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The Call for Cinematography

After an important gathering of cinematographers at the International Cinematography Summit Conference, a number of luminaries met with previs professionals to discuss the impact of new technologies on cinematography. The result was rather educational, but it was apparent that more work has to be done.

Recently, I had the privilege of addressing a rather spirited crowd of cinematographers at the International Cinematography Summit Conference (ICSC) held at the American Society of Cinematographers’ (ASC) clubhouse in Los Angeles. I wasn’t alone. Two other founders of the Previsualization Society were there along with a representative of the Virtual Production Committee. (A joint technology subcommittee of six Hollywood-based organizations.)

With cinematographers from all around the globe attending, it was an opportune time to present information and demonstrations highlighting technological trends and the value of previs and virtual production to the discipline of cinematography. Tough sell? In a word, yes.  Within this room was a collection of some of the best cinematographers on the planet. These people are experts in their craft and have established standards and practices that are followed extensively worldwide. Many of them are curious about previs and willing to explore the process while others are quite content with remaining a purist to their art.

While previs is rapidly gaining acceptance within the filmmaking community, its exposure to groups like the ASC that help me to reinforce the foundations of my own craft. It can be easy for those of us riding the wave of new technology to expect everyone follow along without question. Some don't want to ride the "wave" and they have personal convictions for doing so. This needs to be respected. While I strongly believe that previs and cinematography are cut from the same cloth, it will take a mutual effort of both societies working together to find the best set of standards and practices that benefits both disciplines and the people who do choose to use them.

It seems that a certain amount of the uncertainty towards previsualization in particular and virtual production, to a lesser degree, has to do with establishing solid distinctions between the two disciplines in regards to their roles in the filmmaking process. There are five phases of traditional filmmaking. The three that are typically talked about most are pre-production, production and post-production.

If one examines computer graphics and its involvement in filmmaking, they’ll see that it’s currently working its way backwards through these three phases of production due to certain technological limitations found at the time. Post-production was the first phase to be integrated with CG because it permitted for a certain level of exploration and provided longer production schedules that CG required due to long render times. It’s no longer a question of whether or not computer graphics and final photography can achieve a seamless integration with one another. Its been achieved time and time again.

Today, thanks to faster computers and multi-core GPUs, CG has entered the production and pre-production phases of movie making with dramatic consequences as to the way films are being produced, conceptualized and executed. An entire non-linear approach to filmmaking is now possible and is currently being applied to every phase of production. As a result, conceptual limitations are being removed by these new visualization technologies.

If we take another step back and move into production, today we find that CG is combining with principal photography in order to provide the next technological step that integrates motion capture, camera tracking, real time computer graphics, actors and a virtual assets all working in concert with a real world cameras and personnel. Known as “virtual production,” this new and distinct process is something that relates to the cinematographer’s mind because they consistently work in the real world capturing its beauty through photography. Thus it came as no surprise that the virtual production demonstration of the USV1 virtual stage at Universal Studios was more reasonably received.

USV1 - Universal Studios

By contrast, previsualization’s focus remains on the pre-production phase of filmmaking, which is considerably more cerebral and less tangible. While it’s equally evolutionary, previs utilizes CG to create more of a planning and conceptualization process where as virtual production can be considered more of an executable event. Earlier stages of development and pre-production can be a bit nebulous at times and as a result, a conscious effort must be made to properly define the role of previs within pre-production. Typically the question of which role is to be used can be easily resolved by determining the intended user of previs. Directors and VFX supervisors are the two primary users with producers and studio executives coming in a close second.

On average, most directors are concerned with the conceptual and storytelling aspects of previsualization where VFX supervisors tend to be more concerned about technical accuracy of specific shot requirements. Determining which role has priority at any given moment ensures a smoother transition from one phase of production to the next. An experienced producer is usually present to moderate financial factors between the two primary users, however, if a cinematographer were present during the previs process, there would be a represenative there to provide a camera specialist’s perspective. This could alter everything. The lack of a cinematographer’s presence during preproduction and previs has generated a noticeable vacuum between the director and his cadre of CG VFX specialists. As a result we’ve seen strong previsualization artists and supervisors step up to fill the void.  

This solution has proven quite beneficial but it remains incomplete and contested within the industry. Previsualization artists are typically strong with their CG skills, but many lack a formal film school education thanks to the extensive amount of CG classes required to operate applications like Maya, XSI, and Motionbuilder. Thus many learn on the job, others are naturally talented, and others still have backgrounds in camera or layout through their work on various animated films. This creates a hit or miss dynamic where some previs artists excel in acting as an interim camera specialist, while others do not. While not exactly ideal, several cinematographers seemed open to allowing for this arrangement provided previs was only used for the planning of the technical and mechanical aspects of film production. Aesthetic quality for the art of cinematography was to remain the sole responsibility of the cinematographer.

But like squeezing a tube of toothpaste, once the cap is off, its tough to put the stuff back in again. This brings us back to square one. Previs supervisors are getting more and more skilled by providing tremendously crafted sequences that directors, studio executives and other important players are falling in love with much to the dismay of those in the cinematography ranks coming on later in production. If the role of previs is to support the filmmaking planning processes, everything must be done to ensure those who are influenced by this process are fully represented. It is for this very reason that cinematographers must get involved because the previs process has proven too beneficial for many others throughout the production phases to simply be dismissed or ignored.

The benefits of technical planning of previs is clear, but to many cinematographers previs seems like a detachment or distraction to the art of cinematography by introducing an artificial, virtual layer between the cinematographer and reality. While many see this layer as the problem, I submit the possibility that one-day we will no longer perceive this virtual layer as something to resist, but rather it will actually be a normal part of our everyday perception. Sound a little too esoteric? Right now it probably is. But as the virtual layer becomes more and more transparent in pre-production the idea of a class of virtual cinematographers who are trained in classic cinematography and computer graphics will have to emerge. It’s already happening within previs today, but now is the time for organizations like the ASC and the Previs Society to work together in order to develope new standards and practices that define the next generation.

At the heart of every dedicated previsualization artist lies the soul of both an artist and a technician. It may seem easier to restrict the role of previs to the mechanical aspects of filmmaking, but to do so limits the possibility of these new virtual cinematographers so willing and eager to become a part of something exciting that not only pays tribute to where we’ve been and what we have learned, but also to where we are going.  

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