Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski told NAB attendees that he fears DPs have lost final control of their images in the industry’s transition from film to digital acquisition.
Speaking at a Monday-morning NAB conference session organized by the International Cinematographers Guild and moderated by ICG Magazine Executive Editor David Geffner, Kaminski spoke first about his arrival in the U.S. as a political refugee from Poland, his studies in film at Columbia College Chicago, and his experience shooting second unit on movies for producer Roger Corman.
After screening part of the famous opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, which ferociously depicts the landing of U.S. soldiers on Omaha Beach, Geffner asked Kaminski how he would shoot the scene differently if the film were being made today. “I wouldn’t do anything different,” Kaminski responded. “The original approach was the right approach.”
Kaminski expanded on that thought, explaining that he didn’t believe digital effects could improve the scene. ”The images were created organically on the [film] negative,” he said. “I played with shutter speed, frame rate, photochemical processes, altering the lenses, [and] a low-contrast quality where the light bleeds through images. It was a lot of experimentation to get to this place. And once you imprint that into the negative, there’s no way to go back. I can’t imagine a whole bunch of CG guys would be able to achieve such an emotional result doing all of this this after the movie was made.”
He returned to the subject later on, complaining about the state of contemporary cinematography, which he said has become repetitive and lacking in vision — in short, anonymous. “A young protege made a movie that looked like it was shot by a top cinematographer,” he said. “But there was no heart in the image. It’s top-notch cinematography, but there was no representation of his soul.”
And finally, he suggested one reason why he has been a devotee of 35mm film — he believes a cinematographer is more likely to be the person responsible for the final image all the way through the post process. “When I create a live image on a film negative, the chance of that image surviving the final process is great,” Kaminski said. “When I do a digital image, that image becomes so manipulated — first of all, by the DIT on the set. And then the studio might not like that red thing in it, or might say it’s too bright. It’s limitless. The image can be controlled to such a degree — but I don’t have control of the image.”
In the end, Kaminski warned the audience that simply lighting a subject correctly isn’t the same thing as engaging in visual storytelling. “Just because you can see the image,” he said, “doesn’t mean you’re telling the story.”