Has the way we think about and appreciate cinematography lost its context?

            Until the mid-1990s, the highest standard was universally recognized as originating on 35mm negative, projected optically on a big screen in a venue that required the viewer’s attendance.  Now, outstanding work can be viewed anywhere and anytime across a variety of high quality, easily accessible platforms – some of them smaller than an index card.  Added to that, we’re overwhelmed with waves of other moving images on those devices, many of them technically superb and aesthetically pleasing.

            There’s a lot of pleasure to be derived from such convenience but this overabundance of competence actually seems to have lowered standards.  In a world where so much is polished and impressive, how do we determine what really counts?  I often become numb to the volume of what passes before me each day, and that’s not a good thing.  Worse, if technology has reached the point where the rankest amateur can effortlessly deliver professional results, where does that leave us?  Context has shifted so that study, experience, dedication and flawless execution – excellence – is on shaky ground.  It has become an era of “anyone can” and unfortunately, too often they do.

            Acknowledged or not, standards still exist.  The automated functions on digital cameras haven’t brought us a new Roger Deakins anymore than the ubiquity of laptops has birthed a new Hemingway.  But what does that matter if most don’t know or care about the differences between layman and expert?

            Because this new context is an imperfect and unfinished one, our chance for continuing relevance lies in the renewal of discernment.  Those of us working at the highest levels need to step back and re-sensitize ourselves to the images we’re looking at as we’re looking at them.  We then need to call them for what they are and not be shy about doing so.  Going along with the crowd so as to avoid conflict or to seem contemporary or cool does no one any good, least of all the young generation that’s maturing in this strange environment.

            I recall having good-natured arguments with older relatives when I was a teenager.  Who was better, Benny Goodman or Jimmy Page?  There’s no real answer to that, though you can imagine which side I was on.  Today I’m much more conciliatory.  Both were enormously gifted, and, regardless of where you stand, there’s no denying that each knew their way around their instruments.

            Those of us who “know our way around our instruments” need to spread the word that good taste is also an important part of this issue.  Though it’s impossible to legislate, there’s always hope that a refinement of such will insure that the best of our images remain on a plain all their own.


14 thoughts on “CONTEXT”

  1. This is not just in your profession. The lowering of standards has been plaguing our society for a long time. In our quest for the lowest cost, mass produced products, especially education of our children, the lowest common denominator has become the result and the by product is mediocrity.

  2. Hey Charles! Yes, this’s true across the board. And we’d be lucky in many cases if the result was just mediocrity. Too often it’s a lot worse than that!

  3. Many years ago I was asked to teach cinematography in New York.
    I’ve been doing it sporadically, depending on my on-set projects, which are my primary focus, but there are few lessons I tell my students:

    1. Cinematography is part art and part science.
    I can teach them the scientific part, but I can’t – and I won’t – teach them the artistic side of the craft. This because I believe everyone posses his/her own weltanschauung and it’s not my job to tell anyone how to see the world. I have my view and I want my students to find their own voice. You can read, watch and study other masters like I did, but in the end it’s only what you feel that will resonate with the audience. Technology can make a camera so simple and automatized that an untrained monkey can figure out it needs to push the red button to record and the camera will do the rest, but after that, where is personal taste? The unique style? The visionary look no one else does? All this cannot be achieved with any technology and even the A.I. will always choose the most logical way to create something, but art is not logical, it doesn’t come from the brain. Art comes from the heart, from the guts, from the butterflies in the belly and the nightmares during a high fever that make you dream of killing robots from the future (yes, James Cameron, I’m looking at you). No technology would ever replace art, this is why we are overwhelmed by quantity, but we are still looking for quality. Because any untrained monkey can learn to push the red button.

