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Alan Kovarik

Is cinematograpfy these days too perfect?

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If you compare older movies and new movies, you notice that the cinematography these days is increasingly more flawless. Perfect lighting, perfect camera movement, perfect focus, perfect color grading, movies are relying too much on CGI... I watched some cinematographers at work and they fine-tune every detail (even though ordinary viewer cant notice these details, even unconsciously). It seems there is no excuse for faults these days. Everything has to be too perfect and computerized, the environments become too sterile and clean... On the other hand when you watch older movies you notice the lighting is not overly perfect, you notice clumsy camera movements, sometimes actors go out of focus, there was no color grading, no digital polishing... There was something more life-like about it. What do you think?

Edited by Alan Kovarik

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A very interesting topic Alan.

 

There's certainly something in the 'imperfections' that helps convey a sense of naturalism. I think it's a large part of the reason why vintage lenses have exploded back on to modern productions in recent years.

 

That said, I think there's also a strong argument for a perfect picture being a perfect picture - that is to say, that we work in a visual storytelling medium, and we craft the images that take the audience through those stories. From that perspective, there's nothing wrong or lacking with a picture that perfectly captures a storytelling moment, and equally - those momentary technical errors could potentially take the audience out of the story for a moment, and remind them that what they're seeing isn't real.

 

Striving to prevent that kind of a diegetic break (for the vast majority of narrative cinematography) is absolutely a valid goal to strive for in our line of work, so I think it's a logical development for the work to get progressively more refined and 'perfect' as time goes by and our tools become more and more precise.

 

I do however think the currently trend towards 'perfect' soft lighting has perhaps gone to far. It seems we rarely get to see a hard shadow anywhere these days, even in sets and locations that have no business presenting soft, flattering light everywhere the actors go. I think that lack of natural variety in the lighting we're seeing on screen can feel too perfect, and therefore a little 'off' at times.

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I agree that there is a distinct "lively" quality in works being done completely without a computer. Small (or not-so-small) imperfections accumulate on top of each other and you can in some way witness the struggle that went into making of the actual physical object, whether that is a reel of film, painting or recording of a music. I think this helps you relate to the art more.

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Another thing I see in todays movies are "thousands" of table lamps (usually witch lampshades) in interiors which are all switched on (even when the main light is on and sometimes even in full daylight). Their purpose is only decorative and it looks really weird. Have you noticed it? :) Nobody in real life has six table lamps switched on in every room. :)

Edited by Alan Kovarik

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Sculpting light is for weenies I guess. It's a race to the lighting bottom as the DI people strike matches to illuminate their beloved square pixels.

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As time goes on, we figure out how to surpass the limitations of a given medium. Sometimes it takes so long that we get used to and prefer ANY blunder that medium may come with.

 

*cough* film *cough* ;)

Edited by Macks Fiiod

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Another thing I see in todays movies are "thousands" of table lamps (usually witch lampshades) in interiors which are all switched on (even when the main light is on and sometimes even in full daylight). Their purpose is only decorative and it looks really weird. Have you noticed it? :) Nobody in real life has six table lamps switched on in every room. :)

Practical lamps are typically only something an audience notices when they're not there. I always ask anyone in charge of that to make sure that if it's a nighttime interior in a residential home that there are actual lamps in the location. Most of the time, this means that they have to go buy them as nobody has lamps anymore. Without them, you're left with an interior that looks like it's being lit by film lights or god forbid overhead lighting.

 

You want lamps with translucent lamp shades because the desired effect is that those lamps are lighting up the space and the talent. Not your film lights.

 

Reality is not as pretty as Film/TV. Nobody usually has decent window dressing in their houses. Nobody has perfectly coordinated warddrobes either. These are all artifice we bring to make the image look better.

Edited by Michael LaVoie

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I never really understood what's wrong with reality. Why does a movie have to look "pretty"? What's wrong with a regular house bulb as the light source?

 

It's a shame there is almost zero love for naturalism in cinematography.

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In my opinion, the problem isn't as much lighting as it is the "fix it in post" mentality we've had for the last 15 years or so.

