A Moment of Cognitive Dissonance

My immediate reaction upon learning that Avatar had won the Oscar for best cinematography was frustration. Don't get me wrong. I loved Avatar and and thought it was gorgeous, and though i'm not one of those guys that automatically decries anything that uses digital capture I do have a hard time accepting something with so much CG as a contender for best cinematography. A lot of what's being "shot" just isn't there and so my feeling was that the cinematography on a film like this is a far cry from the traditional direction of motion picture photography.

Or is it?

Digital visual effects elements are commonplace today and part of the job of being an early-twenty-first-century cinematographer is understanding how to shoot for visual effects. But does a movie with so much compositing remove the cinematographer from his role as the visual conductor of the production? I don't think so. If there is distance between the DP and what we see on screen, Avatar was certainly no less cinematic for it. In fact, if we look at what has been happening on screen over the past couple of decades we begin to see that the cinematographer has a greater impact on the digital elements of a film. One can even look at Wall-E, a film which had almost no practical elements, but whose producers had the foresight to hire Roger Deakins as a consultant and whose opening scenes stand as the most cinematic animation I've ever seen as a result.

So the simple fact is that cinematography on a film like Avatar is just as important but in many cases it occurs off the set and that's simply part of the evolution of movie making. But for me there's more to it than that. My moment of cognitive dissonance came when I considered what I was saying in my knee-jerk reaction to the award. "What's being shot, just isn't there." Did I really say (think) that?

You see, I don't really believe that artifice makes something less real. Philosophically I’m what you’d call a transhumanist. I believe that the fact that applying technology to what we are doesn’t make us less what we are. Obi-Wan got it wrong when he accused Vader of being, “…more machine now than man, twisted and evil,” implying that his old friend was now subhuman. In fact I’m more on board with the Tyrell Corporation in striving to be “more human than human.” In cinematic terms, the reproduction of an artificial environment and its goings-on is no less a magnificent reproduction than the reproduction of a physical environment and its (make-believe) goings-on.

In the case of Avatar, there is even more parity between “real” and “artificial” cinematography than in other instances. Many of the pre-visualized environments and pre-created character models linked by motion capture to the actors were fed back in real time to the camera operator. So the line between what was real and what was artificial was blurred in the eye of the camera. This even allowed for on-set framing of the 8-foot-tall simulacra of human actors. When I hear people talking about how revolutionary Avatar was, it’s not the breakthrough 3D blockbuster that amazes me, but the process of making it.

So, why did I have an annoyed response to its winning best cinematography?

Well, I think it was a tweet by Stu Maschwitz (@5tu) that said, “Food for thought: Best Cinematography went to a movie shot on video and a virtual stage, and Best Picture to a movie shot on 16mm.” To this I replied, “You can't really count cinematography on a movie that was mostly CG as a feather in the cap of digital acquisition, can you?”

I said above that I don’t knee-jerk decry digital capture, but it seems that people are always looking point out digital’s marks in the win column as though it further signals the decline of analog. And while last year’s victory in this category - Slumdog Millionaire, shot by Anthony Dod Mantle – was a definite feather in the cap of digital cinematography, Avatar, a film made mostly on computer, does nothing in my opinion to further the cause of digital capture.

After some consideration I realized that I missed Stu’s point by a mile and the length of this post shows how much that tweet really was food for thought.

Cinema is evolving. So too must its associated crafts evolve and expand. The role of the tool chest of the cinematographer has recently grown to encompass both analog and digital formats. Some hold on to film for dear life, and I love film. There’s no question in my mind that film is currently the prettier medium. But in saying that I have to acknowledge that two of the most remarkably beautiful “films” of 2009 – “The Girlfriend Experience” and “Antichrist” – were shot on digital. The age of digital cinema has arrived. And with that evolution comes the expansion of the role of the cinematographer into the realm of the artificial. We must learn not only to shoot practical subjects with artificial elements in mind, but also to compose cinema in an entirely artificial world, sometimes with only hints of the “real” world around the edges.

So, should Avatar have won best cinematography? I have my opinions about that, but that’s not really what this post is about. What’s important is that I have realized that I certainly can’t begrudge its candidacy.

Congratulations to Mauro Fiore and James Cameron, and thank you for a great movie.