There was a kind of controversy at the Oscars this year when cinematographer Claudio Miranda won an oscar for his work on The Life of Pi. Not directly because the film was considered too ugly to deserve the award, but because the cinematography depended so much on visual effects and post production that the question arose how much of the work visible on screen came from his hand.
Which is an honest question to ask I guess. I’m not really knowledgable about the world of VFX shots anymore than what I’ve learned from the behind-the-scenes documentaries I’ve watched online, but I of course know that such complex shots are not created by a single cinematographer. It’s usually a very large team of artists, programmers, designers etc.
So it’s not so much that a digitally manipulated shot cannot be beautiful, but really; how can you point out the right author of that shot. Is it the director, the cinematographer, the animator, the lightning guy or the programmer?
Of course, this is a problem as old as the craft of cinematography, it simply isn’t a one-man form of art. Never was, never will be. But, the problem seems to be more obvious now that we’ve entered the digital era. Because there isn’t even such a thing as a real film camera in the digital world, why single out a cinematographer?
Two things I have in defense of Miranda’s oscar. First of all, without really knowing how Miranda worked on the film, and where his influence was felt, you cannot honestly marginalize his work. So different is de art of cinematography these days, that it’s easy to judge his work by standards that are not actual and relevant anymore. Like saying an Arri Alexa camera is not a real film camera because it doesn’t use actual ‘film’, or maybe a more obvious comparison would be to say Jimi Hendrix was not a real guitar player, because he played electric guitar and thus we can hardly judge which part of his sound comes from him, or from the carefully designed electronics he plays through.
And then my second point is that it’s easy to confuse the cinematographer, or director of photography, with a camera operator. A cinematographer’s work is rarely focused exclusively on operating a camera and the literal filming. As my limited knowledge of on-set experience already tells me, DOP’s rarely sit behind the camera by themselves. They look through the viewfinder or monitor, but they do not pull focus for example. It’s probably as obvious a statement as any to the professional, but I am amazed how often it is still misunderstood. The reason I point this out is that such a misconception (that a cinematographer is the only one behind the camera) combined with a knowledge -and perhaps longing- of the classic style of filming can create a misguided romantic image of the art of cinematography. An image of a single creative mind behind a machine that captures the magic through his art, which unfortunately is never the whole story…
Thus, simply said; when we accept that filmmaking is a team-effort where, ideally, everyone cooperates creatively, where editors can make a decent actors’ performance into an award-winning one, where directors can choose to ignore screenplays, thus boosting the impact of the movie, and where nothing is set in stone (it is art after all), why start shouting about single-character-achievements now?! Isn’t it a ridiculous conception anyway to try to pinpoint individual achievements in a group effort?
mmm… I guess it’s a limitless discussion, and beyond what I said already, I fear a rather fruitless one. The main point to take with you is, digital cinematography is still an infant offspring of classical cinematography and might not always be properly judged. I know some special effects can generate a ‘WOW!’ response in the audience, while being presented through some plain and bland cinematography that’s boring as hell. The credit should then go to all those who are responsible for the effects. And visa versa, great cinematography can also generate a ‘WOW!’ response in the audience, while the subject itself is entirely bland and plain. The question than is; Can I name an example where I believe VFX and cinematography intersect and complement each other? Where the end-result is a great combination of VFX and cinematography?
Yes I can. Easily if I take the time to do some research. One of my picks was this ‘One Shot’, a shot from The Matrix Reloaded (Wachowskis, 2003).
In 1999 two big sci-fi movies were released, both filled to the brim with visual effects and digital wonders. The first one was Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (Lucas, 1999), the other one was The Matrix (Wachowskis, 1999). The first one was kinda disappointing, the other kinda revolutionized action movies going into the 21st century.
Sufficient to say, The Matrix was a major success as both an action/sci-fi movie and a generational leap in the creative use of visual effects, it’s bullet-time camera-trick a classic by any standards. The shot where Keanu Reeves’ Neo dodges bullets on the top of a skyscraper is one of those classic shots of visual-effects. It was both jaw-dropping, unique and thrilling.
But that one is not a shot I necessarily want to expand upon in this blog. Maybe because it’s so well known it’s not as interesting to write about, but it also isn’t really a shot you can say much about. It’s awesome because the trick works so well, but cinematographically, there isn’t much to it. There is another shot though, that simply resonated more with me. It might not have the historical significance of that famous bullet-time shot, but even back when I first saw it, it really, really hit the spot for me. And it stands as a great example to demonstrate where visual effects can merge with a classical sense of style and cinematography.
The first thing you’ll notice is the amount of stuff going on. You have the crashing cars in the background, even ones flipping over, and you’ve got an agent standing on the hood of our hero’s car in the foreground. It’s pretty chaotic, but that is where the strength lies in this case.
The shot is from the jaw-droppingly dense car-chase sequence at the end of the second movie, The Matrix Reloaded. That entire chase-sequence is a great example of merging CGI images with real-life images and stunt work. The directors famously rebuilt an entire strip of highway filled with cars, adding to that tons of computer generated effects.
Though some of those CGI effects have aged a little (the Agent seen in my One Shot is noticeably fake-looking in comparison to his environment for example), there are also shots where the effects still look amazingly real to my, very saturated, eyes. The thing is; there is a lot of real-life imagery in that sequence also, which is what makes it work, even a decade later.
So that is one thing; it mixes CGI with real-life subjects and environments, making the shot work much better than if it were 100% CGI, at least to my eyes. But more importantly, it is a shot that doesn’t work exclusively on CGI-credits, it actually is a beautifully composed piece of cinematography.
First of all I love the way they used depth to give a sense of scope to the scene. By placing the hero’s car squarely in the right-side and filling up the empty space with an eye-popping amount of crashing cars in the distance it really, really, created a ‘wow-effect’. And just to be straight; that Agent is the only real CGI subject within the frame. All the cars are actually crashing.
Honestly, there are probably hundreds of people who had a hand in creating this shot, but I cannot imagine that the cinematographer, Bill Pope, hadn’t had a say in the measure of CGI in relation to the actual content being filmed, and I applaud him for that.
A decade later this shot stands as a great example of why CGI must always be used as a complimentary tool, not as the Alpha and Omega of digital cinematography. Like in photography, photoshop is best used for touching-up a photo. You still need models to pose, you still need reality. To me, the visual effects shots that survive the teeth of time are those that blend CGI with actual photography. It’s films like Jurassic Park, Terminator 2, Lord of the Rings and yes, the Matrix, that strangely demonstrate the powers of CGI better to me than more recent full-on CGI productions like the Star Wars prequels.
So, coming back to the Life of Pi discussion I started with. I guess I understand the criticism against the oscar-win. I understand it, but I do not necessarily agree with it. I guess if it’s true that Miranda’s contributions were limited in comparison to other artists it would be weird to give him the single honor. Similarly I would probably have frowned upon giving Andy Serkins an oscar for his performance in Lord of the Rings, not because I doubt his excellent work, but because I have no idea how much of the performance came from him, and which part came from the animators. BUT, mostly, I didn’t particularly enjoy the cinematography of Life of Pi. It was too staged, too saturated for my tastes.
Whereas, in the case of Bill Pope’s work in the Matrix Trilogy, I did enjoy the cinematography. I loved the color grading (still do, even though it’s been copied to death), I loved the comics-styled framing, and I loved the way the real and surreal were blended together. That One Shot I picked still stands as an awe-inspiring piece of cinematography and no amount of digital manipulation can take away the cinematographic style that lays at the foundation of the shot.