    2. Technology makes you cocky and arrogance is set to fail.
    I learned cinematography on film cameras, but I was excited when the first P2 cameras came out, with the ability to shoot Full HD. At that time, you were still applying the film camera protocol in order to achieve the best results. The cameras were also still expensive and not completely reliable; I was shooting film any time I could. When the first DSLRs able to shoot 1080p appeared, it became clear that affordability was going to create an infinite number of “cinematographers” that could pay 3 grands for a Mark II. I’ve seen shooters changing the shutter value to increase or decrease the exposure; my blood boiled and my skin cringed. Cockiness is thinking to be a cinematographer just because you are putting something on the screen, but technology is doing most of the job and technology, also, is getting arrogant nowadays. Too many wannabe shooters rely on a screen to approve the exposure, they use tools in post to change the focus points and record in 8K so they can frame in post… but the monitor has its own brightness and it’s deceiving, the ISO can be changed and drift away from the native one giving you unwanted noise and most of these people can’t even read a histogram. I still tell my students they must use the light meter to understand the proper exposure, they still need to measure the distance from the subject, set the marks and read the values on the lens to get the proper focus, they can’t rely on a higher resolution when they cannot achieve a higher standard. Buying a Ferrari doesn’t make you a driver.

    3. In a world of blind men, the Cyclops is a king and who uses both eyes is a god.
    If everyone can shoot anything because it’s so easy to fix in post, then everyone is a herd. It takes someone that is able to create something more than a simple button-pushing action. That person will stands out and while everyone else will still shoot videos for social media, that person will work on something bigger, better and more satisfying. I love being a cinematographer because I work in a field where I never do the same job. Recording social media videos or podcasts will never fulfill your thirst for beauty, your hunger for art and your desire to achieve a higher ground. Blind people let algorithms do the job for them, Cyclopses use the tools to shape the light and the image according to the principles of the emotion and the aesthetic, gods are those who will be remembered and studied for generations to come. It all depends who you want to be.

    4. There is “fixing in post” and this doesn’t need explanation.

  4. When technical polish and excellence becomes commonplace, then emotional and intellectual content become even more important when assigning value to one work over another. I certainly don’t see a lot of mediocrity on a purely technical level these days but it seems that images that have heart and emotional weight or contain original ideas are just as rare as they’ve ever been… the bottom is lifted to the middle but the top remains as elusive as ever.
    Today I think one problem is that we are flooded with images from present and past, and everything is consumed without any historical context, it all becomes visual wallpaper.

  5. Richard – I agree; artistry separates the mundane from the sublime. Expertise is the knowledge and technique that enables the practice of artistry. I appreciate your commitment and success of both.

  6. Have read this a few times and the very good comments. I am in the camp that the “excellence” that Richard describes ultimately always matters and always has. Technological change has been a critical component of the art of filmmaking And cinematography since the beginning. Even in the analog world the quality of film and cameras and lighting continued to improve. But , the artists who could compose a unique shot and assemble and motivate a dedicated crew with a shared vision stood out and still do. ( Page? me thinks Hendrix or Clapton, however)

  7. If the essence of cinematography is lighting….possibly, the biggest destroyer of that premise is the ISO wheel on the camera. At least, that’s what I tell my students…….

  8. Thank you for putting this out there Richard. It truly resonates. Being in a sort of hyper-niche of cinematography (in-camera effects), I am fascinated and heartened buy how many graphics and VFX designers seek to bring cinematographers into the mix. They could easily decide to make everything on “the box” with the latest algorithmic plug-in. It seems that the really good creators out there are facing the same challenges and looking to cut through with images that connect. Back to craft and a human touch as an antidote to so much automated imitation.

  9. Ken – you are so right. Whenever I deal with students it seems half my efforts are spent breaking their bad habits!

  10. This is something we have talked about a lot on CML discussions.
    It’s kinda like learning a language, you can master a phrase book pretty quickly but a full understanding of a language takes a long time.
    Technology is helping young cinematographers to master the phrase book of visual language quickly, True mastery takes time.
    There’s a lot of use of techniques that are meant for emphasis or punctuation for en entire project.
    This is the visual equivalent of writing everything in caps or italic.

  11. There’s a lot to be said for the ease with which we can experiment and see results quickly. But not everyone is capable of understanding how to recognize a “box” and when and how to think outside same. All my mentors made it quite clear it is essential to learn from the past in order to implement tools old and new. Observe, Compare and Remember.

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