Artistic decisions in our profession : technical and political

Discussion between two cinematographers : Pascale Marin, AFC, and Philippe Ros, AFC, co-president of the Imago Technical Committee

par Pascale Marin, Philippe Ros Contre-Champ AFC n°348

[ English ] [ français ]

In late June 2023, during the Euro Cine Expo in Munich (cinema equipment trade show), Claire & Rob Sanders, the managers, gave six slots to the Imago Technical Committee (ITC) to exhibit their work. Among these presentations, ITC proposed a panel entitled “Artistic decisions in cinematography - To be burned or not to be burned ?”

At the VMLC (Note 1) [see footnote] Virtual Production Conference in Stuttgart in March 2023, Suny Behar gave a Zoom presentation of camera comparative tests (HBO Camera Assessment Series Season 6 (Note 2). I then approached him to ask him what he thought of the “Arri textures” that come with the Alexa 35 and are directly recorded into the RAW or ProRes format.
Suny’s response was very direct, describing this practice as “destructive”, also using the term “burned” (Note 3), which is harsher and more graphic than “baked into”.
He justified this by citing the risks of degradation and the irreversibility of these textures.
I did not answer then because this question was the last of this conference. However, the topic seemed interesting enough for me to report back on it at the April ITC monthly meeting.

This gave rise to an intense debate involving Denis Lenoir AFC, ASC, ACK, a new member of the committee, and Roberto Schaefer, ASC, AIC, who protested against the term “destructive” which seemed inappropriate to him.
Of course, the question is who decides ? The producers ? The platform ? The director ? The cinematographer ? Or is it a compromise between different points of view ?

I therefore proposed the ITC organize a panel on this subject during the Munich show at the end of June. I invited several people : cinematographers, a colorist, camera manufacturers including Dr. Tamara Seybold (technical manager of image science at Arri) creator of the textures for the Alexa 35 and, of course, Suny Behar.
Pascale Marin, who was giving a presentation of the comparative tests of Super 35 and Full Frame lenses carried out by the AFC during this show, also agreed to participate. It seemed to me that her career in independent French/European film could provide another point of view.

I then suggested to Pascale that we continue this debate in the form of a conversation for the AFC. Here it is :

Philippe Ros :
During the debate, you were the only one to mention the directors in connection with these artistic decisions on cinematography. Why do you think that is ?

Pascale Marin :
It’s interesting that you pointed this out, it’s obviously linked to my experience and background, since I work on auteur films. On these films, the director is ultimately the decision-maker, even in the event of conflict with the production. Common ground is usually found, but in some ways, the French director is very powerful.
The panel allowed me to question more broadly what the political implications of these choices are on the image depending on the type of production. Personally, I make these choices without using the terms “burned” or “baked into”, but always with an awareness of what will be best for the film.

This means I am constantly in the process of assessing the consistency of the director’s choices : is it a desire he won’t go back on, something I can really rely on ? Or is it something I need to keep open the possibility of going back on, because he might change his mind ? It’s important to estimate this, and of course it depends on each director..

Philippe :
To return to the role of directors and operators in these artistic decisions, don’t you think that there is an educational problem in our profession with respect to visual culture ?

Pascale :
As far as operator training is concerned, learning the technique provides a relatively precise framework. You have to know how to use a camera. Learning to be a director is more multi-faceted.
We know that some directors are much more technical than others. Of course, it is advantageous for us to have someone who will have a deeper understanding of the issues we face ; yet this is not the essence of a good director.
But it is true that sometimes people end up directing without having the basics of cinema : how to tell a story through a series of shots…

Philippe :
It’s true that we meet directors who say : “I don’t care what type of shot you use, we can always reframe it in postproduction.”
Directors who approach filmmaking in this way lack an understanding of the importance of the relationship between focal length and the distance and height of the camera in relation to the actor.