 

With the advent of high-resolution film to digital scans and RAW capture for digital cinema cameras, the amount of alterations one can make in post sky rocketed.

 

Digital post has enabled filmmakers to do wild things like cut people out of one take and put them into a different take. To remove any mistakes in the shots, to create the ultimate in perfection. I do believe to get a studio film released today, it must meet a certain criteria of "WOW" or it just won't fly.

 

Now, there are plenty of smaller films that go the opposite direction. It's just, we don't see them in the box office very much and when we do, it's a small breath of fresh air... last year there were quite a few of those "in-camera" movies made, most of them never saw wide theatrical release.

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I never really understood what's wrong with reality. Why does a movie have to look "pretty"? What's wrong with a regular house bulb as the light source?

 

It's a shame there is almost zero love for naturalism in cinematography.

 

 

I'm not sure I agree -- the general trend in cinematography has been towards naturalism, it's just that each generation defines it differently. My feeling is the opposite, we have so many people shooting in natural light -- or simulating it -- that it's a breath of fresh air when someone dares do something stylized, theatrical, and unreal.

 

I just wish people had a more open mind about the possibilities of cinema and allowed more variety of expression rather than this bland pseudo-naturalism that most movies embrace (and I'm as guilty as anyone else -- naturalism is always the default style of most filmmakers.)

 

A movie doesn't have to look pretty, not by any means, the look just should be appropriate for the story. Much of the time, not always, we are trying to evoke an emotional response from the audience, and even within the strictures of realism, we manipulate things to get that response, by the way we cast the movie, the way we dress the characters, and the way we light them and photograph them. It's just that if you choose a "naturalistic" style, you use natural elements to get that effect -- you want warmth for an emotional effect, you shoot the scene at sunset or by firelight, you paint the walls warm, etc. You want to use green light as a symbolic effect, you set the scene in a bar with green neon so that any audience member that has a problem with stylization will think that the location just happened to have green neon signs.

 

One issue with the opposite of "pretty" is how do you create it? What is "ugly"? An abandoned steel factory covered in grime, for example, can be quite beautiful visually. Weeds growing through cracks in a sidewalk can be lovely sometimes. If one is doing a project that calls for a strong sense of realism, then I'd rather put things in the perspective of "honesty" -- I am portraying this location honestly? Does the scene feel "true"?

 

But I don't know where you get this idea that there is zero love for naturalism in cinematography when we just gave Emmanuel Lubezski an Oscar three-times in a row, the most recent for a project shot without any movie lights. Look at the love people have for the images in "Days of Heaven" or the candlelight scenes in "Barry Lyndon". Unless your definition of "naturalism" is limited to some notion of a gritty urban movie shot in available light, not something shot in nature.

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I never really understood what's wrong with reality. Why does a movie have to look "pretty"? What's wrong with a regular house bulb as the light source?

 

It's a shame there is almost zero love for naturalism in cinematography.

Narrative movies are typically meant as a form entertainment escapism. So the visuals tend to be more artificial and "pretty" or "scary" etc. Whatever the genre is. It's designed to make you forget "reality".

 

Documentary movies are informative, investigative, educational, and they tend to reflect a more "real-life" visual aesthetic.

 

As for bulbs, I think that a regular incandescent 40 watt soft white bulb in a clip light through 250 produces a fantastic natural key for a static closeup. and I'll sometimes do that if a nearby practical is "motivating" the scene because they tend to match well. It's a very beautiful light source and works well on almost any skin tone.

 

So there's nothing wrong with it. You can light a shot with a source like that. It's hard however to light a whole location with a source that small. So you use film lights on your talent and put practicals in the frame to make it look like that's what is lighting the location.

Edited by Michael LaVoie

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Alan - agreed on the practicals. These days I almost make a point of turning practicals off instead. So sick of the fact they always have to be on. I much prefer the shape of the lamp shade, than the light from it.

