Articles in Expanded Cinematography®:
"The Expanding Influence of Virtual Cinematography"
by GCI Faculty Member, Virtual Cine Specialist, Ron Fischer
What does a tennis player do when confronted with a game where there is no net? No tennis ball? No racket? Where the player doesn’t even have a physical presence on the field? This is the dilemma of the modern cinematographer. At the fringes of the craft lie the advantages and dangers of absolute creative freedom.
At GCI we have tried to frame the raw freedom of this technology in the context of both the greater filmmaking process and the history of great cinematography. Our classes remind students of the deep history of image making, composition, lighting in service of storytelling. How the greatest images in history were made with much simpler tools than the ones we carry in our pockets. GCI also presents the latest technologies, like camera simulation, scene modelling and synthetic lighting, in the context of the modern virtual production process. This means in the clear line from Art Development, Previs and Pre-Production, Shooting and Post. In particular, how the cinematographer’s role is enhanced and challenged by these tools.
Virtual cinematography is an unusual term. It is cinematography (or camera work) in all its power, force and effect, while not actually using a physical camera. In particular it is cinematography of computer simulated models and lighting, often matched to real photography and lighting.
Cinematography of this type, partly done with real cameras and partly done with camera simulations, is everywhere in the cinema now. The influence of the technique is clear, due to its tremendous flexibility, both in the freedom of the camera and the dissociation of cost from what’s seen in front of it.
Recent examples include movies such as "Gravity", where only the actors’ faces were seen as filmed, and everything else in frame was captured with simulated camera, scene and lighting. This is one end of the spectrum of possibility, where nearly all of the image is simulated. It is one step removed from the complete visual simulation of movies such like "Tin Tin".
But consider the plight of the cinematographer, whose craft and training evolved around the weight and power of instruments like the 5K tungsten lamp, the Arriflex 35mm camera, and the Zeiss lens. What to do when faced with a blank computer screen and applications like Maya? Or worse, the enumeration of an entire screenplay by a talented previs team?
The answer, as it has always been, is to evolve and understand. Not everything, but the important, crucial elements of the art. In particular, where to begin?
Camera simulation is the first and foremost the measurement of what the camera does with light. The response of the sensor, as it receives the geometric and photometric patterns of the lens, is understood as parameters to equations. While we need not know the details, the main parameters are our guide, things like sensor size, distortion and vignetting. With these we can simulate the camera.
But what about light?
The complexity of reality is reduced in a computer to a thin surface shell responding to discrete light sources. This is of course a tremendous simplification of reality, but also an advantage.
One can place lights (invisibly) and create surfaces that respond to that light in ways that nature won’t allow. The trick is, of course, when to apply this freedom in the service of visual expression, and when to cry “hold enough!” before the precipice of bad taste.
We have of course seen ample examples of both in recent cinema.
Filmmaking itself is a recent art, but even younger and more uncertain fields lie ahead.
Virtual Reality filmmaking, where the entire notion of the proscenium arch, framing itself, has been abandoned in favor of “immersion.” But already the limitations of that form are revealing different potential. Likewise gaming.
Virtual cinematography is at its core traditional cinematography unbound by technology… for better and sometimes for worse. By recognizing the best of the past we can more easily embrace the future.