Do You Serve the Technology or Does the Technology Serve You?
In this age of democratized cinema, where practically anyone can make a movie, are we in danger of becoming more interested in the cameras than we are in the stories they tell?
Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece satire, Barry Lyndon (1975), is a feat of both artistic and technical value. The movie is about a young Irishman’s rise to power in 18th Century England after taking the position of his wife’s late husband. Barry Lyndon is a sweeping story that covers his youth, a war, a duel, a courtship, a divorce, and even an eventual death. But (as with all of Kubrick’s films) the camera seems to know the story better than anyone.
The film is shot with as little artificial lighting as possible, while maintaining a detailed and soft palate, an homage to the landscape and portraiture from that era (In one memorable scene, the cocky Lyndon is seen at a candlelit party playing games with a group of aristocracy. The scene is only lit by candlelight, because Kubrick wanted the seductive light to make Lyndon seem irresistible to the Countess Lyndon across the room. To do this, production sought the help of Carl Zeiss optics to use their lowlight lenses that were, at the time, being used by NASA. They ended up using a 50mm f0.7 lens with a Kollmorgen adaptor to respond to the candles better and shot the scene wide open.
A landmark moment in film history, but one that came out of the necessity of the story, as the film’s script called for this scene’s deliberate use of practical light. Kubrick’s tenacity as a filmmaker pushed the medium to a place it had never gone before, and in so made a big statement about the role of technology in the world of art.
Since the dawn of early photography, we have questioned the camera’s purpose in the world, as a tool for documentation, or a paintbrush. We are now seeing more and more confusion between the quality of the image and the quality of the films themselves. Many movies are made each year, and although quality is a relative term, we are seeing a large incline in quantity and a slow decline in quality. One major example of this is the world of commercials, where we see more and more filmmakers who adopt skills meant for commercial short form storytelling, where dynamic imagery is replaced by literal imagery and more interest is placed on how something looks verses any depth to be had. Granted, a commercial isn’t meant to change your life, only your wallet, but this still does have an effect on the filmmakers and their narrative works, such as the influence Orville Redenbacher had on David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Fincher spent his time doing popcorn commercials in order to master the techniques used in Button to make Brad Pitt look old and young, too bad the script was neglected until last minute).
Take, for instance, Avatar, a film lauded by many as a technological steppingstone, “the first true 3D film,” and a bonafide blockbuster. James Cameron’s sci-fi fantasy (based on a concept he claims to have first thought of in high school) garnered a whopping 84% on rottentomatoes and has made over 2 billion dollars in revenue. But for all it’s accolades as a product, nearly every review has noted that the film primarily succeeds on a technical level, applauding Cameron’s “visionary” use of 3-D and photo-realistic CG, while admitting its flaws in storytelling and performance. Now to a cinematographer the script may seem secondary, but we have to keep in mind that a narrative film’s main purpose is to tell a story. Some may argue that the main purpose of film is to entertain, but, although entertainment does factor in, one can only be entertained by something one can digest, and that’s where a story, and a screenplay comes into effect. If it were cinema’s sole purpose to entertain, then we would see two-hour Youtube clips of kittens on display at the Ziegfield on 34th. The place for “empty” entertainment as it could be called is on forums like YouTube. For a feature film, it is the primary goal to tell a story and illicit a form of catharsis, entertainment is simply a methodology, a means to an end.
Films like Avatar recognize their weaknesses and place all marketing strategies on the aspects they are most confident in, and in Avatar’s case, that was the 3-D technology. After viewing the movie in theatre (an IMAX 3-D screening, no less), I found myself frustrated with the bar to which we now seem to hold our movies. Avatar looked fine, not great in my opinion, and it wasn’t because of the special effects. Because, as special as the effects were, and as epic as the score was, and as advanced as the 3-D experience seemed to be, I didn’t care about anything onscreen. The plot was too thin, the dialogue unfelt, and the story, well it has gone on to be noted that the story was “intentionally traditional”. But, if Avatar were a book (which, apparently it will be, it would be pretty lame. It appeared (and was later proved) to me that Cameron’s intent with Avatar was to create a “new world,” and inhabit it with never-before-seen creatures and provide audiences with an experience truly extraterrestrial. However, in the decades between its conception and the final shooting script, Cameron seemed more interested in developing new camera technology for 3-D motion capture technology than in creating a better, more original story to match this original technology.
