the traditional 35 mm camera—the first bell and howell, the mitchell, the panaflex, etc.—was a large, heavy contraption. its bulk dominated the set. like a powerful monarch it sat on a sturdy tripod in the middle of the stage, surrounded by a bevy of attendants, feeding it endless amounts of celluloid, polishing its glass, cleaning its gate, checking the smooth progress of the film through the intermittent mechanism. today the professional digital cameras may be somewhat smaller but their workflow, carefully monitored by dits, is exceedingly tricky. the technical drill is of course necessary because a single glitch would cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars. hence the lower the budget the freer one becomes: if you drop your cell phone, just get another one.
the size of the camera impacts filmmaking in various ways. because it was not practical to move such ponderous equipment around, the world was brought to them (edison’s black maria solution). only rarely were they allowed to venture outdoors and then only in special zones that had been sanitized for the occasion.
a large camera on the set also isolates the fictional universe from the workplace occupied by the filmmakers. in front of the camera, there is an active world, a world in the making, a world in turmoil, a world where adjustments continually impact the protagonists and all that surrounds them. behind the camera, one finds a group of people whose full attention and effort is concentrated on what happens on the other side. like commandos, crew members carry raids across the line of demarcation before withdrawing and watching their handiwork safely from their side of the border. at the same time, they are oddly unreflective about their own situation whether it is the socio-economic structure that regulates who does what or the standard operating procedure that is taken for granted.
the large camera is thus is the focal point of the entire production. it is the physical pivot around and toward which everything, from acting to lighting, is done. the place that camera occupies at any given moment remains nevertheless a mere position in space (one of several conjectures for the camera investigated by edward branigan). although the successive vantage points are construed as yielding an all-encompassing portrayal of the scene, the views remain prosaic. this is so because the shooting is such a mechanistic affair.
finally the large camera stands symbolically for what is not present: the banks, the film industry, the system. it also means that the film being produced has received an imprimatur from those in power, whether hollywood in the us or the party in china.
the cell phone is an altogether different creature. to start with, it neither looks like a camera nor does it act like one. because it is small and light, the device can even be said to bring off astruc’s 1948 dream of the caméra stylo, that is to say, a camera no bigger than a pen that would allow filmmakers to express their thoughts with images as easily as writers jot them down on paper.
unlike the large camera, a cell phone is practically invisible on the set. it is a piece of plastic no one pays attention to. no line or proscenium divides people into two camps. the playing field has been leveled. the hierarchy is gone. the director, the actors, and the crew share the same space, they breathe the same air, they work together. the drama is no longer taking place on a platform detached from daily life. it is now happening in the midst of it, pressing against everyone. one must respond to it more concretely, more instinctively. working without the most potent symbol of their authority, directors are induced to operate differently. their rapport with actors and crew evolves. they are responding to them not as professionals but as human beings. expressed another way, directors are no longer observing the situation from afar (the aesthetic position defined by kierkegaard) but are putting themselves on the line. they take it personally. they are facing the music.
finally, the camera’s symbolic demise impacts its position as well. it no longer occupies an archimedean point in space. it is now more likely to reflect the director’s personal (moral or ethical) stance with regard to the event.
film cameras were nevertheless simple to operate. on most, there was only one thing to do: push the start button. only a few gave operators control over the shutter’s opening. by contrast the new professional cameras—the reds and the alexas—bedecked with their fancy accessories are anything but simple. they exude technology. internally, they are crammed with electronics which make it possible for cinematographers to fine tune their images from the get-go. externally, they are connected to monitors, electronic viewfinders, follow focus units, etc. with cables galore linking various contraptions, these cameras end up looking like giant cockroaches, even malevolent aliens.
