravity are just amazing films and I can’t wait to see the former.

  • Remember when the first TRON got snubbed out of a VFX-oscar because they used computers? (ironically, there’s a suprisingly small amount of CGI in that experiment of a movie)

    And for me it’s ok for a cinematographer to win best cinematography if he’s the one responsible for getting the visuals into its splendid form. Supervising all the elves along the production pipeline. I don’t care if all he did on set was shoot green-screen-plates. If he took the time and effort to mold the imagery to his vision. Then he’s still the cinematographer.

    Also, as one of you pointed out. There should be a distinction between cinematographER and cinematographY. Awarding a single cinematographer runs the risk of not recognizing the right people. Awarding cinematography, on the other hand, is not about any distinct individual and in that sense, even Life of Pi wasn’t as strange a choice as some make it seem. It rewards beatiful movies no matter who was responsible.

    Then there’s the fact that in my book, life of pi looked like a cheap porno in most scenes (with a few stand-out shots that were breathtaking). But that’s me individually and my (lack of) taste.

    • Who gets the award when they call “best cinematography”? The director? What if the DoP carried post?

  • I personally think digital cinema is just an enhancement to cinematography, but if it’s outright CGI, then it’s not to be considered as “cinematography” ’cause that’s 3D graphics like in a videogame (but better). To me, traditional non-computer stuff should be the merits of what a cinematographer is capable of, especially on-location and not green-screened. Just because we have digital cameras now, all that means is we can shoot traditional material cheaper and faster with decent quality.

  • I think colorist should get their own award too. The color on dekins film is amazing.

  • Pierre Samuel Rioux on 01.2.14 @ 8:25PM

    I will be hard but Digital it’s not ready for theater release Hollywood will kill theater if they continue like this.

    The last film i watch in theater was Gravity i like the storytelling and the film in general but i go to see it in a screen of 4K and in 3D for me it’s was the worst film i seen in 3d. I will preferred to see it in 2D this film
    was shot in 3D like he have not planing to using this 3D effect.

    The Artist ( this film ) was film in film in color but they downgrade the film so much in the process… when they have the chance to show us what could be done in film B&W…that is a bad choice, it’s better to watch it at home on a 5 feet screen vs the cinema.Modern time from Chaplin i see it in theater 80′s and look better of this.

    You see the last Che part 1 and 2 this was shot with a Red and i first think it’s was shot on film.It’s possible to shot something in digital good.

    For fun go to Walmart and buy a DVD copy at 5$ of Happy Gilmore watch it at home ( it’s not a big production )
    after go to your favorite video club and rent the Red 2 with Bruce Willis or The Stallone retreat mercenary 2 take a Bl-ray if you like do not matter if the film was shot on film at the end they downgrade so much any film made in the 80′s well scan look better.

    I have 60 and it’s the first time in all the history of film we see a downgrade in the image quality in Theater

  • I look at it this way:
    If I take a photograph of someone, then proceed to cut out the background and then put layer upon layer of drawings and effects over it, enhance the lighting, etc. There is probably a point at which my initial image crosses the line from photograph to graphic art.

    I think there already is a category for films like Hugo, Life of Pi, Avatar, and now Gravity. It is visual fx. And maybe that category needs to be rethought, but to me cinematography has to do with camera, lighting, composition. There are acceptable manipulations like color grading, but there has to be a point where it crosses the line from cinematography to visual fx.

    I will say, a movie like Gravity has pushed me more than any other in rethinking cinematography, but don’t you think there has to be some kind of threshold for what has crossed over from cinematography to visual fx or even animation?

  • “Gravity” is not about stunning Cinematography – in fact, there’s very little in the film. It’s about stunning VFX, and it should win an award for it. But Cinematography it’s not. Cinematography is the art of capturing an image from “real life” – at least part of the image has to come from something that was in front of a camera – in “Gravity” it’s little more than Sandra Bullock’s face – other than that, it’s all VFX – no camera there at all. Or as one commentator (Ryan) suggests – it’s “graphic art”.

