Monday, December 22, 2014

Non-Photographic Directors of Photography

I'm sorry, but I find this a bit odd.

The key live-action title has gaining traction in the animation business after years of being seen as a largely live-action only task.

This year the field of computer animation passed a milestone when Pixar’s Sharon Calahan became the first director of photography whose work has been purely on computer-generated movies to be invited to join the American Society of Cinematographers. Calahan has received director of photography credits since 1998’s A Bug’s Life, and she’s still one of very few working in animation with that title.

“It’s weird that it’s not widely recognized,” says Pixar President Jim Morris, who championed Calahan to the ASC. “Because the fact is — to use the stop-motion analogy, where you’re lighting puppets and miniature sets — in CG, you’re doing the same thing in virtual space. Over time, we found people who were like-minded, and believed that computer graphics was just another arm of cinematography. It’s just another set of tools to create imagery.” ...

I mean it's fine and all that. You've got your computer-generated light sources, your computer-generated compositions, your computer-generated people, objects, and landscapes.

But none of the objects or light sources are real. Any more than the objects, landscapes and lighting of this 77-year-old chunk of movie-making are real:

So I need to ask: Where's the Director of Photography on The Old Mill?

Same deal, isn't it? Artificial images made to imitate the illusion of realness on the silver screen? Slightly different, but not by much. And there was a good sixty years (or more) where nobody asked of Snow White, Pinocchio, Lady and the Tramp or Sleeping Beauty: "Hey! Where's the director of photography?!"

It was taken for granted with these cartoon features that the images people were watching were created by people not wielding a camera, that to be a director of photography you had to be out in the real world, capturing real images and putting them on film. Like for instance:

Ben Hur's chariot race was shot on a set with flesh-and-blood actors over six months. Which the clip below, despite strong similarities to the scene above, definitely was not:

The pod race is built in a computer (mostly) with non-real elements (mostly). And the director of cinematography? In this instance, bent over a computer constructing shots.

But technology rolls on, upending much of what's gone before. And if studios want to call artists in front of computer screens cinematographers, I guess there's no harm in it. Everything changes. Nobody is following D. W. Griffith and John Ford around anymore, setting up the hand-cranked Bell and Howell on the wooden tripod for the latest shot.

But it ain't the same.


Alan Krows said...

Intriguing question. Were the Dutch Masters of Light photographers?

In CG animation, it could be that ray tracing is more analogous to traditional photography than rasterized imaging. Maybe those with more intimate knowledge can shed some light.

Steve Hulett said...

It's all image creation. For people sitting in a big, dark room looking at a huge screen.

So I guess we can call these things whatever we want.

Unknown said...

Sharon Calahan's admission to the ASC is a recognition of the fact that CG animation is an increasing source of work for traditional cinematographers. The school where I teach animation and cinema studies now offers classes in digital lighting for both animation and visual effects students; As a result, an increasing number of these students have started to explore the use of lighting in films like The Old Mill.

For my part, I have long lectured on the use of use of lighting in films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs(the sequence in which Snow White escapes into the woods) and Bambi(the silhouetted fight scene).Whether or not these sequences can be considered examples of creative cinematography or not can certainly be debated, but as far as viewers are convened, the effect is probably the same.

Unknown said...

Interesting. But in virtually all cases of animated films, the lighting, like all effects, are designed entirely by the art directors and production designers. Executing those designs is sometimes challenging, but are following a plan decided upon by the director long before the virtual lighting process begins.

Steve Hulett said...

Cinematographers often-times also follow a plan. There are storyboards, there are pre-visualizations constructed in a computer. Sometimes the Director of Photography holds a lot of creative sway, and sometimes not.

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