 

But otherwise I'm not sure I agree. Today we have naturalism taken to an extreme level. Look at Jason Bourne etc and you'll see big night exteriors mainly lit by what's there - streetlights, cars etc. They might augment a little here and there - put a bulb on a doorway, throw a wash on a facade etc, but there are no giant Bebe-lights or big moon boxes hanging down over the set. In effect, they eschew beauty for realism. Very often I see quite ugly uncontrolled light on faces etc. I suppose you can call it real and it goes with the aesthetic of todays trends. I just prefer the look we had two trend generations back, where we emulated naturalism, but "helped" it along (I say we, as in the collective we, not myself). Slightly augmented it to make it more magical. I'm not looking for the Technicolor high key days back, or even the 70's style. But the "Brit Revolution" look that started in the 80's was firmly planted in naturalism (look at The Duellists, Alien, Flashdance, The Verdict, Angel Heart etc etc), but had that little extra push into the magical. For my taste, that is the look I've always been closest to.

 

Then with the advent of Jan de Bont etc in the late 80's and early 90's, the style started changing towards the more outrageous, fantastical and slick which is till evident today in Michael Bay's work etc. Teal and orange and all that.

 

Completely aside, Mississippi Burning was on TV yesterday and what a beautiful film that is. Completely different from the style today, yet still very naturalistic. Very "Brit revolution". Peter Biziou BSC one of the most underrated DP's. I miss those looks.

 

One of my favorite scenes ever:

 

https://youtu.be/UlzaBi_QxPw

mississippi-burning-01.jpg

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This is a very interesting thread.

 

 

Narrative movies are typically meant as a form entertainment escapism. So the visuals tend to be more artificial and "pretty" or "scary" etc. Whatever the genre is. It's designed to make you forget "reality".

 

Documentary movies are informative, investigative, educational, and they tend to reflect a more "real-life" visual aesthetic.

 

As for bulbs, I think that a regular incandescent 40 watt soft white bulb in a clip light through 250 produces a fantastic natural key for a static closeup. and I'll sometimes do that if a nearby practical is "motivating" the scene because they tend to match well. It's a very beautiful light source and works well on almost any skin tone.

 

So there's nothing wrong with it. You can light a shot with a source like that. It's hard however to light a whole location with a source that small. So you use film lights on your talent and put practicals in the frame to make it look like that's what is lighting the location.

 

I personally feel like the line between cinematography for documentary and cinematography for fiction has blurred a little. It's so often you see extensive, well planned, light set ups in documentary films and like someone pointed out, a lot less effort put into sculpting light in fiction.

 

That may also have to do with the fact that psychologically we're programmed to think that documentaries are "realistic" and "ugly-pretty" and so are pleasantly surprised or confused when talking heads are lit up elaborately or there is very little hand held footage.

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I assisted Barry Ackroyd for 6 years.. and you may be surprised how much thought is going into his camera work/lighting.. its not throw the XTR on the shoulder and shoot.. (and there are sometimes big lights used..).. but its all meticulously planned.. but sure he's from doc,s and follows the idea that the lighting and generally the camera should never over power the story..

 

But its all horses for courses.. you wouldn't shoot Willy Wonker/ Alice in wonder land in doc style.. .. nor would you shoot Captain Phillips held hostage in a life boat about to have his head blown off with perfect back lighting .. and fog filters.. even casting sets a mood.. the medic,s at the end of Captain Phillips were real medics who worked on the ship.. and so they look like real medic,s in a very powerful scene.. never seen Tom Hanks act like that before..

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the medic,s at the end of Captain Phillips were real medics who worked on the ship.. and so they look like real medic,s in a very powerful scene.. never seen Tom Hanks act like that before..

 

God, what an incredible scene that was! I just broke down entirely at that point. Marvelously done.

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If you compare older movies and new movies, you notice that the cinematography these days is increasingly more flawless. Perfect lighting, perfect camera movement, perfect focus, perfect color grading, movies are relying too much on CGI... I watched some cinematographers at work and they fine-tune every detail (even though ordinary viewer cant notice these details, even unconsciously). It seems there is no excuse for faults these days. Everything has to be too perfect and computerized, the environments become too sterile and clean... On the other hand when you watch older movies you notice the lighting is not overly perfect, you notice clumsy camera movements, sometimes actors go out of focus, there was no color grading, no digital polishing... There was something more life-like about it. What do you think?