    • Isn’t cinematography at least slightly concerned with lighting, composition, character, storytelling? I’m pretty sure Gravity tries to utilize all these facets in it’s vfx. Luzbeki’s fingerprints are all over the vfx, very obviously- he lit it, and composed it, and operated it… he just did so using vfx solutions. So while I see and agree with your point- it’s not “real” cinematography- I’m not sure it’s “not cinematography” either. Bit of a tricky one.

      • If we can’t discriminate one method from the other, then all academies around world, and all film festivals, should include animation and CG films into the “Best Cinematography” category. Don’t you think? As they can make also great atmospheres using contrast, color, saturation, shadow ratios, and all the cinematography concepts we try to achieve with camera and lights in traditional filmmaking… and there are plenty of examples out there.

        I actually can’t say if a distinction must be made from the bosses up there, but there’s a huge value in getting beautiful images with your own hands, knowing the reflectance of the objects, the behavior of light depending on the set conditions, etc. I’m not saying there’s no value on VFX cinematography but… come on… we don’t really want to walk towards the fully digitalized filmmaking, do we?… And to set the paradox, we don’t really want Wall-E’s (amazing CG film with a great “cinematography”) depressive reality on our world, I dare to guess :P

  • emilio murillo on 01.5.14 @ 11:57AM

    once tech chased art now art chases tech, resulting in a change in the imagination as the vision become what can you do with surfaces rather interior drama. fiction moves on

  • Maybe the role should be called Digital Cinematographer.

  • The Art and Science of Motion Picture Photography.

    This is the (current) definition of Cinematography. If the story is created digitally, then it is not, by definition, cinematography. This is “romantic protectionism” of the Art of Storytelling; the ultimate goal of the effort.

    Can we not “just tell the story?” Story, character and plot are set aside for the effects. (?).

    Just because you know all the words doesn’t mean you should use them to tell the story.


  • Are you saying that every movie with color correction isn’t a real movie? How do you draw the distinction? Is it only movies on celluloid cut with razors that count as cinematographed? What’s the purpose of this distinction?

  • Borrowing words from the digital lingo here: Different interface, same art.

    Composition, tone, contrast, colour, movement: These are the real tools. The rest, lights, lenses or computers, are just that, tools.

    Is a visual artist less of an artist because instead of painting, he or she uses, for example, Photoshop?

    Methinks not.

    • I think the question isn’t “is she an artist?” The more proper question is is the photoshop artist a painter? There is a paintbrush tool and you can select different brushes and create very stunning work, but there is nuance between painting with oils, watercolor, etc. on canvas and using a program like photoshop. I remember in the early years of photoshop you would be disqualified from photo contests for using anything but a chemical process on your photo. Now the vast majority of photography is created digitally and at least some photoshop or Lightroom is assumed. I think the difference is when you manipulate the image to the extent that there is nothing from the original image that is similar to the final image. Yes Sandra Bullocks face is impressively lit in very ingenious ways (the LED box blows my mind!) but when you compare what they shot on set to what is revealed in the final image, there is nothing but her face remaining. I wouldn’t say it’s not art. And beautiful art at that. But I do question whether it is cinematography.

  • I was thinking about this yesterday when watching reading about martin Scorsese. I feel like now most “big films” are focused more on digital effects instead of the story. Id say it still cinematography but digital or not, its pointless without a good story

  • I think there should be a separation, am not a fan of computer generated

    Images anyway, I feel it a cheat.

  • Wouldn’t a more effective comparison be The Assassination of Jesse James… and Skyfall? Both created by the same cinematographer, one using practical shots and the other using digital cinematography.

  • There’s a wonderful distinction here but I think it all comes down to telling a story with images and who’s responsible for that. If there is a VFX director who occasionally employs creative control for certain segments, then it would appear it’s not the Academy Awards problem but the way in which these responsibilities had to be delegated in order to come away with a proper manifestation. Awards don’t delineate interior lighting sequences with VFX choreography as sub-cinematography categories because we on the outside still believe there’s an approval system within the chain of command. At some point it’ll be moot because the 70 yr old cinematographers of tomorrow will barely remember a time when computers weren’t involved or responsible for a bulk of their personal decisions. The science will have been integrated. Right now there is a division in cinematic culture but that’s quickly going away (unfortunately with the passing of “analog” masters).