Cinematographers have been called many things over the years, but prognosticator is probably not on the list. Nevertheless, Leon Shamroy – a legendary ASC member if there ever was one – certainly qualified as a predictor of the future. Based on what he said in the October 1947 issue of American Cinematographer, it’s amazing that someone could’ve been so prescient so early in the game.
“Not too far off is the ‘electronic camera,’ he said. “A compact, lightweight box, no larger than a Brownie Kodak, will contain a highly sensitive pickup tube, 100 times faster than present-day film. A single-lens system adjusting to any focal length smoothly by turning a knob will replace the cumbersome interchangeable lenses of today. The camera will be linked to the film recorder by coaxial cable or radio. Electronic monitor screens connected into the system will make it possible to view the scene as it is being recorded. Control of contrast and color will be possible before development.”
Somewhere, Shamroy has to be smiling; we have far exceeded what in his time could only have been thought of as a fever dream. But what has the related onslaught of new technologies brought us? Has it revealed a better form of narrative? Has it enabled a more profound insight to the human condition? Some would say that it has it removed barriers to story telling. That’s only partially true. And while it has provided cinematographers with a dazzling new selection of creative choices, it certainly hasn’t made things simpler.
What makes this worth noting was something expressed by another of the ASC’s eternal elite: William A. Fraker. His statement was equally bold and came in the early 2000’s, just as Shamroy’s tsunami was reaching land.
“Regardless of any new technologies or what might happen in the future, cinematographers have always found ways to adapt and to get the best out of whatever equipment they’re using. What’s most important is that you get the image you want onto the screen so other people can share it. The tools only allow you to get your feelings up there. So, in essence, it’s really the artistry that matters.”
Throughout the history of movies there have been innumerable moments in which the thoughtful, refined practice of our craft has resulted in artful images. The fact that they’ve made such a lasting impression on the culture indicates something important: the technology may be interchangeable but the people aren’t. The classic example of a hundred cinematographers tasked with shooting the same scene will always hold true. You’ll get a hundred different results – and they’ll all be correct. When audiences prefer one version over another, the theory is confirmed. Their choice isn’t based on the type of emulsion or sensor the cinematographers used; it’s based on the cinematographer’s taste and choices in how their tools were applied.
The cinematographer is an artist-scientist (emphasis, of course, on the artist). Our real job is to get inside the head of the director so as to deliver their vision of a story in concrete terms. How we approach that is influenced by many things, but at its heart the process calls us to express ourselves in intimate, highly personal terms.
That was true at the time of Shamroy’s prophecy some 73 years ago. I trust it will hold true for as long as motion pictures exist, whatever their form.