 

It does seem that today's cinematography tends to draw attention to itself, as opposed to grabbing the shot to tell the story.

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I think that cinematography nowadays has more flaws than before.

 

First of all, rarely you have 2 hours (even 1) on set to light a sequence like back in the old days (and by old days I mean in 2005! :D), it is more like: You have 10 minutes to light it and then the director will shoot.. and the director will shoot the rehearsals too so if you want to tweak something, you have 1 rehearsal to do so!

 

Hence, that might have affected the way cinematographers light, because most of them don't have time to just put a couple of 18Ks and swing them around to see what's the perfect spot for them!

 

On features you have to grab the shot to tell the story but you, as a cinematographer, have to make the cinematography fit the story, otherwise why would want anybody a cinematographer?

 

Soft light, flat cinematography, bland colours, etc, are the new trend nowadays, some people might think that that's just a matter of grabbing a camera and shoot, however, a cinematographer must think about how to make everything look interesting and create an emotional response from the viewer while doing so, even if they have to use those parameters.

 

Cinematographers also have a way of seeing things that most people don't have, for example, a light coming through the window and hitting a back wall.. a cinematographer might want to shape that light which is hitting the wall for so many reasons, and probably people won't notice that he / she shaped that wall or not, but it is something that has a meaning for the cinematographer.

 

I can point at so many new movies that have flaws, absolutely imperfect lighting, imperfect camera movements, imperfect focus and which don't rely on CGI at all (A Prophet, Biutiful, etc).

 

However, if you take a look at older movies (like "2001" or "Citizen Kane") they are pretty much perfect in all their aspects, everything was lit properly, well rehearsed and etc.

 

The "Brit Revolution" might have helped, the "New Wave" and Nestor Almendros did that before though! :D

 

There is one thing that I don't like on sets and is haze, everything is hazed all the times, even if it doesn't have to be.. "the ambience" they say, I know cinematographers who would put haze on a fisherman boat if they could! :D

 

Edit!

 

I watched "The American Friend" together with "Suspiria" a couple of days ago in an art-house "cinema" here in Madrid and it was really refreshing seeing the world through those cinematographers.

 

I also watched a marvelous movie called "The Keeping Room", photographed by the amazing Martin Ruhe and it was completely the opposite of "The American Friend" but Martin Ruhe's cinematography was so embracing and fitted the story so well that you had to love it (as everything that Ruhe shoots!)

 

Have a good day.

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I agree Miguel, with the high price of crew and A list cast today, films are being shot at an escalated pace. It's more then typical to shoot 5 pages a day, even on medium sized movies. I personally feel, much over 2 pages a day is the cut off between getting it perfect (lighting, camera moves, performances, art design, etc) vs skimping in some way. When you get into the 3 - 5 pages per day area, you're absolutely going to be skimping on something. Just look at 'Bridge of Spies', there are MANY scenes in that movie which have lights just thrown in corners, some of which you could swear were in shot, but some CG guy put a book case in front of to block. Most of that is due to the limited time the crew had in certain locations, but if you look more closely at the BTS, you can see just how fast they were shooting it. Sometimes shooting 2 pages a day, other times shooting what appears to be way more.

 

If you CAN slow the pace of production down, lets say spreading it over 45 days instead of 25 days, you'll be able to spend more time on the little nuances. Also, I always tell people the key is pre-production. If you can visit all the locations in advance, get an understanding for what you'd do at each of them, build a lighting rig on paper and have a large enough crew to implement it, then you SHOULD be in good shape. You've just gotta keep the company moves do a minimal and find locations with lots of shooting options. Filmmakers today apparently forget those critical elements, so they're doing multiple company moves a day, which substantially inhibits the crews ability to do things right.

 

Sure, it's an awesome feeling to get a movie done in 22 days or less... (my last two were 18 days and 12 days YIKES) but if the net result is a poor product, what's the point? I'd rather have some breathing room, even if it means an unpaid day off for the cast and most of the crew, so the lighting guys can go in and pre-light so things are done right. I've done that before on a few shows and it works well, but it means you've gotta nail your location and be able to shoot a lot in the same place... which of course, comes down to the script.

