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10 High Points in Digital Cinematography

The Social Network Just a few years ago, it was considered a safe bet that Academy Awards in the field of cinematography would be reserved for movies that were shot on film. Some industry insiders felt digital acquisition still wasn’t up to snuff, and even the technology’s true believers often detected a conservatism among voting Academy members who weren’t sure they were ready to stop worrying and love digital cinema. But now, all that has changed. In 2009, the winner for best picture and best cinematography was Slumdog Millionaire, a showcase for footage acquired with the SI 2K camera system alongside film cameras. And in 2010, the completely digital Avatar, acquired with Sony CineAlta cameras mounted on PACE 3D rigs, won the cinematography award — raising some eyebrows, given that so much of the film took place with computer-generated characters on virtual locations. This year, The Social Network (shot with Red cameras) and 127 Hours (shot with the SI 2K plus Canon DSLRs and other high-speed digital cameras) have to be considered Oscar front-runners in a number of categories, cinematography among them. No, digital still doesn’t look like film. It might look better for one movie and worse for another one. But we’ve reached a point where it’s ideal for some projects. On reflection, and as Oscar season starts to crank up, I took a look back at some of the films whose pioneering work helped get us here, and tried to think about how their aesthetic achievements — the look of the film, not necessarily the technical workflow that got it on screen — helped make the case for digital cinematography. (Please note: I’m taking the well-documented importance of both Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones (2002) and Avatar (2009) as a given here. George Lucas and James Cameron don’t need anybody else making the case for how wildly influential their work has been!)
The Company (2003) Directed by Robert Altman Shot by Andrew Dunn Primary camera: Sony F900 I might be going out on a limb here by starting with the late Robert Altman’s cinema verité-style ballet drama, The Company. You probably won’t find this on any other lists of digital cinematography landmarks, but the film has a lush, coruscating look that’s highly unusual, even for films shot on HD. The soft glow plays nicely against the warmth of the long dance sequences depicted, a look that seems to be partly the product of a cinematographer who didn’t want to play nice with the video cameras. “A lot of the things I was warned about, like highlights and hot windows, I wanted,” cinematographer Andrew Dunn told DV magazine at the time. “Rick Thomas, the gaffer, and I were deliberately creating those things, because otherwise you end up with that flat, mediocre, video look.” Combined with Altman’s penchant for overlapping dialogue and his ever-searching camera, the results might not have been hugely influential — but they showed an old master adapting quickly, and without fuss, to the new technology.
Sin City (2005) Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller Shot by Rodriguez Primary camera: Sony F950 When the first footage from Sin City was released to an eager audience at ComicCon — and leaked to the Internet shortly thereafter — it had the feel of something honestly revolutionary. Viewers who were familiar with the sleek monochrome style of Frank Miller’s comic-book franchise marveled at what Robert Rodriguez planned to accomplish. When the film came out, sure enough, the Sin City comics were up there on screen. Nobody before had managed to so comprehensively translate a graphic look from the printed page, largely because the appropriate digital tools for that level of image control didn’t exist yet. Sure, there was Star Wars — but that’s filmmaking on an entirely different scale. And the look of Sin City contrasted greatly with the lush, detailed backgrounds of Attack of the Clones, offering a stark template for next-generation efforts like 300 (2006) and Miller’s own The Spirit (2008). Sin City is one of those movies that suggests that, with the right tools plus enough creativity and imagination, any kind of image-making is possible.
Apocalypto (2006) Directed by Mel Gibson Shot by Dean Semler Primary camera: Panavision Genesis Apocalypto is a pretty movie, to be sure. But it’s important because it’s such an ambitious movie. Shot in the jungles of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, the action-adventure movie about the 16th century Mayan Empire was a test case for how well the Genesis would perform under uncontrolled and often uncomfortable conditions. The answer, judging by what’s on screen? Like a champ. Whether it’s capturing the subtle interplay of sunlight with tree leaves in the canopy overhead or making the absolute most of available light during a night shoot, the film’s digital imagery seemed only to enhance the film’s you-are-there sense of space and time. Dean Semler’s success had to make other cinematographers more comfortable heading onto their own locations with the camera.