Pascale :
Obviously we’d prefer him to know, but what if he doesn’t ?
Either you have the time to show him the difference, that an 18mm cropped in close-up will not at all give the same depth of field nor the same feeling of perspective as a 100mm. And then, he can make an informed choice based on the knowledge you have given him.
Or, you don’t have the time and if he decides that he is going to reframe later on without knowing what that entails, this will generate frustration for you.

Philippe :
I was able to observe, when I taught abroad, that directors obtained a minimal knowledge of the basics of photography, without going deeply into the technique, but by being interested in the perception of the image and the perception of the actor’s performance through the lens. How viewers will perceive the interaction of the actors’ field with the lens’ field. How can we talk about textures if, at the very least, there is no knowledge of these basic rules ?

Pascale :
I agree with you but I have also worked with directors who, without having scientific knowledge of these matters, really had an empirical feel for it and with whom communication was very fluid..
Others, on the other hand, want to shoot in 8K with this camera and those lenses, but don’t really know what they want to shoot and how..

Philippe :
I completely agree with you : if a director arrives with technical presuppositions, 8K, lenses, things have started off on the wrong foot. It’s a confused and rather conservative view of the technical side of things.
Regarding these artistic/technical decisions, I find it difficult to gain an education on set, it has to be done in preparation. Especially regarding the subtleties of digital images which do not exist in film. The possibilities of refocusing and defocusing, the possibilities of textures, all this requires being in a color grading room and being able to look over all this calmly with the director and the colorist. And then maybe come back and see the images the next day.
Becoming aware that we must share the same vision of the image and of the dramatic work on texture with the director (or that he has to share it with us) cannot happen in two minutes, especially on independent films.

Pascale :
Absolutely ! You asked me whether, on the films I work on, I had enough time to do this type of preparation : all too rarely !
On films with a tight budget, as the start of production signals the start of spending, preparation is often pushed back as far as possible. So it’s time that I have to manage to ’squeeze out’..
Gathering set elements, costumes, possibly actors, a camera, maybe two series of lenses, two series of filters and a post-production studio to have time to see these images, to talk about them, and possibly to try other things... It’s already a struggle to get this done ! It’s always the economics that get in the way.

Philippe :
I teach young directors and young operators and I always say that, in relation to this type of film, once the money is in the bank, the train has left the station, and it will not stop at the stations that you want at the time you want. The only time that will allow you to work is pre-pre-production. That is to say when the film does not yet exist, with the risk of working for nothing. But this is the only way to have time to understand what the director is saying and what he wants and that the words you use with one another will form a shared perspective on
the image.

Pascale :
I know that I have a library of references and elements of language that are specific to each individual project.

Philippe :
I’ve noticed that there was sometimes a lack of common language between operators and directors in France. I could see that schools in Poland, Russia or Scandinavia were taking this problem seriously. Before starting makeup trials, it seems to me that we should take the time to check for semantic problems. Within the crew, are we really all talking about the same thing ?

Pascale :
Could this be the legacy of the New Wave ? It’s paradoxical, because technical evolutions are what allowed the New Wave to exist, but sometimes it’s also people who claim to be part of the New Wave who relegate technology to the back seat. They are afraid of it, because they feel that improvisation and the “on the spot” feeling should take precedence over something that is overly prepared, which would run the risk of becoming academic.
Ideally, we seek a compromise in which we manage to maintain spontaneity while not totally renouncing aestheticism.

Philippe :
I sense an important change in your generation : for you, the technical and artistry are completely linked. In mine, I see people who still have difficulty seeing themselves as craftsmen, therefore artists AND technicians.

Pascale :
On this subject, I really like the name that the CST chose for the prize it awards at the Cannes Film Festival every year : the Artist-Technician Award. I think is a very appropriate term.