the mindboggling advances in the medium’s technology have naturally monopolized everyone’s attention. look online and you’ll find articles galore celebrating this or that camera. in the same way there used to be comparison tests between different brands of lenses, today’s cameras are matched one against the other in all sorts of lighting situations, appraising their resolution, dynamic range, skin tone rendering, etc. in american cinematographer too, dps explain why, for their latest project, they decided that the alexa was the way to go as opposed to, say, the red dragon. no one today would dare use cameras that were “in” just a few years ago.
the constant buzz gives us the impression that to shoot with the right camera is a must for a film to be a success. although it is true that significant shooting advantages can be derived from better ergonomics, this is not the case from superior electronics. yes, there are some differences between brands and it is true that, say, 8k/120fps provides sharper and clearer images than 4k/24fps but spectators access only the images that are on the screen. they do not see what the same scene would have looked like had it been shot with a different capture system. in other words, one accepts as standard whatever level of sharpness etc., the film offers.
brush aside whatever breakthrough in camera technology will be trumpeted by the time you read this. it is nothing but a lure that keeps you from focusing on what really matters. and stay away from cinematographers who are trying to coax you into getting a “better” camera.
one meaningful difference between film and digital cameras involves the viewing system. deep down, the film camera was nothing but an enclosed dark room. a rotating mirrored shutter in front of the gate nevertheless made it possible to access intermittently the view recorded onto the film. two factors are important here. first, because the eye of the operator was engulfed inside the viewfinder’s eyecup (to avoid light leaks), the picture discovered there occupied his/her entire field of view. it became the onlooker’s one and only world. second, that picture had little to do with what anyone else on the set saw with their own eyes. it was not a match either for the future image that would eventually be printed on celluloid and projected on a screen. rather than realistic, that picture was ghostly. the scarce amount of light, the grains on the ground glass, the flicker created by the rotating shutter, all these factors combined to produce an eerie impression. the spectral rendering hinted at what wasn’t there yet, what was still in the process of becoming. the effect was nothing less than magical.
in contrast, the new technology provides immediately, not just the operator, but all on the set, with a perfect duplicate of the future image. far from being fragile and unsubstantial, this picture is impeccable from the get go. it no longer has to be conjured into being. it always already is. even though it can be tweaked later in post, its first appearance has a discouraging finality about it.
a design change between the traditional cameras and the newer kind is equally consequential. in the past it did not matter whether the camera was on a tripod or handheld, the eye of the operator lorded over the picture. with a digital camcorder or a cell phone, operators prefer to look at the larger screen display rather than the viewfinder (when there is one). this seemingly unimportant adjustment is in fact responsible for making possible an entire new way of shooting. how so? when looking at a screen, the camera is held by the hand away from the body. the image thus occupies only a fraction of the eyes’ total intake, forcing the operator to continually frame the shot within a living environment as opposed to supervising a pre-selected view of it. even more importantly, contrary to what benjamin once suggested, the eye, which has traditionally been the organ most relied on by the mind to gather information, has been largely domesticated over time. it no longer is the querying adventurer it once was. the hand in contrast has retained more of its primitive vitality. it is likely to respond to external stimulations long before the eye/mind combination evaluates the situation and decides what to do. it is now by far the trustier helper. the relevant comparison for the small camera therefore is not a pen (understood as a mere tool for the transmission of the writer’s thoughts onto paper) but merleau-ponty’s white cane which allows the blind person to feel his/her way into the world. a camera held in the hand away from the body can similarly forage ahead of its owner. it can look around, probe, and investigate. it can find its way under and around things. it functions as a sensory intermediary between the operator and the world. whereas the traditional camera stands as a large indifferent object between the two, the consciousness of the operator is now located at the very tip of the lens, exploring the surroundings, prowling uncharted aspects of the world. the canonical optic mastery over the image has given way to a haptic approach to filmmaking.
the sole purpose of a camera is to capture images. tarkovsky used the analogy of sculpting in time to define filmmaking. he is right of course but the “time” he is talking about is not the ordinary time that regulates our life. the latter continually escapes us. its relentless flux makes it impossible for us ever to seize and hold even one instant. as kierkegaard put it, life can only be lived forwards. we cannot go back to fix something and we cannot call “time out!” to stop the flow. we have no choice but live in the ever-renewed, ever-changing moment.
