The Future Was Yesterday! Let Today Be A New Beginning.

Article by Director of Photography Yuri Neyman, ASC, Creator & Founder of G.C.I.

“Apple, iPhone, and Expanded Cinematography”

“Tangerine” Dir: Sean Baker DP: Sean Baker & Radium Cheung

“Tangerine” Dir: Sean Baker DP: Sean Baker & Radium Cheung

G.C.I. Guest Teacher Sean Baker on stage during Apple Keynote

G.C.I. Guest Teacher Sean Baker on stage during Apple Keynote

Sean Baker holding iPhone

Sean Baker holding iPhone

 

“Never forget that all the great photographs in history were made with more primitive camera equipment than you currently own.” -Brooks Jensen

no matter if it is an Imax camera or an iPhone, the cinematographer must always remember to illustrate using his creative eye and visual artistry. So let the artistic vision lead the way and use whatever means necessary.

Just a week ago "Tangerine" director Sean Baker, GCI’s Guest Teacher, demoed features of the new iPhone during its iPhone 11 Pro media Apple keynote event – we were not surprised!

It sounds like a rather trivial phrase these days  - “the future is right here, right now …”, but the brisk pace of technological and cultural change means that the future reaches the present much faster than we ever previously imagined it could. But today the future is not only rolling towards us; we are beginning to overpass it.

In the October 2011 issue of the Gamma and Density Co. Journal, which we devoted to the “Future of Cinematography”, we published an article about the first ever feature film “Night Fishing” shot entirely on the iPhone 4 by well-known Korean directors Park Chan-Wook and Park Chan-Kyong and DP Ju Sung-Lim.

 
"Night Fishing" Dir: Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyong DP: Ju Sung-Lim - Shot on the iPhone 4

"Night Fishing" Dir: Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyong DP: Ju Sung-Lim - Shot on the iPhone 4

"Night Fishing" Dir: Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyong DP: Ju Sung-Lim - Shot on the iPhone 4

"Night Fishing" Dir: Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyong DP: Ju Sung-Lim - Shot on the iPhone 4

 

And then almost a year before Global Cinematography Institute began, we stated that phones will be one of the latest digital cameras used by cinematographers on set.

We wrote, “The Industry has seen new possibilities through digital cameras and post production applications for a long time, but now high-definition cameras really are in your hand!” And they will only become more and more capable.

A year later in 2012 iPhone cinematography became a part of our Expanded Cinematography® Curriculum. Global Cinematography Institute is not limiting teaching to only traditional cinematography, but expanding our cutting-edge knowledge and education to all current and future methods and technologies in Modern Image Building and Creation.

The goal of the Global Cinematography Institute is to "prepare filmmakers to take advantage of on-going advances in digital and virtual cinematography technologies. The Institute provides a forum where new and experienced filmmakers from all sectors of the industry can learn about the past, present and future of the art and craft of cinematography, including digital and virtual cameras and lighting.

 
“Tangerine” Dir: Sean Baker DP: Sean Baker & Radium Cheung

“Tangerine” Dir: Sean Baker DP: Sean Baker & Radium Cheung

“Tangerine” Dir: Sean Baker DP: Sean Baker & Radium Cheung

“Tangerine” Dir: Sean Baker DP: Sean Baker & Radium Cheung

 

For those who expressed shock then and now, that someone was seriously predicting and writing that “more and more people will begin to use their mobile phones as their video camera,” Sean Baker’s appearance in last week’s Apple keynote proves the point.

One of the most visually striking components of the film Tangerine is its look, which is artistically grainy yet also highly saturated; creating a sense of tension within the images like the best samples visually expressive cinematography. Though it may not be apparent upon first glance, Baker and Director of Photography Radium Cheung actually shot the film on iPhone 5S.

Sean Baker explained: We realized it could be good for shooting with first-time actors because it wouldn’t intimidate them and the extras that we were grabbing off the street. It allowed us to shoot clandestinely. We were able to have a very small footprint. But I wanted to still make this film extremely cinematic, so we shot with anamorphic lenses.”

But the first feature film shot in iPhone was the world-known South Korean director Park Chan-Wook (Winner of the Cannes Jury Prizes for "Thirst" (2009) and "Oldboy" (2004)), with his co-director brother Park Chan-Kyong, and cinematographer Ju Sung-Lim, did just this!

