Redefining Cinematography
Kathleen Maher
December 5, 2013

Redefining Cinematography

Is Gravity an animated film? Oscar may want to know.

In 2012, Yuri Neyman and Vilos Zsigmond, two well-known cinematographers obsessed by the idea that the art of cinematography was lost to the flash-bang of digital effects, founded The Global Cinematography Institute (GCI).

Neyman is best known for his work on Liquid Sky and DOA. He has become an instructor, writer, and a developer working on technology and tools to ensure the accuracy of a movie's "look" as content is transferred between cinematographer to effects houses, post, and finishing. While teaching cinematography at AFI in Los Angeles, Neyman was disturbed by the lack of historical knowledge of cinematography he encountered among working professionals in the industry. Neyman found a kindred spirit in Zsigmond, famous for his work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Deer Hunter, and the Long Goodbye. Neyman interviewed him for an article in Neyman's Gamma and Density Journal, and during the course of the interview, they realized they both had a fierce love for the art of cinematography and a commitment to nurturing and protecting that art. GCI, the product of their love for cinematography is a school for industry professionals and its faculty is made up of experienced and well know professionals. The Institute also holds regular screenings and events in Los Angeles to educate people about the art of cinematography.

After the recent Visual Effects Society Summit, Neyman commented on a panel of Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) Presidents. The panel discussed the ramifications of digital technology as it blurs the lines between original cinematography and digital work that comes later.

Neyman says, "It is often problematic to distinguish in the final image where the work of the cinematographer ends and where the VFX begins, and vice versa." He quoted the former Academy President Hawk Koch, who suggested that perhaps a new category was needed. Koch suggested visual imaging.

They're not just debating Academy categories; the bigger question, and the uncomfortable question, is this: When a movie has just as much or even more footage generated by VFX as was originally shot, how does that affect the Academy Award nomination for Cinematography. The question is particularly acute because of the fabulous and utterly seamless work done on Gravity.

Is It Real or Is It Digital Real?

The director of Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron, talks about how much of Gravity was created with the help of digital effects. He is quoted in the Hollywood Reporter as saying roughly 80 percent of the movie was hand animated. During the panel, Bill Kroyer, director of digital arts at Chapman University, said that given the extensive keyframe animation done to enable Sandra Bullock's character to float through space, Gravity might qualify as an animation film.

Things are getting really blurry, indeed. As a matter of fact, the issue brings up James Cameron's frustration that his actors on Avatar were not considered for an Academy Award because they were animations. Cameron claims that the extensive facial mocap used in the production of Avatar means the actors were directly acting. Similarly, some critics have complained that Andy Serkis deserved an Oscar nomination because his creation of characters for Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Lord of the Rings, and King Kong were performance captures, not animation.

Sandra Bullock

In the case of Gravity, at least Sandra Bullock's nomination is safe because her face in the film is live action, even if her body is often CG. It could also be argued that the poor woman spent much of the shoot strapped in a harness surrounded by roving cameras, and that delivering the performance, she did was acting - and damn fine acting, by any definition.

Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki is also probably safe because he had a very active role in every part of the production of Gravity. He worked closely with VFX house Framestore to ensure that the lighting in the effects was consistent with the lighting he designed for the entire film.

The issue could be much more of a problem for cinematographers, who have seen their work changed in the process of adding effects and compositing. And Neyman raises the issue of Academy Awards for Cinematography and Effects awarded to the same film numerous times, including for Life of Pi, which, again, is a very CG-heavy film. And in fact, cinematographer Chrisopher Doyle, who has shot Director Wong Kar Wai's films, was moved to dismiss the Academy Award for Claudio Miranda as "an insult to cinematography." It's worth noting that Doyle has no idea what Miranda's actual level of control was in the making of Pi. He's sounding off about the growing role of FX and the lack of recognition the craft often gets. And he's saying that the Academy itself is a crusty old bunch who have no idea where the line is between cinematography and effects.

Enter the DOI

In a paper published by the GCI by Neyman and Zsigmond, the Institute proposes a new role, the Director of Imaging (DOI), who, according to Neyman and Zsigmond, will synthesize into one person: the visual artist, craftsman, and technologist. As cinematographers, Zsigmond and Neyman see the role of the art of the DOI as "expanded cinematography," and, in general, probably assume the job will go to those with training in cinematography - though they admit that Moore's Law and the course of digital R&D means that distinctions blur even to the point that the concept of a camera is changing. Eventually, with the evolution of "ever more sensitive" and the use of more sensors, the camera simply captures the light, it captures everything in front of it, and all the creation is done later in the computer.

In their paper, Zsigmond and Neyman state, "the lack of an aesthetic gatekeeper, with a visual perspective, during preproduction and previs, is generating a noticeable vacuum between the director and his cadre of CG VFX specialists." They see the DOI as being able to oversee production through all phases to ensure the director's vision is captured and maintained. They also believe that having a central person working directly with the director can help protect the effects houses that are being driven to bankruptcy by a lack of oversight in maintaining costs.

Zsigmond and Neyman also see the role of DOI as being important throughout the life of a creative work - as a film is distributed in a variety of resolutions and formats. And they also see the role of DOI as a relevant field for digital game development, which, they say, is become a hugely influential art form in terms of imagery.

Their goal, and the goal of the GCI, "is to enrich the artistic side of cinematography and image making in general."

Kathleen Maher is a contributing editor to CGW, a senior analyst at Jon Peddie Research, a Tiburon, California-based consultancy specializing in graphics and multimedia, and editor in chief of JPR's "TechWatch." She can be reached at .