I posted this yesterday on Facebook; I am placing it here in a slightly revised & expanded version.
In the Oscars the other night, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity won most of what I would call the film-formalism awards: not only best direction, but also editing, sound editing, sound mixing, cinematography, and visual effects. (It also won for best score). The director Joseph Kahn responded to this on Twitter: “27th year in a row best cinematography goes to a completely CGI film.” One may recall — as Sheela Cheong reminded me via Facebook — that a year ago, the great cinematographer Christopher Doyle similarly ranted against the cinenmatography Oscar’s going to the CGI-dominated Life of Pi: “Life of Pi Oscar is an Insult to Cinematography”. The meaning of cinematography is, at the very least, up for grabs now that so much of what was done with the camera can be instead simulated computationally.
27 years is of course an exaggeration. But what Kahn noted has been pretty much the case for five years, at least. Looking back at the records, I found that, ever since 2009, the the Cinematography and Visual Effects Oscars have both gone to the same film: Avatar (2009), Inception (2010), Hugo (2011), Life of Pi (2012), and Gravity (2013). This is significant, because in the case of all these films, there is such extensive use of CGI, and so much of them were shot in front of blue screens, that it is questionable (as Doyle and Kahn both suggest) whether they really are using what used to be known as “cinematography” at all.
Now, I really do love traditional cinematography, such as has been provided by Chris Doyle for Wong Kar-wai, or by Gregg Toland for Orson Welles, John Ford, and others, or by John Alton for Anthony Mann’s noirs, or by Russell Metty for Welles’ Touch of Evil and for many of Sirk’s melodramas. (I just spent a week with my Introduction to Film students on the opening sequence shot of Touch of Evil, one of my favorite cinematographic moments in the whole of cinema).
But I still feel it is important to come to grips with the ways that cinematography is changing in response to 21st-century digital technologies. I don’t want to just say that a great art has been lost. We need to look at the new affordances provided by CGI and other digital tools. While Gravity is my favorite of the five joint cinematography & visual effects movies listed above, I am not ready to say that it matches the achievement of Touch of Evil, or for that matter (just to keep to the present century) In the Mood for Love. But I do not think nostalgia is a useful reaction here. We need to keep open to the new possibilities and new affordances that new technologies provide. And a film like Gravity at least starts to work through what these new possibilities might be. As Stanley Cavell writes, the possibilities or affordances of a new cinematic technology are not given in advance; they need to be discovered or invented (both terms are partly right) by filmmakers’ actually exploring and creating them: “Only the art itself can discover its possibilities, and the discovery of a new possibility is the discovery of a new medium.”
What I think this means, in terms of visual effects and cinematography, is that the former is not destroying the latter, but merging with it and merging into it. In his earlier book The Language of New Media (2001), Lev Manovich suggested that the realist ontology of film (as maintained by Bazin and Cavell) was dead, and that cinema was in process of being subsumed into animation; but more recently, he has instead argued for augmented reality, or the idea that the digital enhances, rather than substituting itself for, analog representations of reality.
In this sense, digital filmmaking is slowly but surely altering the very formal categories by which we describe film (and which I teach my students); older-style films of course continue to be made, but with these recent films we are reaching the point where there is no longer any meaningful distinction between visual effects and cinematography, i.e. between what cameras do and what computers do. CGI often simulates cinematographic effects; but it also takes up cinematography as a formative practice, and expands and extends it in new ways. I am simply noting this metamorphosis for now; I hope in the future to explore it more fully, in tandem with films that themselves seek to explore it.
It is worth noting, as well, that editing is also taking on completely different forms and powers due to digitization. Think of Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s discussion of workflow as a new cinematic formal category. Vishnevetsky notes how, in Steven Soderbergh’s work, for instance, “the line between decisions made in production and decisions made in editing is blurred”; and also how, when making The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, David Fincher arranged things so that “footage was shot in 5K with a 2.1 aspect ratio but finished in 4k with a 2.4 aspect ratio. Only 70% of each shot frame was used in the finished film; this meant that Fincher could revise every shot—reframing, altering the speed of camera movements, adding zooms—during editing without any loss of image quality.” This alters the parameters of both cinematography and editing.
The need for a massive redefinition of editing is also evident in music videos that use multiply superimposed images (consider, for a particularly brilliant example, Anthony Mandler’s video for Rihanna’s song “Disturbia”). And editing is metamorphosed as well in the late films of Tony Scott, Domino, where micro-editing alters the sequence of shots at nearly every moment (this is powerfully described by Adrian Martin, although his evaluation of the process is not as favorable as mine).
I think that these mutations of cinematic form have perceptual, philosophical, and political implications; but we cannot get a handle on them unless we understand first of all how they are working on a formalist and aesthetic level. This is a question for advanced scholarly and critical reflection; but it also gets down to the very basics of film form, such as I teach my students every semester in Introduction to Film. The whole class is grounded in the categories of Mise En Scene, Cinematography, Editing, and Sound; but as I continue to insist upon the analytical importance of these domains, I see them changing so radically as to approach the verge of being altogether obsolete.