Since I never shot with a digital camera, my point of view is probably irrelevant since I didn’t have to face collaboration with a digital technician or whoever would be on set telling me what to do or not do. I’m one of these “dinosaurs”, as Chivo called me, who still use film. I’m really fortunate as well because nobody told me “yet”, you have to use digital camera no matter what you think. For my three last feature films, all three directors (four actually), Alexander Sokurov, Tim Burton
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and the Coen Brothers, asked me my feeling about shooting digital.
It shows that we are not the only one to be “obsessed” by the changing of time. Directors have their own reasons to go or not go for digital. Not having to reload film and keep the momentum going with the actors is sometimes one enough good reason for them to think that digital is a great system. Interesting enough, after talking with these directors, for artistic reasons, we shot those three movies, Faust, Dark Shadows and Inside Llewyn Davis, on film.
For the three of them, the “look” and “texture” of film was what they were aiming to. But all these movies were digitally graded. I’ve never been a purist. I’m not a pure “cinematographer” in the sense : “What you see on set is what you’ll get on print”. Since Amelie, I use digital grading to get an image I couldn’t get with chemical process. Therefore all I’m doing on set is based on the final result. On Potter, my contrast ratio was about 4 stops only because I was looking for a grey palette with almost no highlights. A higher contrast would have make this impossible without “bending” everything later. But wasn’t it what we were doing when we were doing an ENR process or a bleach bypass ?
We had to be careful or pay attention to what the chemicals were actually doing on the neg and do what needed on set to avoid problems. So far, people were using digital cameras for economical reasons only. It’s cheaper (even if I think it’s a lie. If you want good quality ; the post-production is expensive), it’s lighter..., all those things which have nothing to do with an artistic point of view. An economical reason is a good reason. The problem is that people were asking digital to look like film.
That’s stupid. It’s as if you were asking an "aquarelle” to look like a “oil” painting. It’s impossible and it’s ridiculous.
We found ourselves in a situation where they wanted a “bleach bypass” look with a digital camera. My answer to this kind of request always was : if you want a bleach bypass look ; do it for real, on film. Use film because it was created for film : you don’t “bleach bypass” pixels ,don’t you ?
About the control we have on our images ; I think it has always been a problem. I remember a producer telling me that he was paying an actress a lot of money therefore he wanted to see her. If I translate this sentence into Dop’s language, it means : don’t be too dark... I try to work around these kind of request, and don’t try to convince them they are wrong. I better try to find another look than the one I was aiming for ; it’s even more interesting creatively because inside those problems you can find answers you never expected to find. And I avoid battles which I know I will lose anyway.
Since I’m bending the image so much, I work with people I trust and understand what I’m looking for. Since I started I only worked with two graders : Yvan Lucas
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and Peter Doyle
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. Both of them, a part of being great technicians and artists, are absolutely on my side and are involve in all the discussions I have with the directors about the look. While shooting they grade the dailies and on a regular basis we show "evolving" grades to the directors.
Usually, when I finish principal photography, the film is near from is final look. Working this way help to control visual effects as well. Everybody is aiming toward the same goal which is the grade I’m suggesting and have been approved by the directors.
About digital cameras
When I shot Harry Potter, I did test with all the digital cameras on the market. None of them were as good as film, but it was 6 years ago. Now, since the Alexa
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, which I tested, it’s a different game. It means that, as for film, there is digital cameras and digital cameras. You don’t compare an 8 by 10 neg with a 24 x 36 neg. Why should we compare an Alexa
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with a Canon 5D ? You don’t use an 8x10 camera to take picture on a war front line ; you use a Leica. It raise the questions of the final result. What is it we want to get ?
When I write that, I’m not a purist that means - my one and only goal is the final result, the image I want to get. I love contemporary art because those artists use whatever they think is usefull to get what they are looking for. Robert Raushenberg glued newspaper clips, stocking, metal, band aids and plexiglass... on his oil paintings and I made his approach’s mine. If I think it’s right to use a pinhole camera I will do so. If I think that the poor quality of a Canon 5D is interesting, I will use it.
So far I didn’t find the right project to use this equipment, just as I didn’t find the right project to use the Alexa
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. May be one day I will use a cardboard box camera but it will have to fit the story and the look I’m aiming for. My feeling is that we are just in the middle of big changes. I’m not a purist because I’m not nostalgic about film.
As long as people will ask digital to look like film ; I will say : use film. I think we have to find the “language” of digital images. There is a different quality than film and we have to find how to use it properly.
If I use the same comparison as before : “Aquarelle” versus “oil painting” : they are two different “languages”. You don’t even paint the same thing. It’s quite rare to see an portrait made with “aquarelle”. It’s a different approach and a different feeling.
What is the “feeling” of digital images ? I don’t know yet. If I don’t know what it is, I cannot know how to use it and how to distort it (because for me distortion is more interesting than reality). It remind me of the early ages of photography when painters where using stills as a reference. Everybody said they were not painters and painting was dead. I don’t know what the future will be. What do I know anyway ? Those lines are just things going through my mind now. May be they are not so relevant anyway.
I will probably shortly move to digital cameras and it will, “hopefully”, be fine as long as nobody tell me how to light a scene. Eventually, the real question and the real fear is : what becomes of those digital files in 20 years from now ?