How New Technology is Helping and Hurting Modern Cinematography
by Director / Director of Photography, GCI Instructor Jay Holben
New technological advancements are exciting, yet they often lead to an over-saturation of instances of the new "toy" as many rush to play and adopt the new technique. This, often, leads to general audience annoyance and relegation to "cliche" status.
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In the 1960s and 1970s as Angenieux, Canon and Panavision were all manufacturing zoom lenses for motion picture cameras, we saw a rise in the number of zoom shots in movies. Here a zoom, there a zoom, everywhere a zoom, zoom! It was a fresh, new, technology for motion pictures and everyone wanted to play with it. This led to audiences and filmmakers protesting a hatred for zooms, calling them "cheesy." It's not the fault of the tool, however, but over-use and, in my opinion, improper use that lead to these opinions. Cinematographer John Seale, ASC, ACS and director Robert Altman (just as two examples) were masters of the zoom lens, often hiding a zoom in a lateral camera move or a pan. In addition, using a zoom as a variable prime saves substantial time on a set - especially with the speed of modern zooms.
The point? New technology often leads to over usage, but every tool has its purpose. That brings us to some more of today's most commonly over-used tools - and some cautions about avoiding their overuse.
In the film world, most slow-motion requires a specialized camera body and a lot of film. It is used for very specific purposes, very specific story-telling concepts, because the resources are precious.
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Today, in an era post Panasonic Varicam (the first digital camera to offer off-speed shooting of up to 60fps), iPhones can now shoot 240 frames per second in high definition. A large number of digital cameras can shoot 200+ frames per second and filmmakers have discovered the joys of slow mo! Even hyper-slowmo! It's beautiful stuff, dreamy, sexy - but it needs to be used for very specific narrative reasons, not just because it's cool. Slow motion, generally, depicts a moment of heightened intensity: extreme drama; extreme emotion. It adds great importance to a moment by hyper-extending time. Over-use of slow-mo can confuse an audience who are used to the classic visual language of cinema and it can reduce the impact of slow-motion, in general.
Once upon a time, moving a camera vertically was an extreme challenge and it required considerable equipment. Crane shots were achieved by placing the operator and assistant on a platform at the end of the end of a crane arm. This was, no matter how safely executed, a dangerous endeavor. Whenever you place human beings in a situation like this, you're endangering lives. When the remote head came into being, we were able to to elevate cameras without putting people in the air - but these were expensive and primarily used by top features and commercials. The reduction of the size of cameras and expense of remote heads democratized crane shots to the independent and low-budget filmmaker, but they were still, for the most part, out of the reach of micro-budget and no-budget filmmakers.
Getting beyond the extension of the crane arm, we had helicopters and planes that could take up cameras to get even higher points of view. Helicopters are notoriously dangerous and, unfortunately, there are many lethal helicopter accidents to darken the history of filmmaking. Just shy of a decade ago, entrepreneur filmmakers began to employ remote control helicopters with cameras and this trend has evolved. Today, we have a prevalence of drones and incredibly inexpensive drones flying around and photographing our world. I recently attended the Los Angeles Drone Expo and I was only partially surprised to find the majority of attendees were not filmmakers; they were hobbyists. I met a father who owned a drone and just liked to play with his kids. I met a sailing enthusiast who liked to fly a drone while sailing to photograph himself. In the past few months, especially through my time on Instagram (@jayholben), I've come across dozens and dozens of wedding and event videographers employing drones; real estate salesmen employing drones for property photography and more independent filmmakers zooming around drones than I care to count. Aerial shots are becoming a cliche.
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About the Author:
Jay Holben is a Global Cinematography Institute faculty member who teaches Digital Cinematography, Optics and Independent Cinematography. He was a director of photography for over a decade and now works as a independent producer and director in Los Angeles. A former technical editor for both American Cinematographer Magazine and Digital Video Magazine, Holben is a continuing contributing editor for AC and a lighting columnist for TV Technology Magazine. He has been a contributor to many books including The American Cinematographer Manual 9th Edition, and David Stump, ASC's Digital Cinematography. His own book, A Shot in the Dark: A Creative DIY Guide to Digital Video Lighting on (Almost) No Budget is available on Amazon.com and at booksellers everywhere and his second book Behind the Lens: Dispatches from the Cinematographic Trenches will be on shelves in April 2015.
Learn more about Expanded Cinematography® and how GCI is preparing students for present and future technology affecting cinematographers - Next session of Level 1 Classes begins February 1st - Click Here for More Information