 

All in all, I do think the topic about "fast" shooting is a problem. I personally can't stand the way MOST movies are shot today, it's just uninspiring.

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It's a mixed bag -- with digital cameras and digital post, it is easier to get a consistent result, and to catch errors while shooting that might not have appeared until later with a film process. And of course there is the endless fixing of the image in post if desired (and budgeted for) -- bumpy dolly moves can be smoothed out, etc.

 

I think in general that focus-pulling is better today on digital movies despite being harder to do because of shooting at wide apertures. Certainly it is on low-budget movies -- I remember the days of shooting 35mm film and getting VHS dailies, and then finding out when viewing the answer print just how many close-ups were soft. With film dailies, at least the focus puller's mistakes would have been discovered the next day. (Yes, I know it was the operator's job to catch that stuff, but it's not always easy to see focus in a viewfinder.)

 

However, today the shorter schedules force things to get rushed PLUS that's compounded by the desire for more coverage with multiple cameras -- so we not only shoot things faster than before, we shoot more of it on a daily basis! That can only have a negative impact on technical quality and sometimes in terms of the inventiveness of staging for the camera. I mean, what's the point of designing a beautiful, fluid master shot if it's going to be chopped up?

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VHS dailies? YUCK! Worst dailies I ever got was 3/4" SP, though most of the time it was Betacam SP and eventually DV.

 

I can't imagine trying to judge things off a VHS tape. :(

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God, what an incredible scene that was! I just broke down entirely at that point. Marvelously done.

 

 

Classic case of less being more .. how he wasn't Oscar nominated for that role is nuts..

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I can point at so many new movies that have flaws, absolutely imperfect lighting, imperfect camera movements, imperfect focus and which don't rely on CGI at all (A Prophet, Biutiful, etc).

 

 

Interesting thread.

 

One of my favorite movies is Beautiful. If anyone asked, for about at least a few years I'd say "yeah I saw (insert movie) BUT have you seen Beautiful!? Its amazing!" same with A Prophet, also one of my favorites.

 

Yesterday I put Beautiful in to watch again, I hadn't seen it in a while and my opinion quickly changed. All I could see was the 'flaws'- focus issues, odd coverage, shaky handheld, etc... I was shocked. This was one of my favorite movies ever, people make fun of me because I mentioned it so much and suddenly I see the movie completely different? Definitely had a WTF moment- had I been wrong about this movie? Was the cinematography 'bad' and I just never noticed? Couldn't be.

 

Point I'm making is, as cinematography has increasingly trended towards beautiful imagery, bold composition, stylized lighting I'm embarrassed to admit the result has changed my taste! I was aware of the trend but not the effect it had on me until re-watching Beautiful. And sure, tastes change as people change and maybe because I'm more aware of the art of cinematography it makes it hard to 'see' a movie without being critical, that I've been conditioned to think cinematography has to be perfect- but I assumed that was possible for the average movie but not a film that had such a profound effect!

 

If you had asked me before re watching Biutiful "is beautiful cinematography a necessity for films?" I'd strongly argue the opposite, that cinematography should first and foremost serve the story. Unfortunately and sadly... according to my recent experience with Beautiful, I realize I have ingrained bias and the recent trend has had a small, but nonetheless significant effect on my personal taste. I'm both fascinated with subconscious/ingrained taste bias and frustrated.

 

*Incidentally, I'm not saying Biutiful's cinematography doesn't serve the story, in fact, I believe the style of cinematography Chivo and Innaritu chose to tell Biutiful was perfect.

Edited by Sebastien Scandiuzzi

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Don't see this myself. I think today's cinematography is a lot less beautiful than it was in the 70's, 80's and 90's. Today realism is celebrated at the cost of beauty. The documentary style over elaborate blocking and lighting.

 

 

 

 

Point I'm making is, as cinematography has increasingly trended towards beautiful imagery, bold composition, stylized lighting I'm embarrassed to admit the result has changed my taste! I was aware of the trend but not the effect it had on me until re-watching Beautiful.

 

 

 

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