Interview with Director of Photography and GCI Instructor Jason Knutzen (Instructor: Modern Tools & Concepts for Digital Imaging)


Tools & Concepts for Digital Imaging

Cinematography is changing with rapid evolution of new technology. This class aims to bring students "up-to-speed" on current tools and concepts which aim to enhance the role of the cinematographer in all phases of pre-production, production and post. This class includes hands-on software and mobile app demonstrations designed for the "expanded cinematographer".

Instructor: Jason Knutzen


At Global Cinematography Institute, our instructors are innovators in their respective fields. Few individuals are more qualified to discuss the artistic, technical and industry considerations of the role of new, accessible technology impacting the daily work of cinematographers than our "Modern Tools & Concepts for Digital Imaging" instructor Jason Knutzen.


Jason Knutzen is a professional Director of Photography, DIT and Colorist based out of Los Angeles. A recent Cinematography MFA Grad from UCLA, Jason brings a unique perspective to the GCI Faculty as the institutes youngest instructor. As the tools available to cinematographers continue to evolve, an education in these new tools and concepts has become an important part of the Expanded Cinematography® program, and Jason's course prepares students to utilize new technology immediately in all phases of production. Jason also brings students a unique perspective about a DP's survival in the "low-budget" world through his experience shooting independent feature films and docs. Jason's recent DP credits include the feature documentary Mudbloods (released on iTunes Oct. 14th) and the horror/thriller U.Z.L.A., currently in post-production.


Global Cinematography Institute: The line between Cinematography and VFX is becoming blurred in today's industry, how can this "problem" be solved?


Jason Knutzen: I think it's becoming very hard to differentiate between what is cinematography and what is vfx. At the end of the day it's important to remember it is all just images, the bigger question to ask is if all images (vfx or not) are contributing to a strong, cohesive visual narrative. Regardless of who is doing the "work", the visual style is being attributed to the work of the cinematographer as the creative force behind creation of the images. Today, there are still a lot of other factors going into image creation, and enabling cinematographers to understand new methods of creating cinematic images, and not being "left behind" on-set is an important concept which will help remedy the perceived "problem".


It seems that the conversation started with Avatar, five years ago, where the cinematographer was seemingly limited to being a "live-action DP", which in this case was about 30% of the film. Fast-forward five years to Gravity where we have a much stronger collaboration between cinematography and visual effects, and having the cinematographer work directly with the fx artist to still have the same control over the image that you would have on a normal set, just working with digital gaffers instead of a regular gaffer! You’re still dealing with the same optics, and same types of camera systems. Having a cinematographer along for the entire visual imaging process has shown the ability to create dynamic, gorgeous and cohesive images, and hopefully this collaborative process will continue to be done in the future.


The role of the Cinematographer in Visual Effects is a fairly new phenomenon, how can the Cinematographer gain visual influence in post?


Jason Knutzen: Well I think the first step is changing the industry preconceived notion of what the cinematographer does for a production. From my experience, there are people who employ cinematographers and think of them as someone who is there to be your cameraman during production, solely as a production job. You show up on set, you frame it, you light it, you record it and hand it off to someone else, and that's it and the show moves onto the next step of the process. What people really don't recognize is that cinematography and cinematographers have a natural ability to enhance the project throughout all steps of the production phase. It's as much a preproduction job as it is production, as much post as it is production, so it's important for a cinematographer to be involved the entire step of the way. Part of the pre-production previsualization process is spent figuring out the shot and lighting, and if that's not cinematography, I don't know what is! Post visual effects and the digital intermediate alter what’s happening to the image after you shoot it, so it's important to see the color correction working with vfx and all these different parts of post, and the cinematographer should be just as involved in those processes as he or she is during production. Being able to step throughout the entire image-making process is the ideal solution for cinematographers to excel at what they do best naturally, which is to create images.


How do the new tools available to cinematographers in vfx, color grading, etc. bring new aesthetic possibilities?


Jason Knutzen: That's where some of the things I teach in my GCI course convey to cinematographers the possibilities that are available in pre-production, in color correction. The idea that you can really start to approach shooting things with knowledge of what you can do in post, whether it's someone else is doing it, or you’re the one doing it, that it just becomes another tool in your toolbox and it opens up a new array of creative possibilities. You know there are things which can be done on-set that help save time because you know they can be fixed in post, and we know how they can be fixed in post and not relying on somebody else, who you hope knows what they’re doing, so all these different things can factor into your mind on-set. It is similar to the days of film, thinking about the lab processing possibilities: pull, push, bleach, color processing, cross-processing, it's all the same idea except in digital post you have many more possibilities. However, with the additional tools, flexibility, and "non-destructiveness", the process has become more democratic and less "magical". So, making sure cinematographers have a strong say in the "democracy" is one of the key components to the issue.


What is important for cinematographers to know about shooting for visual effects, or planning for virtual lighting, etc.?


Jason Knutzen: I think approaching new technology is similar to knowing what a flag does, what a scrim does, what a 2k vs a 650w does, I mean these are all tools of the trade and they all go to the greater goal of creating the image. If you understand how you want to design camera movement in real-life, knowing what your possibilities are, these ideas translate into the foundational concepts of new image-making technology. Fortunately there’s a lot of cross over, specifically with virtual lighting systems. You think of lighting on-set and lighting on a computer, the properties of light can be exactly the same. You can constrain your virtual system so that light behaves the exact same way it does in real life. So, in this case, DPs are able to light just like we normally would, except instead of having a grip truck full of equipment and a crew of grips and electrics, we can click & drag, copy & paste. You need more 2ks? Just copy & paste more 2ks. Power distribution is no longer an issue, you have "invisible" power for all your lights.


New technology really is opening up more creative possibilities by just approaching it from the same way, speaking the same language, because this is the language of cinema, the language of cinematography and the way to create convincing vfx is to apply the language we all know. You can create virtual shots that have no basis in reality for lighting or camera, but when images look authentic, look more "real", generate a better positive response. So, this is where a cinematographer comes into play, animated films like "How to Train Your Dragon" which Roger Deakins was a visual consultant on, "Tin Tin", which Januz Kaminski was the cinematographer on. Also, the ASC has now let in their first animation DP, Pixar’s main lighting supervisor Sharon Callahan as an ASC member. This all steps in the right direction, because with new technology there are many different ways of doing it, but we're still creating the same images, we're still lighting, moving the camera, it’s all cinematography regardless of what medium the images are begin shown through.


Interview conducted by recent GCI Alumnus Clara Bianchi, as part of her on-going thesis examination of the changing role of the cinematographer.