By Sarah Sluis
You may think you know something about how movies are shot until you start surfing through the website for the ASC (American Society of Cinematographers). All of a sudden they're blogging about parallax problems in 3D and edge violation and cute videos Disney made to teach projectionists how to adjust for the floating window in their 3D films properly (this helps fix the 'edge violation,' a.k.a. the problem of the 3D effect going away or looking weird along the edge of the screen. It also means that during production, cinematographers have to shoot a specific way, like avoiding over-the-shoulder shots, in order to make the 3D look good). When you're caught up watching a movie, it's easy to forget how difficult it is to even accurately represent reality in a movie. Most amateur picture-takers have experienced the familiar problem of over or underexposure. The sun or window turns up abnormally bright in a picture, while the poor person standing in front of it has a dark, unrecognizable face. Or focus problems, like a crisp image of your friend against the blurry landmark in the background. But for professional cinematographers, correcting for these kind of problems is just the beginning of their job.
That's why it's interesting to see the results of an online poll ranking the best cinematography in films from 1998-2008. The experts belonging to the ASC picked the finalists, then the Internet at large picked its favorite. The winner? Amelie, which I remember most for its manipulation of color, infusing certain scenes with saturated colors, as well as its use of a Super 8 camera for its nostalgic opening sequence. Movies with dark, shadowy cinematography also turned up, like The Dark Knight or noir-ish Road to Perdition. Children of Men is known for its moving-camera sequences, Saving Private Ryan for the challenges of its shoot ( the camerawork in the D-Day sequence were pretty incredible). Way down on the list is The New World, one of my favorites, for its stunning depiction of the
natural world. Watching that movie was like going on a hike.
The list says more about what people recognize as good cinematography rather than what actually went into making the movie. Stylized cinematography wins over naturalistic cinematography, simply because it's more noticeable. Coloring and shadowing are among the most readily accessible parts of cinematography: they're meant to be noticed. Seamless moving camera shots that focus on multiple characters (like that famous Citizen Kane shot that moves from outside with the young Kane sledding to indoors) are more invisible than a shot that follows one person through a dynamic space--like Martin Scorsese's use of the shot in Raging Bull (YouTube clip) and Goodfellas. But is one better than the other?
While this list only goes until 2008, last year the 3D, CGI Avatar won for Best Cinematography. Even if cinematographers have already accepted and rewarded 3D as an art form, it can't "do" all the same things that cinematographers do with 2D films. As the ASC blogger states, "It has been suggested that in the 3-D world, a much reduced selection
of lenses (and wider ones at that) is advisable � that the longer focal
length lenses I often prefer, and the shallow depth of field I choose
for dramatic purposes, are elements that do not strongly support the
guidelines for effective 3-D cinema." That doesn't mean people won't come up with creative solutions to 3D's various challenges--everyone praised Avatar--but that also means some will be more interested in mounting the learning curve than others. Christoper Nolan isn't swayed by the hassle of shooting in 3D, saying he would prefer to add it in post-production, and also gripes about the darker images projected by 3D, which is particularly problematic for the dark, shadowy films he makes. I will happily go to see his 2D Inception this July. As far as I can tell, there are no James Cameron-level 3D movies in the works now. How many 3D movies will show up among the ASC's list ten years from now remains to be seen.