Friday, February 12, 2010

The Plague of Digital Cinematography

Is digital photography the wave of the future for all motion pictures? I, for one, hope not.

My point of view has changed over the last nine years after having an initially favourable reaction from seeing my first digitally shot motion picture in 2001 -- Zacharias Kunuk's Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. Set in the Arctic at a time well before the arrival of the white man, Atanarjuat tells the slow, but very compelling story of an evil spirit making mischief for an Inuit warrior as he tries to return to his family and break the spell the spirit has inflicted upon them.

With its white, cold, austere landscapes, the imagery was spectacular on the big screen, especially considering the camera used was an inexpensive first-generation Sony Digital Betacam 16:9 video camera. Except for some of the night scenes within the igloos, it was near impossible to tell this movie was not shot on film. In the intervening years, I've come to the conclusion that those night scenes should have been an early warning for me about the problem with digital cinematography.

In 2008, Get Smart, starring Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway, brought the issue home to roost in a big way. It wasn't a terribly interesting film except for the wise decision to make Maxwell Smart an idiot who happens to be right (as opposed to being the clumsy moron he was in the 1960s who, entertainingly, pratfalled his way to victory). During the early daylight scenes of the Carell version, I actually didn't notice that the film had been shot on video. At about forty-five minutes into it, there was an action scene set at night that required a rapid-camera pan. As the camera swish-panned from left to right, I saw a ghosting flash at the end of the move. Nighttime photography with digital cameras still requires a great deal of light in order to properly film the scene. By so doing, you run the risk, with camera movements such as the swish-pan, of leaving the telltale ghosting (due, I think, to the way digital picks up light). In a film such as this that was just barely enjoyable, it was disastrous. It pushed me out of the film and made me pay more and more attention to the way it was shot rather than the story it was trying to tell.

Throughout the rest of Get Smart, I began to notice how 'soap-opera like' all the night scenes seemed to look. Close-ups were even worse. It ruined what little entertainment value the film had. Since then, I've witnessed this problem time and again, and it has spoiled my movie-watching experience. A few nights ago, I was watching the last 15 minutes of Michael Mann's 2004 overrated Collateral on cable. When I saw it originally in 2004 on DVD, I wasn't really aware that it was shot on video; but because of what I'd experienced at Get Smart, I now found myself inadvertently always looking for it. Seeing it with fresh eyes, many of the night scenes have an over lit quality, a look that I find difficult to describe other than to say that all the imagery looked, well cold and somehow blown-out. It is a problem I spotted even in the trailer for his 2009 film Public Enemies. Even before I read the bad reviews, it made me not want to see it. Ultimately, I think the digital imagery looked so great in the stately shot Atanarjuat because it was set in a cold landscape, so the cold imagery made perfect sense, and the camera never moved that much.

The only concession I'll make to shooting on digital is films that rely very heavily upon CGI, such as Avatar. It does make it easier when the filmmakers want to add the special effects.

But even then, if you really believe passionately in the look that film will give you, you can get away with it. Back in the early 2000s, Steven Spielberg was saying to anybody who would listen that he did not like shooting on video, he preferred, film. In fact, he overruled George Lucas' wish to shoot on video when they shot Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in 2008. Beyond those ghosting problems I talked about, now I understand why. There is a warmth to film that cannot, with current digital technology, be replicated. It is cinematographic warmth that I will miss if the trend towards digital and away from film continues. I'm unsure if Spielberg still sticks to his guns, but I sure hope he does.

--David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

1 comment:

  1. I totally agree. I find constantly that digital cinematography falls apart in nighttime or indoor shooting. The image becomes flat, harsh and the suspension of disbelief is lost. It almost feels like you've shifted into the "making of" video that comes with the movie.