Cinematography has undergone quite a change in the past decade. Not only has digital technology finally supplanted celluloid as the preferred capture medium of most Hollywood cinematographers, but computer generated imaging has become interchangeable with traditional cinematography, as is evident by the trend of CGI-heavy films winning the Best Cinematography award at the Oscars. As much as this issue has been talked about by bloggers and other internet dwellers, we had yet to hear the industry weigh in on the debate. Until now, that is. Richard Crudo, the current president of the American Society of Cinematographers, recently wrote a short piece that appears in this month's issue of American Cinematographer in which he shares some insightful and timely thoughts on the traditional vs. hybrid cinematography debate.
Having written extensively about this debate multiple times, I'll just summarize it quickly before getting to Crudo's comments. In one sense, it’s an entirely technical matter. Films like Gravity and Nebraska (both nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography) were created in two vastly different ways, and therefore it isn’t prudent to judge their images by the same standards. On the other hand, 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. In the end, it’s about utilizing the tools of cinematography, which are constantly changing with technology, in order to tell the story.
Here are the trailers for those two films, just in case I haven't shared them enough already.
And here are a few profound excerpts from Crudo's statement.
Every awards season, the ASC is swarmed by people from all segments of the industry who want to know when the Society will create a new awards category to recognize hybrids, motion pictures that feature a prominent mix of live-action photography and CGI. We currently have a committee hard at work on deconstructing the issue, but I have set them to this task with a great sense of unease. They are some of the best people in the world at what they do, and still I wonder whether the rules they might develop to judge such an award will stand up to honest scrutiny.
And even if we could differentiate the real from the virtual, what sort of ratio should determine which projects fall into this new awards category? 70-30? 60-40? 50 1/2-49 1/2? Once again, it’s an impossible call.
This is the primary problem with trying to differentiate between traditional and hybrid cinematography. Even though it seems prudent to separate the two since they're two vastly different technical processes, the criteria to determine which films would fall into which category are inherently arbitrary. There needs to be some kind of definitive line of demarcation, which would not only involve determining each individual film's ratio of CGI to conventional photography (which is no easy task), but it would involve determining what the base ratio would have to be for a film to be considered a hybrid.
Since almost all films these days are a combination of traditional photography and digital compositing of some sort (even the films that appear to be completely clean of digital effects), trying to accurately distinguish between the two could cause some serious issues.
Crudo went on to talk about how Emmanuel Lubezki's work on Gravity should serve as a model for all cinematographers in the future:
Though [Gravity] marked an intense collaboration among a variety of creative minds and employed a wave of innovative technology, there is no question that Lubezki’s hand shaped every frame of the movie, regardless of whether the material was originated traditionally or through CGI. This notion -- that a single pair of eyes governs the overall look -- is the only one that makes sense.
As much as I've said that organizations like the ASC and the Academy need to differentiate between traditional and hybrid cinematography, the reality of the inherent problems with trying to separate them is beginning to set in. Unfortunately, it seems as if there's no viable and fair way to demarcate traditional cinematography and computer generated cinematography. But that's okay. Ultimately, we need to view computer and compositing technology as another tool in our bag.
What do you guys think about this issue? Is Crudo correct in his fears that a system to differentiate between traditional and hybrid cinematography would be inherently arbitrary? If not, can you think of a fair and balanced way to separate the two? Let us know down in the comments!