Philippe :
I agree with you, it’s very apt. For me, there are two ways a cinematographer can approach the technical side of things in the digital age, and in both, everything happens beforehand, the technical cannot direct a shoot ; it has to happen in preproduction.
Either the cinematographer concentrates on the technical side of things, or he chooses not to, but in that case, he surrounds himself with very good technicians, and he accepts (and even embraces) that he has delegated that side of things to them. I have a Portuguese friend who doesn’t have much by way of technical background but who nonetheless, in the way he expresses his desires, is perfectly capable of guiding the colorist, the AC or the DIT.

Pascale :
Once again this is a comfort that can only be obtained with a rather comfortable budget. Personally, I have never made a film where I had a DIT. I often have to fight to ensure that my second camera assistant is not a trainee. Obviously, under such conditions, if I want to have control over my image, I must possess the technical knowledge myself.

Philippe :
A famous French cinematographer once said to me : “But Philippe, we don’t give a damn about the technical !” I told him that at his level, he could allow himself to be completely free from the technical because he had the means and therefore the good fortune of being surrounded by excellent colorists and DITs.
I am curious and I like to master things but I know that, for example, there are cameras, branches of the profession, or lighting fixtures that I am not familiar with and that I don’t have the time to become familiar with, and if I have to work with any of them, I will take on an assistant and/or a DIT, a colorist or a gaffer who are familiar with them and will train me in a way. That’s what teamwork is all about, and this relationship with these people is essential for me.
I have no problem saying that I am no longer fully responsible for the image. In digital, this is no longer possible.

Pascale :
Quite right. One is never a cinematographer on one’s own. Therefore, it is impossible to claim sole responsibility for the image.

Philippe :
I had a terrible time, on a very long documentary, convincing one of the producers to put the colorist with me at the start of the credits : we had both started work a year before the start of the film.
Digital technology is changing the state of affairs and I think that the complexity of the new LED spotlights that can be controlled and adjusted in relation to color spaces, will considerably increase gaffers’ responsibility.
To return to the subject at hand, you told me that the panel had ultimately opened up a broader set of questions for you, related to the use of tools during shooting or post-production.

Pascale : This is what I addressed in the few lines I wrote for Cinematography World (#17) (Note 4). When we ask ourselves about “burned” or “not burned” decisions, we are talking about digital decisions.
But there are all the physical decisions on set, which are irremediably “burned” : a choice of focal length, a camera movement, a choice of filter. Contemporary cinema is a mix of physical and digital decisions.
The real question to ask is, when we have the choice, what interest would we have in it being “burned” ?
If there is a moment when it is in our interest for something to be “burned” in the image it is because we would not obtain the same result in post-production.
It can happen : today, for example, shooting anamorphic..
We know how to emulate anamorphic flare, but we cannot yet simply create the deformations that an anamorphic focus pull generates.

So, if the director says : I want a lens that opens a lot, I want to be able to shoot very, very up close but I like horizontal flare effects, I will probably suggest shooting in spherical and adding the flare effects in post-production.
On the other hand, if he loves distortions, then I would tell him to shoot in anamorphic. In this case, no hesitation, I know why I am making an irremediable decision. On the other hand, when it comes to textures, I wonder : will the texture appear differently if it is applied on set or if it is added in postproduction ? To answer that question, you have to know how the film will be broadcast, so it would be necessary to conduct tests. But I tend to think that if the result is strictly the same, then it is in our interest to give ourselves the possibility of adjusting it image by image because that provides you with tremendous comfort.

Philippe :
If you can afford it !

Pascale :
This is why these cinematographic choices are always made within a given economic framework. What can I do before, what can I do after ? If it stops me from getting what I want, then I’ll do it where I can afford it.
And that’s when communication becomes crucial because if a director has a somewhat radical desire and the production or the broadcaster is afraid of it, that’s where things get stuck.
And that’s why it’s very political, because if at some point there is an artistic disagreement, then obviously making irremediable decisions in the image pulls the rug out from under the feet of people who might like to change these images a posteriori.
But it is because there is disagreement that it becomes a problem.