Crank (2006) Directed by Neveldine/Taylor Shot by Adam Biddle Primary cameras: Sony F950, Canon XL-2 The writing/directing team of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor brought in this over-the-top action epic starring Jason Statham at a reported budget of just $12 million and a running time of just 93 minutes. The results testify to their DIY attitude. They operated their own cameras, shooting mostly with the Sony F950 but falling back on the XL-2 as a lightweight crash cam. The XL-2’s MiniDV is cut more or less seamlessly into the HD footage, and the resulting POV footage just amps up the film’s frantic feeling. The tactic was in use by other cinematographers as well — for example, Rodney Charters famously put mini HDV cameras and other digital formats to work on the set of 24, capturing lots of test footage and also occasionally cutting those shots into the 35mm show. (Viewing audiences never noticed the difference.)
Miami Vice (2006) Directed by Michael Mann Shot by Dion Beebe Primary cameras: Sony F900, Thomson Viper Michael Mann is a director who embraces digital formats not as the equivalent of 35mm film but as something else entirely. He took some heat for the look of his next film, Public Enemies (2009), which brought gritty video textures to what would have been a lush period piece in any other director’s hands. Some found that grating. But Miami Vice is a breathtaking visual accomplishment, using the sensitivity of HD cameras to create unrivalled nighttime cityscapes without much regard for whether the results looked traditionally film-like. Along with Collateral (2004), another boundary-testing movie that featured detailed but sometimes noisy after-dark photography, Miami Vice was key in pushing the envelope of digital cinematography.
Zodiac (2007) Directed by David Fincher Shot by Harris Savides Primary camera: Grass Valley Viper Harris Savides, a terrific cinematographer, reportedly wrestled a bit with the “synthetic quality” of the images out of the Viper camera, but they really set the tone of David Fincher’s movie — less a serial-killer story than a psychological drama about obsession. Painstaking CG recreations of San Francisco in the 1960s and early 1970s meshed with location photography, giving the film a grim and haunting sense of the hyperreal as Savides’ camera peered deep into the shadows of the California night. It wasn’t a big success at the box office or at the Oscars, but it was a virtuosic showcase for all the tools available to the contemporary filmmaker.
Speed Racer (2008) Directed by The Wachowski Brothers Shot by David Tattersall Primary cameras: Sony F23, Phantom HD/v10, NAC Hi-Motion Yes, Speed Racer. It took a drubbing from both critics and audiences, who as it turned out could not have been much less interested. But the film is a unique hypervisual experience full of color and light and interesting, outside-the-box effects. It’s just possible that it’s too hypervisual — the TV spots looked almost like ads for a pinball machine. I saw it in a huge New York City theater where the blow-up to IMAX resolution actually caused the picture’s fine details to break up a little bit on screen. But watching it on Blu-ray is like opening a box of candy — the image has a sugary intensity that lights the way for any filmmaker with the budget to finance that kind of sweet tooth.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008) Directed by Danny Boyle Shot by Anthony Dod Mantle Primary cameras: Silicon Imaging SI 2K, various Arriflex film cameras You could argue the Boyle/Mantle movie that really belongs on this list is 28 Days Later (2002), which proved that you could shoot a scary movie on DV without compromising your visual impact or limiting yourself to Blair Witch first-person shakycam. But Slumdog gets the nod for breaking the Oscar barrier. Though much of the film was shot on 35mm film, this became the first movie with a significant proportion of digitally acquired footage to take the cinematography award. Boyle’s visual stylings were playful in other ways, such as his imaginatively rendered on-screen subtitles, making the film a terrific showcase for Silicon Imaging’s camera technology.
Antichrist (2009) Directed by Lars von Trier Shot by Anthony Dod Mantle Primary cameras: Red One, Phantom HD The bleak mood and messages of the polarizing Antichrist were never going to earn its director or cinematographer any Oscars. In fact, in this case “bleak” is probably an understatement. But the imagery is a veritable master class in digital cinematography. The bulk of the film is shot, to maximum alienating effect, with the Red One, with which Mantle delivers a dark, contrasty image that often verges on monochrome. And then there are the super-slow-motion interludes, captured with the Phantom, that depict dreamlike visions and memories with mesmerizing, perfume-commercial clarity. Moving back and forth between his work for Lars von Trier and Danny Boyle (and from DV to HD and beyond for both directors), Mantle has established himself as a leading light in the field of digital cinematography.
The Girlfriend Experience (2009) Directed and shot by Steven Soderbergh Primary camera: Red One Soderbergh’s study of sex and the recession is set in a panoply of luxe Manhattan locations, which are lent exceptional warmth and tactility through the almost noiseless 4K photography enabled by the Red One. His approach made real-life porn star Sasha Grey, who plays a very high-end prostitute, look like a precision-engineered product being advertised in a high-end TV spot — the ultimate commodity in a depressed consumer culture. Here’s a film where the look is super-important, and it makes a statement that wouldn’t have quite the same kick if it were captured to 35mm film.


