During a recent coffee-and-catch-up with one of my cinematography professors, our conversation turned to The Future of Cinematography™. According to him and other cinematographers (aka DPs, as in "Directors of Photography") I’ve spoken to, that Future is starting to look pretty bleak.
My professor told me he’d just visited a professional set, and noticed the DP and digital-imaging technician (DIT) staring at footage on a monitor. The DP turned to the DIT, and asked, “Do you think that’s overexposed?”
“‘Is that overexposed?!’ He’s the cinematographer!” My professor shook his head. “He’s the one who decides if the motherfucking shot is overexposed!”
I couldn’t help but have a similar reaction while reading an American Cinematographer article about the production of Mad Max: Fury Road, which was shot by John Seal, ASC, ACS.  Particularly this excerpt:
Simon Gray, “Max Intensity,” American Cinematographer, June 2015, Vol. 96, No. 6, Pg. 37. ↩
Establishing exactly what constituted a correct exposure with ArriRaw sparked earnest on-set discussions between Seal and DIT Marc Jason Maier, as the cinematographer’s light meters were giving quite different readings than Maier’s monitors. …
[Seal says], “[M]arc was shifting the ArriRaw data up or down the waveform to ensure the maximum information was being captured…
To avoid further complications, the cinematographer charged gaffer Shaun Conway with the responsibility of analyzing exposures in the DIT van. Seal explains, “I told Shaun, ‘This is your future, mate, not mine. Can you sit in there and explain to me why Marc wants me to expose at [F-Stop] 8 and not 5.6?’
Seale concludes: “It’s been such a big part of my life, working out the exposure, I didn’t want to just hand that part of my job over. …” [Emphases mine]
(Let’s take a step back.)
What determines whether or not a scene is properly exposed? Consider the term “exposure,” which Professor Bill Dill defines as:
Managing a scene’s tonal range (think of histograms), through the combination of all sorts of cool technical elements (e.g., ASA, T-Stop, frame rate), in a way that tells the story most effectively.
To put it another way…it’s a combination of technical know-how with a cultivated taste / gut feeling / The Force.
A scene may be overexposed, according to someone like a DIT, who bases her decisions off a waveform & a monitor. But a cinematographer’s primary role is to oversee the entirety of a film’s aesthetics. A seemingly overexposed scene may actually be appropriate, when considered in the context of the rest of the movie. So there isn’t really a “correct” exposure; that’s up to the DP.
(Back to the article.)
I find it troubling that Maier told Seale how to shoot & expose scenes on Road Warrior. Frankly, that wasn’t his job. And I’m disappointed that Seale decided to relinquish his authority over exposure, something that had, in his own words, “been such a big part of my life.”
At first glance, Seale made his job irrelevant. He’d decided to let other departments define many aspects of the film’s aesthetics. (For instance, the visual effects department decided to convert a mid-day exterior scene to a blue-tinted, day-for-night one.)
Most audiences who’ve seen the movie would agree that Seale’s decision paid off. The movie looks phenomenal.
Who Gets to Decide if ‘the motherfucking shot is overexposed’?
But Fury Road is an exception.
Anecdotally, I often see DPs rely on inaccurate monitors, rather than their light meters, to judge a scene’s exposure. Miscellaneous crew members feel comfortable casually giving DPs & directors distracting or terrible feedback about the way something looks.
Cumulatively, the effect is not dissimilar to a bunch of eels (or cooks in a proverbial kitchen) picking the movie apart before it even has a chance to get off the ground.
So we’re at a crossroads. Various departments are (unmaliciously) butting heads among each other, as they attempt to redefine their responsibilities with all-digital productions & workflows. So far, it’s been a messy transition. But I’m cautiously optimistic that The Future™ won’t be so bleak for cinematographers.
One possibility: If DPs continue to relinquish their responsibilities & knowledge, productions will determine that their jobs aren’t necessary. In the short run, production companies will reap the benefits, since cutting a position saves a few bucks. But no one will explicitly be in charge of an entire movie’s aesthetics. Audiences will notice that even larger, high-budget projects appear to be more inconsistent & less professional-looking.
A second possibility: Cinematographers can collectively refuse to forsake their stewardship of a movie’s aesthetics; however, they’d also have to prove that they do provide an essential, specialized service. With further technological advances, production departments will be able to collaborate on & develop better-integrated workflows. (For example, should a DIT currently belong in the camera or editing department? Will ACES catch on as a workflow standard??)
I super-obviously prefer the second possibility, in large part because I have skin in this game. But that scenario isn’t a pipe dream. Consider dorky articles, like this one by cinematographer Art Adams, which demonstrate that more & more DPs are staying on top of the latest tools.
New technology, and the smaller, discrete tech-support jobs that come with it, don’t have to shut out DPs by default; it can instead empower cinematographers to better protect movies' aesthetics.