Ideally, you need to get everyone around a table to talk openly with each other : “Why are you afraid that we’ll put a texture in the camera that we won’t be able to backtrack on ?” Or to be even more radical, “why are you afraid of us shooting in Super 8 ?” And there may be excellent reasons to be afraid of that, you just have to say them openly. Is it an insurance problem, additional costs, difficulty for the VFX… ?

Photo John Daly, BSC

Philippe :
Of course, several things come into play at the same time.
I insisted on putting “burned” rather than “baked into” in the title because the semantic difference is important and I also liked the somewhat provocative title (to be or not to be). Because, during the conference in Stuttgart, Suny Behar (HBO tests) deliberately used the terms “burned” and “destructive” when talking about the Arri textures. Even in his wording there are politics.

Pascale :
This is completely normal, Suny is speaking from HBO’s point of view and he very rightly raised the question of the conservation and future availability of a work, whatever it may be. In my opinion, HBO has positioned itself as one of the most important series creators of the last 20 years, with series like "Six Feet Under", "The Wire" and "Game of Thrones" that we can look forward to seeing again in 10 years, 20 years and beyond.
That’s why it’s logical for HBO, as the owner of these series, to ask about their future availability.

The question of conservation has become more prominent since the early 2000s. Laurent Dailland mentioned it regarding the restoration of Alain Chabat’s film : Asterix, Mission Cléopâtre (Note 5).
This is a large budget film, shot in 35mm, expertly crafted, we know that it keeps very well, but the film also contains digital special effects at a time when they were still “young”. Laurent pointed out the difficulty of recovering 8-bit elements, which were created with proprietary software that no longer exists and which ran on machines that are no longer in working order.
What should have been done ? How can we anticipate technological advances that are still unknown ? It’s not like it was one of those productions that didn’t bother making a copy of their Master, left it on a hard drive for 15 years, and then cry over its loss.
I shot short films in 35mm in the early 2000s. There are generally two film copies : a first trial print and an answer print which in that case is also the release print. The answer print has been shown at various festivals and it is generally quite damaged. As for the first trial print, it is not as good as the answer print and has been sent to the Cinémathèque française for the legally mandated deposit. As for the video Masters, they were only made in SD for the production of DVDs. No HD scans because, in the short film economy of the early 2000s, nobody could afford them. So today we have an image which on a 4K TV does not do justice to the initial work.

Philippe :
There is actually a whole period of cinema that has not been digitalized, particularly from the 1980s and 90s. It’s easier to find a Buster Keaton or Max Linder film than those of some important, more recent directors.

Pascale :
It’s not the oldest films that disappear, on the contrary, it is those from the intermediate periods. I think a lot of the early movies shot in HD are gone.
So I understand very well that HBO wants to keep the “cleanest” elements and I put quotes because clean is like “burnt” or “cooked”, what does clean mean ? But in any case, elements that are as modular as possible, to give themselves the freedom to re-exploit them at a later date, even if broadcast technology has evolved.
This always comes along with the artistic and ethical question : are we changing them to meet contemporary tastes by changing definition, format, color grading, etc.? It can be taken very far. Is this a betrayal ? This question has already arisen with the films Star Wars from the 1970s and 80s and their Special Editions from the late 1990s (Note 6).
What power does a director have over his work, a producer over his property ? Is he betraying the spectators who loved the works he revised and whose elements he deliberately destroyed so that they could no longer be seen in their initial form ?

In the same way, HBO owns its series and has the right to ensure all elements that they deem necessary are kept in order to do with them whatever they want in the future.

Philippe :
I agree with that, but I want to make a distinction between them and Netflix, not on series, but on films where the platform takes control over the work by demanding possession of all the elements : images, sounds before calibration and mixing so that they can modify them to suit different countries, time periods, optimized versions, whether the changes be consensual or simply done in order to sell as much as possible. We cannot compare this to HBO series where the producer who is sometimes the show runner decides to rework his film, on one hand, and a feature film, even one produced by Netflix, which is re-edited entirely.