 
“Tangerine” Dir: Sean Baker DP: Sean Baker & Radium Cheung

“Tangerine” Dir: Sean Baker DP: Sean Baker & Radium Cheung

“Tangerine” Dir: Sean Baker DP: Sean Baker & Radium Cheung

“Tangerine” Dir: Sean Baker DP: Sean Baker & Radium Cheung

 

Together they creatively enlarged the filmmaking horizon via the use of an iPhone 4 on their short film “Night Fishing” – reiterating once again, the eternal axiom, “Size Is Not Everything.” This film, the first shot entirely on an iPhone 4, took home the Golden Bear at the 61st Berlin International Film Festival.

A Park Chan-Wook film is always a major event, and it sounds like this is no exception. The blogger, David Ehrlich, wrote: “Park Chan-Wook isn't exactly known for doing things the small way -- 'Oldboy,' 'Thirst,' and the other films for which the Korean auteur is known, are all brashly cinematic Grand Guignols, larger than life sagas flecked with opera, dizzying camera movements, and oceans of blood. We'd sooner have guessed that his next film would be shot on 70mm than an iPhone 4, but we would have been very, very wrong.”

 
IPhone being used on set of “Night Fishing”

IPhone being used on set of “Night Fishing”

Director Park Chan-wook using iPhone on set

Director Park Chan-wook using iPhone on set

 

In one interview, Park Park Chan-Wook said: “Movies that I directed before were meticulously planned ahead and shot just as pictured. Compared to that, shooting this film felt free…”

However, he also said “the medium would not outweigh the message,” and that, “making a film with a smart phone might generate more interest at the moment, but as time goes by, stories and actors on screen will be seen as more important.”  He claimed that they “went through all the same film-making processes except that the camera was small.”

This unexpected use of mobile technology points us to the rapid changes in the visual culture of cinematography; it highlights the issues of culture change in both producing and viewing films and images. Aesthetics of images have changed too. The image quality of “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Black Narcissus,” “Days of Heaven,” and other films so many of us admire, are being re-examined by many young and talented cinematographers and directors in search of new, contemporary ways of expressing their vision.

 
“Lawrence of Arabia” Dir: David Lean DP: Freddie Young, BSC

“Lawrence of Arabia” Dir: David Lean DP: Freddie Young, BSC

“Days of Heaven” Dir: Terrence Malick DP: Néstor Almendros, ASC

“Days of Heaven” Dir: Terrence Malick DP: Néstor Almendros, ASC

“Black Narcissus” Dir: Powell and Pressburger DP: Jack Cardiff, BSC

“Black Narcissus” Dir: Powell and Pressburger DP: Jack Cardiff, BSC

 

All was simple in the last millennium - cinematographer selected the composition of the frame, exposed the film according to the light-meter, checked printing lights during the dailies, worked with colorist on Hazeltine (an “ancient” film-based color correction machine) in the preparation for the first answer print, and undoubtedly and unquestionably Director of Photography was in charge of imagery.

Then cinematography and Imagery were synonyms. Rarely if ever anybody would dare to usurp cinematographer's prerogative to be the main contributor to the artistic and technical quality of the images. One of the most public and daring attempt was registered in 1935 at the Venice Film Festival when the legendary director Joseph von Sternberg received Best Cinematography Award along with DP Lucien Ballard, ASC, whom von Sternberg attempted to exclude even from the nomination.

Time moved forward and things changed in the new millennium. For cinematography the “new millennium” started earlier, in 1977 when “Star Wars” (1977) created a new cultural and technological phenomenon, and changed forever the traditional roles and interplay between the Director (Lucas), DP (Gilbert) and SFX/VFX Team (100+).

Then three decades forward in 2009 – “Avatar”

 
“Star Wars: A New Hope” Dir: George Lucas DP: Gilbert Taylor, BSC

“Star Wars: A New Hope” Dir: George Lucas DP: Gilbert Taylor, BSC

“Avatar” Dir: James Cameron DP: Mauro Fiore

“Avatar” Dir: James Cameron DP: Mauro Fiore

 

After “Avatar” the industry embraces a non-linear / real-time pipeline for production.  “Assembly line” phases are replaced with the mentality that what happens in any stage of production can directly affect prior or subsequent stages of production.

As a result of this, new artistic and technical trends developed.

What makes today’s situation even more confusing that ‘traditional” cinematography is existing today in parallel with “expanded cinematography” and dividing lines between areas of responsibilities and the influence on the final result become very blurred and often controversial.

