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Avatar and Oscar again raise thequestion: What is cinematography? (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this post, I provided a clip from Martin Scorsese's 1995 documentary, "A Personal Journey... Through American Film," in which George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola talked about the contribution computers were making to filmmaking as it evolved from a photographic medium into a painterly one.

In the clip above, from the "making of" promotional documentary, "Avatar: Creating the World of Pandora," director/camera operator James Cameron, producer Jon Landau and many CGI effects artists and technicians show how "Avatar" was created -- not so much in the camera as in the computer. None of these people is Mauro Fiore, who recently won an Oscar for Best Cinematography for his work on "Avatar." What was his role on the film? This has been the subject of much debate -- much of it in the forum at cinematography.com, where professionals have been discussing the question: "What is "Cinematography," now that an 80% CG Movie Has Won Its Highest Honor"?

The first post asks:

Does anyone else feel a slap in the face to our craft? [...]

Clearly, the people voting don't know what the F--- cinematography is. It is photographing, "painting" with light.

It really, really ought only apply to the practical parts. Parts that involve blue-screen lighting, computer programming, and CGI, or optical effects too, shouldn't be privy to this award.

2nd Unit work ought not be honored with a nod to the cinematographer who had nothing to do with it, except a phone call.

It's a huge subject for discussion, but this question narrows down to two specific questions: 1) Given all the things CGI is used for in filmmaking (you'll get many takes on it from the filmmakers interviewed in the "Avatar" doc), how much of it can be considered photography, or "cinematography"? And 2) What are the Academy's rules for voting in the category?

The second question is easier to address. The Academy has specific eligibility rules for what constitutes an "Animated Feature":

An animated feature film is defined as a motion picture with a running time of at least 70 minutes, in which movement and characters' performances are created using a frame-by-frame technique. In addition, a significant number of the major characters must be animated, and animation must figure in no less than 75 percent of the picture's running time.

It does not, however, have any comparable rules defining how much of a film must be photographed (or not "animated") in order to qualify for Best Cinematography. In the documentary above, you will hear that two thirds of the film exists "only in the computer"; that the actors' expressions are captured in more lifelike ways while "everything is completely computer-generated"; the "Virtual Camera" used for moving shots has motion sensors but no lens; that the "performance capture" work was done on a huge, brightly lit set called "the Volume," using multiple cameras that fed directly into computers to be combined with CGI on the spot...

There are so many layers to this. Landau says CGI was used to replace prosthetics, so the actors didn't have to spend hours putting on makeup. (Aside: "Avatar" won three Oscars, for Art Direction, Visual Effects and Cinematography; "Star Trek" won the Oscar for Makeup. "Avatar" was not submitted for Best Animated Feature.) Cameron is exceptionally keen on the little "performance capture" cameras the actors wore, and the 3-D cameras that combined physical shooting in the Volume with CGI...

So, to return to the first question: The role of CGI in "Avatar" is an expansive one -- assisting or even replacing work traditionally done by makeup artists, production designers, set decorators, cinematographers, actors... All of it can be categorized as "visual effects," but how much of it can properly be called "cinematography"?

Or, looking at it the other way around, as Brad Brevet asked at Ropeofsilicon.com in February: "Why is the CG in Avatar considered visual effects while the CG employed for a Pixar or DreamWorks film simply considered animation? If 'Avatar' is up for Oscar's Best Visual Effects award shouldn't 'Up' and 'Monsters vs. Aliens' be as well? The fact they aren't, but 'A Christmas Carol' is, interests me..."

These are issues I'll bet AMPAS rules will have to address before next year's Oscars....

(tip: Brian Rose)

UPDATE: (3/16/10): This article in American Cinematographer magazine gives more background on the involvement of Oscar-winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore:

After 18 months of motion capture, Cameron brought in Fiore to shoot live-action footage onstage at Stone Street Studios in Wellington, New Zealand. "About 70 percent of the movie is motion capture, and the rest is live-action," says Fiore. "Although the motion-capture work was mostly finished, the actual look of the film was yet to be created. The footage we shot in New Zealand ultimately defined the overall style of the movie." [...]

... A massive armory on Pandora, this set piece would stand 100' tall and hold hundreds of Armored Mobility Platform suits, large, robot-like devices that the soldiers can control. In reality, the set was constructed in a former Mitsubishi factory in New Zealand, and only two AMP suits were made, one functional and one purely for set dressing. The ceilings in the factory were just 22' high, so the rest of the set had to be created digitally. "The challenge was that a lot of the shots in the Armor Bay were looking up at this great expanse of a 100'-tall location that simply didn't exist -- we were looking up into our lighting fixtures and the ceiling," says Culliton. "We had to find a way to light from above yet still have a greenscreen up there so the rest of the set could be added later."

Because so much of the film's world is virtual, Fiore was constantly matching interactive lighting with elements that would be comped into the image in post. An example of this is a plasma storm that takes place on Pandora. "What is a plasma storm? No one knows -- it's all inside Jim's head!" Fiore exclaims with a laugh. "We had to figure out a way to create a fantastic event that no one had ever seen before. In the scene, Scully is in a remote science lab with Dr. Augustine [Sigourney Weaver], and they see the storm happening outside the windows. We had to find a way to create the effect of the storm on their faces." He turned to the DL.2, a DMX-controlled LCD projector that acts like an automated light source. By utilizing a preset "anomalous" pattern in the DL.2 and projecting the image through Hampshire Frost onto the actor's faces, Fiore achieved a unique look for the storm's lighting effects.

ADDENDUM (03/16/10): Thought experiment (that doesn't require much imagination): Let's say there was a photography contest that began back in the 1920s. The rules spelled out that submissions had to be captured by a camera with a single click of the shutter. No "trick photography" allowed. The images could, of course, be cropped and the exposure adjusted in the darkroom when they were printed, but no multiple exposures, filters, or other post-camera effects allowed. Now, all these years later, the people who run the contest have to decide if digital images will be allowed. Should they be in a separate category? How much Photoshopping -- beyond cropping and "exposure" [brightness/contrast] adjustments -- should be allowed? If it's a color image, how much color manipulation is permitted? The word "photography" -- which once meant only images exposed through a lens and a mechanical shutter, captured on light-sensitive negative film -- needs to be redefined in light of the new technology.

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