New Tools, New Artists
May 15, 2012

New Tools, New Artists

Alfonso Cuarón predicts a new generation of filmmakers as the tools, techniques change.
Autodesk brought Alfonso Cuarón to NAB to describe the ways in which he has seen filmmaking change in response to new tools. 

Cuarón came to the attention of the film world with his movie Y Tu Mama Tambien, a sophisticated coming-of-age movie. The success Y Tu Mama and subsequent Children of Man have propelled Cuarón into the mainstream of Hollywood filmmaking. Most recently, he has directed a film in the Harry Potter series, the Prisoner of Azkaban, in addition to Gravity, a movie co-written by his son Jonas and starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.

In an interview with filmmaker Debra Kaufman, Cuarón commented that it was enlightening to work with his son: “I learned I was stuck in my ways.” Cuarón said that he's very comfortable with technology—“I've been working in films with big technology”—but he doesn't embrace it in the same way his son does. “My son taught me you can do it the fun way,” he added.

Cuarón believes there is a new generation of filmmakers just beginning to take advantage of the digital pipelines that are so rapidly evolving. As Cuarón notes, cameras are getting smaller and less expensive. “There’s a new generation that’s going to be fearless,” he said. “I recognize the importance of digital, but there’s a new generation whose language is digital.”

This, believes Cuarón, is the real difference that is coming with new tools. There are many more people making movies, and they’re making them the fun way: four-minute productions for YouTube or full-scale movies on a budget.

Cuarón cites Kevin Smith’s 1999 movie Dogma as an example of a movie that can be “meaningful and impactful,” even with the use of light cameras and “crappy” quality. Moving forward, there is less and less compromise required. There are relatively low-cost DSLR cameras available today, and the trend is going to continue. Cuarón identified 2011 as the year the digital camera became truly competitive with the camera. Before 2011, Cuarón said, he and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki would look at cameras, but they didn’t believe they could get the quality they wanted. 

For instance, Cuarón and Lubezki were interested in shooting Children of Man in digital, but they rejected the cameras available at the time. He said the problems with earlier digital cameras centered on resolution and the strength of the whites and blacks. For Gravity, Lubezki came to him and showed him what the new cameras could do. An article for Shootonline by Robert Goldrich stated that Lubezki used the Arri Alexa for Gravity. Lubezki told Goldrich, “This wasn’t a case of a studio trying to impose 3D on a film. 3D was essential to the story line created by Alfonso,” said Lubezki, adding, “we live in an incredible time where we have all these tools—film, Red, Alexa, Sony cameras. We have a bigger palette.”

Gravity, with its big stars, is a highly anticipated film. It’s sci-fi, it’s 3D, and it’s full of long tracking shots. Cuarón says that when he started he wanted to use all the tools—he enjoyed cranes and cameras, and effects. For Gravity, he said, they had to invent the technology to make the film. “What I love about effects is how they can be used to create what you Imagine,” he said. 

However, while Cuarón is digging his toys, he also emphasizes the importance of story. “I consider narrative a tool as well,” he said.

The NAB interview with Cuarón was Autodesk’s introduction of its revamped Smoke. Cuarón was a good choice because, aside from being a director with a really hot hand these days, he also involves himself in the entire process. He was nominated for an Academy Award for editing on Children of Man.” I love editing, he said. I spend every minute in the editing room, to the annoyance of my editors.” 

Cuarón also talked about how he loves the immediacy and the excitement of the shoot, but he also talks about how much he likes the control of the process that editing bestows. In the editing suite, “you put together those moments to create a flow of emotions. It’s when the magic happens.”

There is a generational shift happening in filmmaking. It’s obvious in the different approaches being taken by Alfonso Cuarón and by Jonas, and it was obvious at NAB, where there was so much excitement around new digital tools. Sure, the tools have been there, and every year they get better, but this year at NAB, with new cameras arriving on the scene with their own advantages over traditional cameras and powerful but low-cost video tools from Adobe, Autodesk, and Avid, the workflow has gotten much more accessible. 

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