in fiction films the situation is different. we can bracket the narrative time that controls the protagonists’ life and make all the revisions we think are necessary in order to improve the dramatic yield of a scene. and we can keep doing so until it is good enough for the operator to push the button and shoot it. the fictional protagonists therefore do not share our own space and time. while not sacred, their temporal and physical environment is nevertheless uncommon. it is a transitional space, a limbo. the images we secure therefore are less forthright than they appear.
much of what the camera does involves the lens. although it is the face of the apparatus and it is held and manipulated all the time, it has remained oddly impervious to the changes that have rocked the camera. modern lenses may be sharper, have better coatings and fewer internal reflections than in the past but their underlying constitution hasn’t changed much. in fact, dps who worked in the thirties and forties would have no problem handling our primes today.
first off, let us remember that lenses were originally designed to confirm our own visual impressions of the world. they were not attempting to duplicate the perceptual system of bees, dogs, or snakes. yet none of the lenses commonly used in motion pictures manages to be a perfect match for human vision. the so-called normal lenses for instance give us a view (how much we see left and right, up and down) that feels unnaturally claustrophobic, especially in pov shots (lady in the lake). the wide lenses greatly exaggerate the actual distance between objects in space. as for the long lenses, they optically compress that distance, cramming together people and things that may in fact be quite far apart. why is it that we don’t find these inconsistencies problematic when watching movies? the situation is similar to what happens when we come upon the unusual turn of phrases in play by shakespeare or read an old book printed in a disorienting typeface. we may be bewildered at first but soon enough we get accustomed to the formal disturbance, transcend it, and simply immerse ourselves in the content.
the “sculpting” of the image necessarily involves choices: how do i want to render the scene? to get a close-up for instance, do i come close to the protagonist and use a wide lens or do i shoot his face with a long lens from further away? although i end up with the same size face on the screen, the look, feel, and overall impression provided by the image will be radically different. there is no right or wrong here. the visual formation on the screen reflects a personal inclination, a predilection to see a scene in a certain way. some directors (ozu, bresson) feel more at home using lenses that approximate our human perspective of the world whereas others (welles, the coen brothers) like the optical distortions caused by wide lenses.
with our lenses we can literally (and oh-so easily!) originate views of the world unavailable to human beings for thousands of years. that is surely something to celebrate!
the problem with focus is that we take it for granted. one rarely thinks about it (a rack focus is such exception). when a protagonist exits the frame for instance, the focus puller mechanically readjusts the sharpness onto the far background even if the shot is ending a fraction of a second later. if we go back to its latin root though, focus speaks of fire (the hearth symbolizing the continuity of the roman family). so when you focus a shot you bring fire or lightning onto your subject, you ignite it. and indeed, at least with film, the image was branded forever onto the celluloid. another, less exalted, more conventional way to put this is to think of focus as a guiding light, one that selects for the viewer what is of interest at this moment in the scene. in focusing then we eliminate uncertainty, the questioning one might have about an event. we are told: look at this person, pay attention to what she says or what she is about to do and you will be enlightened. when this takes place, we are no longer watching an ensemble where everything is interdependent (alan watts). we are paying attention solely to those noteworthy individuals, the go-getters, the movers and shakers of the story. as for the indistinct “little people” in the background, they are counted on to keep the world going.
why not use focus creatively as opposed to thinking of it as an indispensable but pesky byproduct. one could stage a scene for instance with the principal blurred, the focus squarely on various areas of the room or the mountainside seen through the window. in deconstructing harry, woody allen has a character who is out of focus wherever everyone around him is sharp: what a great idea! what if sharp focus had to be earned? the focus in a film for instance could be just a tiny bit off (not enough for people to notice) except for special moments, for instance when a character is opening up or is looking directly into the lens. more generally, whom or what do we really want to see in focus? does deep focus automatically deliver a democratic image of the world as was once thought?