Pascale :
Except that here, we are no longer in the domain of the technical, the director-author disappears into oblivion. And we, as operators, almost wonder what our role is at all.

Philippe :
That’s being a studio operator.

Pascale :
Yet operators who have worked with Netflix say that it is sometimes extremely advantageous to have a technical director who knows the entire range of Netflix productions. Faced with a particular sequence he will be able to say : “We already did this for such and such shows, we did it like this for such and such a reason and we realized that it did not work very well for such and such a reason, and so we recommend doing it more like that.” It’s an incredible time saver to be able to benefit from such broad expertise.

Philippe :
This is the paradoxical side of Netflix which has great technicians and which, at the same time, decreed a few years ago that the Alexa did not comply with the platform’s specs because it was not 4K. Thus, many directors of photography were prevented from working with a tool they were familiar with, even though the reference to the number of pixels had no scientific basis. A RED with soft or vintage lenses can look much less sharp than an Alexa with very defined lenses.

I think that we are in a time and a system where working people are, for the most part, dispossessed of their tools, of the knowledge they have about them and of the freedom to develop them. They are told that the real work will be done later. In the cinema, we are not really affected yet, but what I was able to see during the discussions between Netflix and the Imago technical committee on the rejection of the Alexa and on the fear several cinematographers’ associations had over openly discussing this problem at Camerimage, is that we are entering into the freedom of choice of the camera. It is a decision that is both artistic and political and not simply technical.

Pascale :
But that’s where the friction comes in, if they try to take away things we used to consider our prerogatives, and I think that, as we’ve completely embraced this status of technical artist, we refuse to be turned into executors.

Philippe :
We are in agreement. When I proposed the list of guests to the technical committee, I stressed that it was very important that you were there because you were going to talk about your career in independent cinema and that you were certainly going to talk about the decision-making power of the director. But in this area, don’t you think that the more creative power we give to an operator, the more power we give to the director, obviously provided there are no conflicts between the two ?

Pascale :
It indeed depends in part on the relationship between the two. I realize that I don’t like speaking in terms of power, because that’s where questions of hierarchy between the roles comes into play. It can become a very pyramidal system with some people who only have the right to remain silent and others who can become little autocrats, and I really think that it is not under such conditions that we create the best things. Our work is more about collaboration than about power.

Philippe :
I agree with you, it’s not the right term, but I think that creative freedoms, particularly on the camera, can be an asset for films if they are consensual, carefully considered and if, I repeat, there has been time to communicate.

Pascale :
The "ifs" you add are crucial. But let’s face it, there are also people in our profession who "spoil" films, who, to flatter their ego, will impose decisions without taking into account what this generates for the rest of the chain.

Philippe :
There are indeed dangerous people who don’t know how to work with a team. Their decisions can actually cause real problems.

In the relationship between artistic decisions and digital technology, I see two important phenomena :
The first is related to the specific way the digital production chain has evolved. There is, and will be, more and more creative input possible in cameras and in post-production. Currently only manufacturers, platforms and international organizations (SMPTE) (Note 7) are decision-makers, very few directors of photography are involved in these choices, particularly on virtual production and the SMPTE RIS program (Note 8).
The second is the essential relationship to the screening of dailies which we have lost at the present time. The big screen and the dark room are the best ways for a director to unite a team around a project through a shared desire for cinema. I think that’s how you learn your job, by also understanding that of others. It is essential to approach decisions on cinematography this way, but it seems difficult in today’s world to take the time to organize a group screening when a little HD projector and ProRes dailies involve minimal costs.

Pascale :
When it comes to the big screen, I totally agree with you. I’m a fan of movie theaters, but I think they’re not Netflix’s priority.

Philippe :
Completely agree with you, but it is also a mistake by Netflix because there are more and more home cinemas. In any case, working in the movies and watching dailies on a computer seems abnormal to me.

Along with this question of artistic decisions, there is also this myth of WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get), believing that because we can quickly see information on set, we have the final image. We often believe that we see the same thing on set as the director or we believe that he sees the same thing as us. But to “have” an image, you have to agree to waste time.

