Guest Articles in "Expanded Cinematography":


"Gazing into my Crystal Ball and Tuning to Cinematography"

by Director of Photography Robert Primes, ASC


Predicting the future begins with observing how the past became the present. Our noble predecessors, the early cinematographers, were burdened with ridiculously slow film stocks, severely limited exposure latitude and gigantic cameras. But correctly assuming they were on the cutting edge of amazing and unprecedented technology, they achieved greatness by becoming bold, courageous and experimental. They overcame technical limitations by ingeniously recreating locations in the studio and adapting reality to fit their limitations. They devised mechanically brilliant devices to position and move the heavy cameras, lighting and grip gear. Their ingenuity was so brilliant much of it is in common use today.


Today we have cameras that need less than a thousandth the light and can capture a thousand times the contrast ratio, but these great advances must be shared with the bean counters. My crystal ball indicates that we will always need to work extremely efficiently but that the inhumane and exploitive hours we must now work will be gradually scaled back to a more humane, healthy and efficient pace. It took awhile to combat child labor and other abusive practices but eventually sanity generally prevails.


The key to efficiency will continue to be planning, pre-visualization and preparation. But the tools for accomplishing this will be faster, more mobile and far more powerful. Apps will allow synthesized camera positions and moves, virtual lighting and complete image manipulation almost instantly on a location scout. Thus communication can be based on actual tangible images instead of imprecise verbal descriptions.


As my crystal ball warms up, mist evaporates revealing some finer details. Four already viable technical breakthroughs will combine to revolutionize the camera’s ability to tell a story and provide an immersive experience.


1. Smaller, quieter, denser faster sensors are already making superb tiny cameras. The Panasonic GH4, Novo and GoPro are just the current leading edge of this movement.

2. Insanely good image stabilization is already here, filtering out unwanted jiggle but allowing almost lag-less intentional motion. Some still lenses boast 5 stops of internal optical image stabilization.

3. Wireless remote camera operation allows the complete separation of camera support and camera operation. The camera can transition to and from cranes, hand-held or flying drones with no effort from the comfortably seated operator.

4. GPS positioning, which currently guides multi-rotor (drone) camera positioning devices will soon be accurate to one centimeter. The traditional system of making camera marks will be replaced by GPS positioning.


These four factors will continue to develop and integrate into a system that positions, transitions and stabilizes the camera(s) virtually anywhere on the set. Dolly track, Steadicams and heavy cranes will fascinate future museum gawkers.


Focusing is arguably the most primitive current cinematography technology. A dazzlingly agile camera shouldn’t rely on someone estimating camera to subject distances. Fortunately, existing technology points to an imminent solution. Still cameras (and even the latest iPhone) insert special focus sensing pixels amongst the sensor’s light gathering pixels. The focusing pixels ‘talk’ with the internal autofocus motors inside some modern lenses. The user controls both the size and position of the area of the frame to be focussed. All that is necessary now is to create an interface between the focus technician and the image on the monitor.


The extreme depth of field of tiny cameras might be mitigated either by defocussing areas of the frame with image manipulation tools or the development of specially designed shallow depth lenses. They might be similar to the new Fuji XF 56mm F1.2 R APD lens with an internal apodization filter that converts the circular bokeh into spheres.


Perhaps my most polarizing crystal ball projection is of what we may or may not still call “lighting” in the future. If we presume that the four primary purposes of motion picture lighting are:


To create a believable reality of time and space.

To lead the viewer’s eye to the story point.

To reveal the character and state of mind of the characters.

To create an emotional mood.


Then: The latitude and sensitivity of modern digital cameras allows us to capture the reality of almost any location in natural light. However, changing the weather, the time of day or the reality of the location will still require lighting until much faster and more powerful on-set image manipulation tools are created.


The use of lighting to lead the eye is generally done by lightening the primary subject and darkening the rest. But this can also be easily done by ‘dodging’ and ‘burning in’ in image processing. Advancements should enable an on-set DIT to quickly isolate the subjects to be lightened or darkened on selected key frames. Intelligent tracking software would then continuously render frames in the background. The cinematographer and DIT would have discussed all this, made tests and developed tools before the shoot.



The human face will certainly be able to be flat lit on the set and then modeled later in post. But this deprives everyone including the other actors from fully feeling the power of the performance. We may still be using real lights for portraiture of human faces even after speedy on-set virtual lighting becomes a reality.


But the elephant in the room is mood. The tangible emotional effect of great lighting is comparable to great music. Will future cinematographers develop the artistry to create mood without physical lighting? My crystal ball says “Yes!” I believe that when cinematographers ultimately master future advanced on-set image manipulation devices they will inevitably use those new tools to create emotional moods just as beautiful as their predecessors.


Impressionist painters broke off from centuries of reality tradition by painting the mood and emotional feeling of a scene rather than what the eye might literally see. Up to now, our traditional photographic tools have effectively limited us to realistic photography unless we had a large effects budget. But consider how easy it is to lay a Photoshop style filter over a still image to create a beautiful impressionistic mood. If the filter obscures story elements, simply erase the layer where you want the reality to come through. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful tool to transform a setting into something much more magical? Initially working with selected key frames, pre-determined filters could easily be applied and tweaked on-set by the DIT. Then software could track the areas where elements, such as the character’s face or eyes, needed to appear real.


According to my crystal ball, the technology advances are inevitable and are coming very fast. The question is whether we cinematographers will be as bold, courageous and experimental as our ancestors. If we’re not, only the bean counters will benefit. But if we fully welcome change and embrace the advancements, the ‘Golden Age’ of cinematography may be yet to come.



About the author:


Robert Primes, ASC was a pioneer in digital cinematography, having directed the very first progressive scan production, Theo Plays Chopin in 1998 and won the 1st ASC cinematography award ever given to a digital production (MDs, in 2003). He received cinematography Emmys for My Antonia and Felicity and has six other cinematography nominations including an Emmy nomination for the digitally shot Sleeper Cell in 2006. He photographed a significant portion of the historic ASC/Producers Guild tests in 2009 and 2012 and created the 2011 test documented by Zacuto. His feature cinematography credits include Baadasssss!, Bird on a Wire, The Hard Way, Money Talks, A Murder of Crows and Aspen Extreme. His television series credits include thirtysomething, Quantum Leap, Felicity, Young Americans, MDs, Night Stalker, Las Vegas and work on The X Files and West Wing.


Mr. Primes has served as a member of the boards of the American Society of Cinematographers, the International Cinematographers’ Guild, the National Film Preservation Board, the Art Institute of Los Angeles and the Wide Screen Film Festival. In 2008 he was awarded the president’s lifetime achievement award from the Society of Camera Operators. He holds an honorary doctorate from Columbia College in Los Angeles and recently taught cinematography for 8 years at the American Film Institute.