As always, technology and technique intertwined with personal artistic sensibilities and stories to drive changes in filmmaking. New markers were laid down on the road to the future with high-tech endeavors like “The Jungle Book,” lensed by Bill Pope ...and more »
Courtesy of TriStar Pictures
Cinematography, the original cinematic art, maintained its breakneck rate of change in 2016.
As always, technology and technique intertwined with personal artistic sensibilities and stories to drive changes in filmmaking. New markers were laid down on the road to the future with high-tech endeavors like â€œThe Jungle Book,â€ lensed by Bill Pope, and â€œBilly Lynnâ€™s Long Halftime Walkâ€ by John Toll. But Academy voters were drawn to a number of smaller-scale movies, most shot by relative newcomers to Oscar contention.
Ang Leeâ€™s â€œWalkâ€ was a particularly intentional attempt to expand what is possible in feature film cinematography. Leeâ€™s curiosity, determination, and vision required a new â€œsuperformatâ€ that combined 4K, 3D, and 120 frames per second. Toll, an Oscar winner for â€œBraveheartâ€ and â€œLegends of the Fall,â€ says that the project stretched the capabilities and imaginations of every department. Color, contrast, depth of field, 3D depth, composition, and camera movement all had to be rethought. Rather than simply leaving viewers awestruck by the spectacle, the filmmakers wanted to use the technology to strengthen the connection between audience and character.
â€œAng thought that this film could be a great demonstration of how this technology could enhance any story, including intimate, character-driven dramatic material,â€ says Toll. â€œSomehow the images are more immediate and more accessible. It feels like youâ€™re looking at reality as opposed to images on a screen. I felt like I was in the movie as opposed to watching the movie. Each step of the way was more confirmation that we were really onto something.â€
Tollâ€™s cinematography on the project was not recognized with an Oscar nomination, and the long-term impact of the experiment remains to be seen. Perhaps in a few years, filmmakers will study â€œWalkâ€ to understand how the building blocks of visual grammar must be adapted when the image is delivering unprecedented clarity and subtlety.
The five contestants for this yearâ€™s cinematography Oscar include four first-time nominees. The American Society of Cinematographers nominated an identical list for its upcoming 31st annual ASC Awards. Among the fresh faces are Greig Fraser (â€œLionâ€), Bradford Young (â€œArrivalâ€), James Laxton (â€œMoonlightâ€), and Linus Sandgren (â€œLa La Landâ€). Rodrigo Prieto earned his third Academy Award nomination for â€œSilence,â€ Martin Scorseseâ€™s long-gestating meditation on faith in 17th century Japan.
The variety of formats represented on this roster does not match last yearâ€™s potpourri, which included Ultra Panavision 70, a 50-year-old gauge resurrected by Robert Richardson and Panavision for Quentin Tarantinoâ€™s â€œThe Hateful Eight.â€ But film emulsion continued to hold its own. Two of the cinematography nominees shot film â€“ Sandgren used 35mm anamorphic and 16mm for â€œLa La Land,â€ and Prieto combined 35mm and large-format Arri Alexa 65 digital, the latter in low light situations, on â€œSilence.â€
And of the nine best Picture nominees, three were shot on film â€” â€œLa La Land,â€ â€œHidden Figures,â€ and â€œFencesâ€ â€” and the latter two of those were shot by women, Mandy Walker and Charlotte Bruus Christensen, respectively. Laxton combined digital with an anamorphic squeeze, and Fraser and Young shot Arri Alexa with carefully chosen spherical lenses, the latter using some vintage glass.
Sandgren further tailored his imagery for â€œLa La Landâ€ by framing in a 2.55:1 aspect ratio, redolent of golden-era Technicolor musicals.
â€œWe wanted to make a contemporary drama set in a big, sometimes gritty city,â€ says Sandgren. â€œBut since the characters are dreamers, it was important to bring them to a magical moment, to travel between reality and dream. We aimed to heighten the scenes with a timelessness inspired by the great Hollywood paintbrush from the 1950s, to a great extent in the set design and costume design, but also in the lighting and with unbroken takes shot with crane movies and dollies.â€
Prieto relished the opportunity to shoot on film. â€œThereâ€™s something exhilarating about not seeing a monitor with the exact image,â€ he says. â€œOf course we did a lot of testing, so I knew the result. But I love playing with it. I love bending it and twisting the film negative to see different textures I can achieve.â€
Digital photography continues to evolve as an artistâ€™s medium. The Arri Alexa is a standard tool, while Red and Sony have upped their game. And Panavisionâ€™s highly anticipated entry into the digital field, the large format, 8K DXL, made a splash in 2016.
â€œThe technology has advanced to the point where it is allowing us to go back to the essence of photography, where once you learn the technical stuff, you can throw it away and not be bogged down by technique but be empowered by feeling,â€ say Young.
He adds: â€œIf youâ€™re spending a lot of time trying to figure out what the hell the camera is, you donâ€™t get enough time to figure out what the story is. Now I feel very confident that the exposure on the camera is going to get me exactly what I want.â€
(Above: DP John Toll on the set of â€œBilly Lynnâ€™s Long Halftime Walkâ€)
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