what about composition? looking at movie images, we assume that filmmakers must have given a lot of thought to their visual arrangement. yet the formal guidelines which originated in painting and photography (the golden ratio, the rule of thirds etc.) were never explicitly applied to film. the difference is that in these other media the work remains stationary in front of the eyes. we are thus able to take our time and peruse the different areas of the image. the overall artistry is more open to scrutiny. it can be evaluated. with film that is difficult to achieve. not only are the pictures continually changing, we ourselves, looking at the screen, tend to be immersed in them. we are therefore much less sensitive to the forms making up the images. a case in point: “big” movies are presently being released in multiple formats and varying framing ratios to fit the varied projection facilities in theaters. more often than not then a pleasant pictorial organization is all that’s required. only occasionally is an image so striking that it forces us to give it full attention. my example comes from drums along the mohawk, a revolutionary war film by john ford. the scene depicts the protagonist’s departure for war with the local militia. his wife, standing on a hill, looks at the ragtag column making its way up a road on the other side of the valley. as she suddenly grasps that she may never see him again, her legs buckle and she slumps on the ground. from the start the staging is tremendous because it makes manifest the increasing distance between the spouses. her collapse though is totally unexpected and it takes our breath away. it is a great moment of cinema.
truly arresting shots such as the one in ford’s film are rare. this does not mean that flat, unimaginative arrangements should be the norm. here, we should definitely emulate what took place in painting at the end of the nineteenth century. in la place de la concorde for instance, degas showed a man partly cut-off by the surrounding frame, essentially incorporating in his own medium the unusual views of life recently revealed by photographic snapshots. small cameras can do something similar, bringing into the open unexpected features in our scenes. so de-compose: break down the false unity that dominates traditional compositions. reveal the elemental oddness of objects and things once they are no longer seen together with others as a set. in other words, expanding marinetti’s idea about words, let us discover the objects en liberté. one way to achieve this is to shoot “blind”, that is to say, don’t look at the screen at all, cover it with paper tape if you have to. let your sensitivity alone guide your response to the action. another approach is to let each actor wear a micro camera that can be attached to a lapel or a shirt.
the total opposite is equally worthwhile. in this case, make the composition so present, so visible, that it overwhelms the scene. a great example of this sur-composition can be found in godard’s my life to live when, tracking back and forth behind a couple in a restaurant, the camera stops on the back of the man’s head at the precise moment it hides anna karina’s face in front of him.
as the digital image is getting sharper all the time, it is now possible to use post to slow down or accelerate a movement, reframe a shot, zoom inside an image, or, even more radically, extract mediums and close-ups from a larger frame without losing significant resolution. this trend effectively extends the idea of scene coverage to within the shot itself. one doesn’t have to decide on the spot what is needed. various new shots can be culled from within the master in post.
this development is part of an overall rethinking of production with post fast replacing shooting as the place where the film is made.
digital compositing has typically been used to produce believable (if astounding) images of reality. the multiple layers combine so perfectly that our eyes accept without reserve that what we see was photographed somewhere in the world. compositing however makes possible a different kind of arrangement. the image for example could resemble a collage by picasso or braque or a work by escher, with disparate forms, textures and colors combining into imaginative new constructs. mimicking neither human sight nor the ordinary world, such pictorial constructs would not only throw movies into a new direction, it would also force us to explore novel ways to tell stories.
there are six available off-screen spaces. while the left, right, and background areas are used all the time, the other three are not. in hard to be a god, aleksei german repeatedly uses the fourth wall, bringing people into view from behind the camera. and, in life and nothing more, kiarostami surprises us with personages entering the shot from the top and the bottom of the frame.
