On a recent morning I caught pieces of Casablanca in Blu-ray format on a 65” television. A few hours later I sat in a screening room and saw an optically projected 35mm print of some film I’d shot a few days earlier. Over lunch I was shown a sequence from Lawrence of Arabia on a friend’s mobile phone, which gave way to scenes from an episode of the Showtime series Billions on the same person’s iPad. That night, I attended the demo of a new technology at the Imax headquarters in Playa Del Ray. The large-format, digitally created material was laser-projected onto a screen 60’ wide and 40’ high in – 3D.
Clearly, the local fleapit is no longer the only place to go for a meaningful viewing experience, but that’s been true since television began its march toward ubiquity 70 years ago. Tell the truth: does anyone really regret the passing of that single-option tyranny?
When everyone can watch whatever they want whenever and wherever they like, it can’t help but have an effect on the way cinematographers approach what they do. Most of us have made our peace with this, and not a moment too soon. This multitude of viewing platforms is the reality of today’s world. And rather than ignore that, we need to influence the ways in which it will evolve.
The first step would be to stop thinking about cinema as something rooted in a large, dark room full of people. If you’re not sure about that, talk to any young person. They don’t care! To them, the term cinema implies decrepitude. Modern audiences exist anywhere and everywhere. Since they ultimately determine what we do, old thinking must be put aside. We need to accept that the gradations between Imax and iPhone are all equally important.
It would also be good to change tack on our craft’s history. For two decades we’ve rarely had the chance to live with new technologies long enough to truly understand them, to make them our own. This’s what makes people believe things were better in the past. While legacy is important, clinging to it is destructive. We also need to stop classifying things as good or bad, because there’s an audience for everything. Whatever we create will find a niche, and just an awareness of the past is often enough to keep one’s work honest and effective.
Digital technology has reduced the distance between artist and audience. Never was this made more apparent than when I sat on a panel with Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC at the 2015 Camerimage International Film Festival in Bydgoszcz, Poland. At one point I floated the notion that it would be “immoral” to watch his work in Apocalypse Now – a big-screen masterpieces if there ever was one – on an iPhone. The coarse reaction by the youthful audience was staggering – and correct. I changed my mind on the spot. Looking back, I can’t believe I ever held a different point of view.
In 2021 and beyond, intent is all that matters – and that strengthens our position. Instead of one canvas controlled by a small group, there are many canvases that can be controlled by anyone. And they’re not united by technology – they’re united by our creative spark.
If cinematographers ever enjoyed the equivalent of Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment, that’s over. We’re now living in something more chaotic yet of much greater interest: the constant moment.