Currently the perception of the image is always linked to a structure of thought, an economic structure where one must move quickly : taking time is eliminated and the desire to have everything in hand is predominant.
There can be two reasons for making these artistic decisions in post-production : postponing them is often a sign of wisdom if we do not have the time to make them calmly in preparation, on the other hand it can also mean an inability to make choices beforehand.
This is why “cooking” with full knowledge of the consequences (and not “burning”) an artistic decision in advance can also be the way to imprint a desire onto the image.

Pascale :
This relationship to the initial desire is like a compass, it is about setting a course which will be followed through the end of the chain. And yet, this does not prevent us from preserving a creative path, from allowing ourselves to be carried beyond the initial desire.
For me, cinema is the possibility of transporting people far away from where they live geographically but also mentally and therefore not giving them exactly what they expect. This is true for the viewers, but it is also true for those who finance films, who make them, who distribute them... let us be surprised.

Photo John Daly, BSC

List of Euro Cine Expo panel guests
- Sunny Behar – Cinematographer/Director (HBO – Camera Test Series)
- Aleksej Berkovic (RGC, ITC co-president) – Cinematographer
- Stefan Grandinetti (BVK) – Cinematographer - Professor of cinematography
- Daniel Listh - Sony, Specialist in content acquisition solutions
- Pascale Marin (AFC) - Cinematographer
- Dirk Meier (BVK, CSI) - Senior Colorist
- Rauno Ronkainen (FSC) - Cinematographer - Professor of Cinematography - Aalto University, Department of Cinema | School of Arts
- Philippe Ros (AFC, ITC co-president) - Cinematographer
- Roberto Schaefer (ASC, AIC) - Cinematographer
- Dr Tamara Seybold - Arri, Technical Lead of Image Science
- Marc Shipman-Mueller - Arri, Senior Product Manager - Camera Systems
- Loren Simons - RED Digital Cinema , Senior Film Technology Advisor
- Dave Stump (ASC, MITC, ITC co-president) - Cinematographer
- Ari Wegner (ACS) - Cinematographer

During this panel, students from the Hochschule der Medien (University of Applied Sciences) in Stuttgart, led by Stefan Grandinetti , BVK, presented their work on the application of the Photon Path (Note 9) :
- Johannes Hansler
- Martin Koch
- Mario Krupinski
- Jonas Seidl.

Note 1
You can access more information on the Visual Media Lab Conference through the article published on the AFC website Une conférence bien réelle sur la production virtuelle

Note 2
Presentation of these tests at Camerimage : article by Margot Cavret
"Camera Assessment / Evaluation de la caméra", par HBO
These tests were also presented at TSF on April 15, 2023 on the initiative of the Femmes à la Caméra collective.
TSF HBO Camera Assessment Series 2023

Note 3
The term “burned” refers to the definitive and irreversible recording of data in the image during shooting. It is important to note that the term used most frequently is “baked into” or “baked -in”.

Note 4
Imago Technical Committee

Note 5
Conférence AFC "La restauration des films"

Note 6
See the documentary The People vs. George Lucas, by Alexandre O. Philippe

Note 7
SMPTE : The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), founded in 1916, is an international professional association of engineers and executives working in the media and entertainment industry. SMPTE has published more than 800 technical standards and related documents for broadcasting, filmmaking, digital cinema, audio recording, information technology (IT), and medical imaging.

Note 8
SMPTE’s Rapid Industry Solutions (RIS) program was designed to meet the emerging needs of the industry. Working with partners across the industry, SMPTE identified On-Set Virtual Production (OSVP) as an appropriate topic for its first RIS initiative, the SMPTE RIS OSVP Initiative.
Rapid Industry Solutions

Note 9
The “Photon Path” and “Glossary”
A new tool launched by ITC to understand and teach how a digital image is created.
The “Photon Path” and “Glossary”