Digital cinematography has had an ever-shifting role as it’s edged its way into mainstream Hollywood filmmaking. Originally used as a viable solution to the economic hurdles of independent filmmaking, even the best digital cameras available in the late 1990s and early 2000s retained a grittiness and fly-by-the-pants amateur feel in movies like julien donkey-boy and Chuck & Buck (both 2000) that matched the means of production of no-budget filmmaking but looked far too unprofessional to be adapted to Hollywood. Well-known filmmakers then adapted the technology as a means of experimentation for new aesthetic or narrative approaches, allowing them to take more risks with a technology that allows for continuous takes or attack subject matter that may have been too risky for bigger budget 35mm filmmaking, like Mike Figgis’s Time Code (2000), Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000), or David Lynch’s find-the-film-as-you-make-it approach to Inland Empire (2006).
By now, however, digital cinematography has become sophisticated enough to be embraced by the major studios. This acceptance in part has to do with its recent ability to imitate film, thus legitimating the technology by acknowledging its ability to have no noticeable difference from its standardized celluloid predecessor. The economic incentive for studios to use digital cameras is there, and now the fact that the technology no longer has the amateurish look of the last resort of a starving independent filmmaker made digital video viably up for grabs by the big honchos. This lack of noticeability has taken a certain precedence in comedies and teen movies, the types of films where it is inferred that the audience pays no mind to the technology used to film it or the stylistic approach the filmmakers used to articulate their vision. Movies like Superbad (2007), I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry (2007), and 21 (2008) were shot with no film at all, with seemingly nobody noticing or caring. Digital cinematography has even gotten so sophisticated that it does the reverse of what it did with independent film: it can now imitate grittier, more amateurish forms of analog filmmaking, like Soderbergh’s use of the RED to imitate 16mm in Che: Part 2 (2008).
The other factor that has allowed digital cinematography to be appropriated by the studios has been its coupling with other forms of digital imaging, namely visual effects. Movies like Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006) or David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) used digital cameras to match the aesthetic of the digital images within the frame, thus cutting out any intermediary between the filmed image and the manipulability of that image via digital technology before projected onscreen in either analog or digital form (in other words, they didn’t have to go from digital to film and back again).
But the most interesting aspect of Hollywood’s use of digital camerawork is not in its use with special effects or its invisible imitation of film, but in those rare major studio productions that use digital in a way that is totally unique and particular to the technology—films that acknowledge the fact that the digital is not “like” film nor should it strive to be so, and that it doesn’t necessarily have to exist in tandem with digital imaging for its use to be justified. And there is no major filmmaker pioneering a unique aesthetic approach to digital cinematography in mainstream American filmmaking quite like Michael Mann.
While he experimented with the technology for a select few shots in Ali (2001), Mann eventually made his first all-digital feature with Collateral (2004). The film was perhaps a good, safe way for the director to herald this new stylistic approach that he shows no signs of turning his back on, as Collateral was a very mainstream, straightforward action flick that contained signifiers of the best of Mann’s previous celluloid work—cops and bad guys, the streets of LA at night—which made the film both familiar and new in an end result that eased the audience’s acceptance of the digital rather than demanded it. His next effort, Miami Vice (2006), was not such an easy pill to swallow, as Mann infused the digital aesthetic with thick, indulgent layers of tone that all but suffocated the film, resulting in a plotless, incoherent mess of a movie overburdened with style. It became okay for Mann to use the digital, just not to rely on it in total for the film’s success.
So I admit I was skeptical when I heard Mann was once again using the technology for a period piece about 1930s Chicago gangsters. The sleek digital look of Collateral and Miami Vice at least had the benefit of taking place in the 21st century, thus matching the style of the films to two major American cities that are captured by such technology every day. How, then, would Michael Mann’s newfound digital approach come across when portraying an analog-only era? Would the 21st century technology used to portray a Depression-era story feel inappropriate and be all-too apparent, thus never allowing one to immerse oneself in what sounded like a potentially great film?
While Public Enemies’ use of digital camerawork has polarized many critics, I believe it, for the most part, works. While the film does suffer from some of those aspects of digital cinematography that still haven’t escaped the label of “amateur” (especially the blurriness of objects moving within the camera, and especially during the movement of the camera itself), Michael Mann seems to be the only Hollywood filmmaker that embraces those aspects unique to digital that can not be imitated by film, like its particularly vivid capacity for color and its incredibly detailed depth of field (putting objects simultaneously in a close foreground and far background while both remain perfectly in focus). While some of it remains distracting (and will likely continue to be until we get used to the technology and start acknowledging how very non-amateur it really is, thus necessitating a change of labels rather than a change in the technology itself), it also shows the potential for digital to create moments of utter cinematic beauty that could have never been achieved with celluloid.
Public Enemies contains an interesting preoccupation with the Depression-era movie theater, which plays a prominent role in several scenes, the most important of these being the climactic recreation of the infamous moment where John Dillinger watches the gangster film Manhattan Melodrama (1934) while Melvin Purvis’s team of FBI agents wait outside. The scene feels quite lengthy, switching back and forth between the film, Dillinger’s eyes watching it, and the careful maneuvering of the dozen or so cops awaiting Dillinger’s fate. In this scene, the differences in technology over decades of cinematic history become abundantly clear. The 1930s audience watch Manhattan Melodrama on a standard size screen with the appropriate aspect ratio for its time, yet Mann transposes that audience for the audience watching Public Enemies, ballooning Manhattan Melodrama onto the very screen we are watching, necessitating all the technological adjustments therein including a cropping a classical Hollywood movie filmed in a standard 1.33:1 aspect ratio for the widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio of Public Enemies. Also noticeably different between these films is the standardization of color established in studio filmmaking since and, of course, the use of digital rather than film.
With this scene Mann highlights how greatly filmmaking has changed over time, almost to the point of becoming unrecognizable from its previous form. Manhattan Melodrama and Public Enemies have completely different aspect ratios, technological means of capturing the moving image, and huge differences in approach to content, performance, and style. On first glance it seems these two films could not be more different, yet they still retain those parameters that not only define them both as films, but films of the same genre. Both are gangster films, and both work within the parameters of expectation that such films typically operate under—and Public Enemies follows the standard gangster formula down to its most classical detail just as surely as Dillinger meets his fate after he witnesses Clark Gable’s similar fall from the heights of illegitimate power. Mann here shows that technological change is not only common, but inevitable for Hollywood filmmaking, and while some might be uneasy at the idea of digital camerawork one day becoming the industry standard, Mann proves with this scene that mainstream movies will always keep those characteristics that define them as movies no matter what technology is used to capture them in.