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Avatar and Oscar again raise thequestion: What is cinematography? (Part 1)

Imagine the headline: "Up" Wins Oscar for Best Cinematography. That's essentially what happened Sunday night, but the movie was "Avatar." "Up" won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. "Avatar" won for Best Visual Effects and Best Cinematography. Realistically, "Up" and "Avatar" should have also have competed in a new category -- something like Best Computer-Assisted Animation. It's past time to acknowledge the difference between cinematography -- the photographic process that involves capturing light through a lens -- and animation or green screen work that involves compositing digital images in a computer. Both can be extraordinarily impressive. Let's just agree to call them by their right names.

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A quarter century ago, the great British cinematographer David Watkin, accepting his Oscar for "Out of Africa," offered the Academy a little education in his art and craft when he acknowledged that the pretty helicopter shots of African scenery for which he knew he had won the award were shot by the second unit. Today, Academy voters still don't quite seem to understand what cinematographers -- once known as "lighting cameramen" -- actually do. But what they do has radically changed over the years, too.

Aboard Dusty Cohl's Floating Film Festival in the early '00s, I remember the great Director of Photography Haskell Wexler lamenting that he was no longer assured of control over his own work, which could be digitally altered in post-production so that it no longer resembled what he had actually shot in the camera during production.

This isn't really a recent development. Even 15 years ago, in the awkwardly titled four-hour BFI documentary "A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Film" (see clip above), Scorsese, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Brian de Palma spoke of a new kind of filmmaking that no longer resembled photography so much as computer-aided painting. It's still an art form, but it's no longer quite photography, any more than theater is cinema....

So, when a movie like Avatar is 80 percent CGI or more, how do we (re-)define what the term "cinematography" means?

(to be continued...)

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