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  • Gina Simpson

    I do wish the term “digital cinematography” would go by the wayside … cinematography is an art and craft, which does not morph based on the tools being used … digital cameras are a tool, but that doesn’t change what the cinematographer is doing — creating the visuals through light and composition to tell a story that interprets the vision of the director and the words in a script!

  • Bernie

    I disagree. Miami Vice looks absolutely awful. (Public Enemy being the only Michael Mann film that looks worse). The way they used the Viper at night made this look more like a TV movie.

    I give top marks to Zodiac. It’s really outstanding looking.

    28 Days Later also has a fantastic look. Without prettying up the DV, it is completely cinematic.

  • Jeff DeVuono

    The manner in which, “OMG…Film!” and the D.P. became the tag-team messiahs for all things movie making is baffling. I grew up shooting video. Lighting and making a scene look good for 3/4″ video tape with a Hitachi single tube camera was a true learned skill. Even after dozens of cinematography classes, my first “film” DP job was so scary because, “OMG…FILM!” but it took about five minutes to realize that lighting for film was sooo much easier than lighting for video. In fact, it’s a joke how easy it is to make 35mm look good compared to anything SD, HD, HDCAM, HDCAM SR, 4:4:4 – anything not 35mm. DP’s have had this shroud of deity status for so long and for no good reason. If you can’t make 35mm look good, craft service is always hiring (no intended dis toward crafty…they work a lot harder than most D.P.’s). “Digital cinema” forces the cinematographer to be “exposed” as an artist or a hack. The format a movie is shot on should no longer be a relevant concern. Does it look good? Does it properly help propel the story? Is it functional to the needs of the budget and the locations? Those are the questions that should be asked. Who gives a damn whether it’s Red, White or Blue? Does the D.P. actually know his or her craft?

  • doublejnyc

    Hey now…we need to give some serious props to DV and the Dogma 95 folks (Thomas Vinterberg, Lars Von Trier, et al) for busting everyone’s digital cherry. They made some great art. Art great enough for us to get over the less-than-filmic qualities of DV.

    Other honorable DV mentions to November (stars Courtney Cox), Directed by Greg Harrison, which was shot on the Panasonic DVX100 and Timecode by Mike Figgis which was shot on Sony DSR 130.

  • http://www.bestfilmandvideo.com Alan Lefebvre

    I think it has become clear that digital cinema has shown the wide ranging looks it can achieve. Just as some film origination looks poor, so can digital origination, and clearly it can look stunning and beautiful as Avatar does. The examples in this article really reflect the toddler years of digital cinema. With the advent of the Arri Alexa and other forward-thinking cinema tools to come, we will find the discussion of digital v.s. film origination a mere footnote along with all the other tools used in making a movie. As always, it’s about creative choices and execution. Digital tools are making quality execution available for all.

  • http://cooperativepictures.net Mike Fitzer

    I grew in the business putting DP’s on a pedestal. They see the world in a different way and it is something I have always strived to achieve. There are many great ones that in my opinion still belong there and I’ve learned a great deal from many of them. Most importantly, there’s never just one tool responsible for the capture of a great image. It’s the camera, the glass, the position and intensity of the lights, color temperature, location, the list goes on. Still, I’ve never been a big fan of digital cinema until… Cannon’s introduction of the 5D Mark II completely turned me. While film will probably never die in my lifetime, The last two to three years have seen such positive leaps forward in the world of digital cinematography that there’s no denying it is here to stay and it is now a key part of my production toolkit which I have fully embraced. Bring on the change!!!