bazin once remarked that in contrast to a painting where the image is fenced off by the frame, the world the movie characters live in extends psychologically beyond what we see on the screen. that of course is true but the off-screen space also includes the world in which we, spectators, reside. so the so-called fourth wall has two openings, one that extends the fiction behind the camera and another that leads to our own world (e.g. the last scene in sunday bloody sunday). that particular conduit—activated by the player’s sudden gaze to the camera—is one of the most dramatic weapons directors have at their disposal.
during hollywood’s classical age only motivated camera movements were acceptable. one could pan with or track alongside an actor but no autonomous move of the camera was allowed, for such movement was thought to make audiences aware of the apparatus. an amusing, backhanded commentary on this injunction can be found in blood simple when the camera, gliding over a bar top, lifts itself to avoid bumping against a drunken customer, then comes down before continuing on its journey.
today, this obscurantist approach to filmmaking has been left behind. as we know only too well, we have gone from one extreme (complete asceticism) to the other (indulgent excess). the camera now cannot stand still regardless of what happens in the frame. it is incessantly panned or tilted, moved forward or back, made to tremble lightly or shaken more roughly. at times it is endlessly trekking behind a protagonist. on the whole, this activity has little to do with personal style or the dramatic needs of the subject matter: it is a fad employed solely to activate the rods and cones of viewers at a time when millions of young people find video games more visually compelling than movies.
the so-called unmotivated camera moves, far from being necessarily gratuitous, could express the taste, thinking and creativity of the director with regard to the situation at hand. night and fog remains to date the most inspiring film about the holocaust largely because of its “unmotivated” tracking shots: along the barbed wire fences, the holes in the concrete slab serving as latrines, the cracks in the ceiling of a gas chamber. these tracking shots have come not only to emblematize the film but also to contribute to our continuing reflections about the shoah.
an interesting dogma project: make a film without any motivated camera movement.
for the longest time (at least in commercial filmmaking), the job of camera operator was not a particularly creative one. the individual was supposed to record what was happening in front of the lens without really adding anything extra to the scene. how many operators’ names do we recall prior to haskell wexler’s handling of the camera in medium cool? operators were essentially technicians whose expertise resided less in aesthetics than in their ability to pan and tilt a worrall geared head without a hitch. in the last decades however, that attitude has changed, primarily because of the steadicam phenomenon. all at once it mattered to have someone on the ball holding the gear.
one situation demands even more aptitude on the part of the operator. it is related to what cartier-bresson called the decisive moment. the concept speaks of what happens when the photographer pushes the button at the very instant the forms within the frame perfectly crystallize the event taking place at the time. in documentary filmmaking however, a decisive moment is more likely to originate in an activity which, despite unfolding beyond the original point of interest, nevertheless relates to it on some level. a great example is found during an interview in the lovely month of may. as a man spouts out platitudes, the operator tilts down the camera from his face to a daddy longlegs slowly making its way up his tie.
for this phenomenon to have any chance of appearing in fiction films, four conditions must be met: a long take, a director who is not adverse to letting his actors improvise (rivette), resourceful actors, and a quick-witted operator. here, the unusual entrant is probably an actor doing something on the spur of the moment. when this happens, you don’t want a traditional operator behind the camera. you want shooters, people who are mentally nimble, are one with their camera, and are totally involved in what is going on. shooters are not technicians. they are more like midwives: they pay attention to the signs of life around them. they ease their entry into the film. they deliver the shot. in other words, you want a leacock, a pennebaker, or a churchill, to name some. a director operating the camera is also more likely to go along with an actor trying out an exciting mid-course adjustment.
in many films, sadly, nothing accidental ever shows up. the scene takes place bureaucratically as planned. why are we so afraid of vital sparks when shooting a film?
today, more and more, the most striking images we come in contact with originate from cctv systems and smart phones operated by individuals during a crisis of some sort. nothing professionally produced comes close to matching the intensity of these views. the upshot: the world asserting itself as the best set anyone could possibly ask for; nothing differentiating those making a film from anyone around them; the antics of production forever left behind; cinema debunked at last.