Monday, March 15, 2010
"Avatar" won the Oscar for Best Cinematography a few weeks ago, and the immediate reaction was to wonder how much of the look and composition is due to cinematography and how much is due to computer programming.
Cinematography, it seems to me, is rather pretty intricately linked to cameras and lenses. It's the art of doing what you can with the equipment you have at your disposal to enhance the director's artistic vision and create/emphasize a mood.
There's not room for programming. It's the artisianal use of the indexical quality of film and cameras to make what you point your camera at as emotionally resonant. "Writing with light," as Vittorio Storaro would insist.
J.J. Abrams' "Star Wars" is as guilty as writing with software as "Avatar" is. This discussion quotes Mr. Abrams' artistic enthusiasm for adding lens flares to the film to create a subtext of an overflowing future. I guess that's writing with "light" too. This use of added visual icing to create some sense of "reality" was foregrounded in Lucas's fourth (or is it the first)"Star Wars" film, shot entirely digitally and a busier film on the surface (covering over a disconcerting lack of cake) I've never seen (including the "Matrix" pie-fights). "Phantom Menace" is a film fingered in post-production to re-appropriate the artifacts of film-based and "conservative" and traditional camera work, such as adding lens flares, camera shake, focus rack-ins (all documented in the extensive and strangely disconcerting making-of featurette on the first DVD release).
There's of course an irony to shooting everything in perfect digital and then adding the accidental and (formerly unwanted) visual anomalies. They give us comfort, especially when we realize they aren't there. I imagine "Phantom Menace" as cold and pointless until the "warmth" was added, this in one of the most backward-looking retro films of recent memory. ("Grindhouse" comes to mind, which also takes its inspiration from previous narrative-making modes and is guilty of a similar attempt to "add" authenticity.)
All these digital manipulations are in the interest of making things "real." Even "Avatar"'s hype about changing the way movies will be made also ensures us that the techniques make things more real than real. Actors have nothing to worry about; they aren't obsolete.
See how "easy" it is to add flare:
The other nominee was "Transformers." They photo-shopped out Megan Fox's tattoos in her scenes so they wouldn't distract us. That's a little too real for the story they were trying to tell.
Now that's acting.