Images which are more complex, which are often loaded with variety of multifaceted pictorial and literary connotations produced not only as the result of the tools of the traditional cinematography, but as a result of the efforts of the whole new, sometime autonomous “subdivision” of cinematography - what we call here at G.C.I. -- “Expanded Cinematography” - the combination of live and virtual cinematography which dominates the visual landscape of today’s image making in motion pictures, TV and Web programming and video games

The term “Art and Craft of Cinematography” is used often – but again – lines of division between Art and Craft are quite indistinct also. The importance of sorting all these things out became even more important now when the profession as we know it is on the crossroad. Many traditional tools of image creation have become less and less important and many traditional skills of cinematographers have become much less necessary due to the obvious progress of technologies and changes in cultural and technological environments.

 
Steven Soderbergh using iPhone on the set of “Unsane”

Steven Soderbergh using iPhone on the set of “Unsane”

“Unsane” Dir: Steven Soderbergh DP: Steven Soderbergh

“Unsane” Dir: Steven Soderbergh DP: Steven Soderbergh

 

How do we preserve cinematography as an art in the era of seemingly limitless possibilities and limitless tools – both virtual and otherwise? Will we be replaced in not too distant future by some computer, who can much faster than any DP calculate lighting levels, color rendition depth of field, to set lights, choose the visual style and composition?

What way do we have to go? How can we avoid fate of dinosaurs and not only survive but also overcome this new brave world?

The answer is trivial, but there is the only one – to re-educate and retrain ourselves creatively, to learn how to evaluate what we are doing - less from the technical point of view, but mainly from a creative one.

We live in a very competitive market place, where often times new vision and visual ideas take superiority over proven and more traditional approaches and experiences. In many areas of the industry, retraining and upgrading one’s skill is extremely valuable and sometimes the only option to stay in the competition.

The industry does a lot to upgrade the technical skill of cinematographers, but isn't it time to give the cinematographer profession new artistic tools?

For many years, cinematographers’ contribution to film and film language was overlooked. Neglect of cinematographers is due to lack of understanding how cinematography works and what it specifically contributes to a film, beside the mention of the “beautiful landscapes” and “handsome portraits.”

 
“Unsane” Dir: Steven Soderbergh DP: Steven Soderbergh

“Unsane” Dir: Steven Soderbergh DP: Steven Soderbergh

“Unsane” Dir: Steven Soderbergh DP: Steven Soderbergh

“Unsane” Dir: Steven Soderbergh DP: Steven Soderbergh

“High Flying Bird” Dir: Steven Soderbergh DP: Steven Soderbergh

“High Flying Bird” Dir: Steven Soderbergh DP: Steven Soderbergh

 

There are almost un-chartered, murky and dangerous waters of the “artistic” side of our profession. While many books are written about cinematography, very few deal specifically with artistic topics. Authors have been seemingly forced to describe cinematography at worst in the terms of content and plot, and at best in terms borrowed from traditional visual art and painting. The most essential part of cinematography, the visual communication in time was completely neglected. And this is not surprise, if we will start to look at cinematography as a genre and very specific form of art, but still - as art!

It is important to note that cinematography does not belong to any kind of “traditional” artistic and aesthetic activities.  Neither camera movement, lighting, optical prospective, color, contrast or any other specific letters of the cinematographers’ visual language can exist by itself, but only in conjunction with a script or idea which the cinematographer can “illustrate”.

Very often we hear that cinematographers are storytellers, but cinematographers are not telling the story. Cinematographers are instead visualizing a written story. They visualize it in the same way an artist illustrates a novel, and the degree of the artistry and originality is the yardstick of cinematographer’s (and any other illustrators) success or failure.

Let’s look at Gustave Dore, one of greatest artists, he illustrated “The Divine Comedy”, “Don Quixote”, “Beauty and the Beast” and many others  -- but he is not telling or creating the story, he is illustrating a plot! And it is what exactly cinematographer does from aesthetical point of view, he just using a different specific artistic tools such as tone, contrast and color values and intensities lightness and darkness, space and the movement in it via speed, framing and composition, etc.

So no matter if it is an Imax camera or an iPhone, the cinematographer must always remember to illustrate using his creative eye and visual artistry. So let the artistic vision lead the way and use whatever means necessary, because as Brooks Jensen said…

“Never forget that all the great photographs in history were made with more primitive camera equipment than you currently own.”

 
 
Alex Cook