This isn’t a rant of any kind against entertainment and high-concept cinema, of which I am quite a fan, instead this is a genuine worry of mine, that films like this will go on to make other aspiring filmmakers forget about telling original stories and focus more on how – dare I say – cool the movies look.
Steven Soderbergh is most synonymous with Erin Brockavich, Traffic, and Ocean’s Series and has made a name for himself critically and commercially with both big budget capers and intimate art-house dramas such as The Girlfriend Experience and Bubble. However Peter Andrews is a lesser-known part of Soderbergh’s team. That is because they are the same person. Peter Andrews is Soderbergh’s alias as a Director of Photography, and Peter Andrews has gone on to have an illustrious career shooting on a variety of formats, from 35mm to the very first model RED ONE camera. And it’s in this regard that an artist can use the camera to tell a story, all the while making the technology work for him or her (not the other way around).
Soderbergh was initially in contract with HDNET, a small HD camera company, to shoot three independent features on their cameras, using non-actors and a different screenwriter for each film. His collaboration with HDNET was done solely out of his growing interest in the advancements of digital cinema, as he saw digital as a way to tell more stories in a faster manner. He shot the cult film Bubble, about three factory workers and their collision course through the span of a month, as the first of the three, implementing non-actors in the main roles and working off a script from a first-time writer Coleman Hough.
The project was an experiment that helped Soderbergh to better understand the medium and use it for further projects, such as the epic two-part Che Guevara biopic, CHE. The film, split into two segments based on his fight in Cuba and Bolivia, and the first film shot on the REDONE camera, was lauded with critical acclaim for its brave attempt to isolate one of history’s most complicated lives into 2 hours (It ended up over 4).
At the time of principal photography, the camera had yet to even be field tested, and a prototype was brought on set for the first day. Immediately the camera proved a problem, and, at Soderbergh’s insistence, the RED team was flown over to Spain (subbing for Cuba) and began extensive repairs on some of the design flaws of the camera. One major flaw was the camera’s drop-frame problem (an issue exhibited in Canon HDSLR cameras), as well as its inability to support time-code. All of this was an easy cookie for Soderbergh, who gathered the RED team onset and had all of the kinks in the camera repaired on set as the story unfolded. Soderbergh’s deliberate goal was to make a film that was as innovative and revolutionary as Che himself, a revolutionary camera for a revolutionary man. He chose as well to even dirty the RED’s image by using anamorphic lenses that could soften the digital sharpness, keeping the film within a guise of history. The RED team even went on to cite the experience as the “first real field test” of the camera system. As opposed to Cameron, whose main focus was on pushing the camera and special effects departments to create psychedelic images, Soderbergh was interested in what the camera could bring to the story, that shooting digital, shooting fast, keeping things guerrilla, was what would make Che work as a film. The technology was applied to the film, not the film to the technology.
But what does all this amount to? Is it right for one to say that we have gotten too obsessed with the quality of the cameras that we have left behind the storytelling purpose of film? What about the HDSLR phenomenon? Is it too soon to say that the camera has been both the boon and albatross of independent cinema? Too soon to say. It is that we are becoming more and more enamored with the technology for it’s own sake? Many movies today carry the HD badge on them (I have been on my own share of sets witnessing more and more crew and cast interested in the camera than in what’s happening in front of it), but a nascar race isn’t ultimately valued based on the cars in the race, but on the race itself. The car is a tool, part of a larger piece. And this raises a good point, we need to focus on the resulting film and not the process, and remember that as much as we may geek out over the slick new chassis or lens, that its only a means to an end. I think it will be and is ultimately up to the artists to continue to forge ahead with their films, and try to make the new technology bend at their will, for the sake of the story and visual dialogue. But then again isn’t the saying, “its not the camera, it’s the photographer.”
It is within my means and my brawn to do what I hope will be the goal of filmmakers like myself, to create stories that are strong enough to be shot with a cell phone and still hold up, films that do not need to hold on to the camera bodies they are tethered to. Maybe we can begin to do what Kubrick and Soderbergh implemented, by giving the technology back to the artisans at hand and letting the creativity flow on set and not in the lab.
With all this talk of new high-res RAW compressions, 20k and beyond, and with the new slew of HDSLRs that carry a whole new world of pros and cons, its in the hands of the artists holding the camera to decide who’s the boss on set, and to create films that exists on their own terms, and with their own unique stories to tell.