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Janusz Kaminski is Concerned About Digital Cinematography

The ‘Ready Player One’ DP believes he lost his voice in the new movie’s visual effects. 
Ready Player One Battle
By  · Published on April 11th, 2018

Things fall apart. Everything changes. We build our lives on foundations which will inevitably give way. That’s something we can all appreciate regardless of the number of years we’ve spent on this rock.

However, the younger you are, the harder it is to appreciate the seismic impact of most change. Age brings an accumulation of experience which insists you view that change through the lens of a person who has spent a lifetime working in a certain way. Gradually, change is in overwhelming relief against what used to be.

Janusz Kaminski, a two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer, dug into the idea of change in his business during his recent experience on Steven Spielberg‘s Ready Player One.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Kaminski just spoke at the annual NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) Show on how the rise of digital photography has eclipsed the art of traditional cinematography. So much so that, according to Kaminski, “to some degree, it’s not moviemaking.”

Kaminski went on to add that “cinematography is the art of light and shadows, visual metaphors and nuance. That is disappearing. It will evolve and come back. But right now [there are not enough young DPs] using cinematography to express themselves.”

Saving Private Ryan Stairs Scene

His comments don’t read like a dire warning about the death of cinematography as art. They seem more like a person lamenting the occasionally divergent paths of friends and the evolution of the creation of art.

He’s a master of his craft. And it’s worth taking a few minutes to consider the implications of his comments. For some context to the spirit of what he’s saying, check out this clip of him speaking at the AFI’s Harold Lloyd Master Seminar in 2009:

There he shares that “cinematography is one of the professions that allows you to tell the world who you are. You’re working with light [and] darkness. … If you want to know something about me, watch my movies. They are truly a reflection of who I am. I’m happy, I’m dark, I’m careless, I’m serious.”

In his more recent remarks, he suggested that films without the craft of light in-camera were not actually movies.

What’s a movie? It’s a negotiation of an answer to a riddle presented by a story that grows into something greater than its parts. In Kaminski’s eyes, he understands that five different filmmaking teams working with the same story will, without a doubt, present something completely different. Director, editor, score, actors, and cinematographers all bring their unique perspective to the table. This, in turn, makes the final product.

So, when you watch his work, you can see his style in the choices he makes. He works with light and darkness in a particular way to add to the story. My personal favorite is his work in Amistad. Spielberg and Kaminski have spoken before about being influenced by the works of Goya.  Kaminski uses things like dust to help naturally desaturate the room in order to achieve the right Goyaesque mix of darks and backlights.  It’s really quite something, but your mileage may vary. You know his style when you see it. You know him.

When he works on a movie like Ready Player One, he doesn’t just potentially lose control of the final look of the 60% or so of the film made up of manipulated motion capture photography. The digital photography of the live-action portions of the film allows someone to come in after him and play with the light balances he worked so hard to achieve in camera.

He shared that “the image becomes so manipulated, [starting on set] with the digital imaging technician. It’s limitless.” There are opportunities for others to manipulate or change his intent from the time they’re working on set, depending on the nature of the shot, all the way through the process of adding visual effects. He likens it to too many cooks in the kitchen. Imagine the trajectory of working with your partner on identifying someone like Goya’s work and agreeing to use that as a roadmap to tell a story in Amistad. Fast forward 20 years, and there are quite a few more people who have an artistic say in the final look.

From his perspective, this ability to manipulate imagery after he’s captured it in camera is more than an erasure of his art. It’s an erasure of himself.

Kaminski trusts Spielberg when they work together. He shared in an interview with Collider earlier this year that he and Spielberg both have their own aesthetics, and they don’t fight them when it comes to making art. Kaminski knows that Spielberg will protect his artistic investment all the way through to the final product. But even Spielberg lost control of some of what’s on screen in Ready Player One.

And what about any other director?

Up and comers are, in his estimation, fine with fixing it all later. Will they be as protective of what he has to offer a project? What about another cinematographer? If stronger directors erode the creative control typically afforded to a DP, what will that do to his part of the negotiation of making a film?

This isn’t the end of movies. In fact, his fellow cinematographers are still finding ways to push the boundaries of possibility in camera. Just check out Emmanuel Lubezki’s work with natural light in The Revenant. Kaminski surely knows this.

The Battery Backlit Stairwell

There is, of course, the value on the flipside to what Kaminski perceives as a loss to his voice. The ability to edit digital imagery has saved more than one production. One of my favorite filmmaker chats is our conversation with Christian Stella, the director of photography for The Battery, about the work he did in the editing studio after the shoot.

There’s no other way to say it. Mistakes were made on that shoot. Because they worked in a digital medium, Stella was able to save the movie. For example, the image wasn’t steady, or always framed particularly right. He was able to crop the images and balance them to yield a stable look at what would otherwise be a shaky cam. Same for the color grading after the fact when their lighting setups failed to yield the desired result. Basically, he snatched beauty from the jaws of those mistakes and gave us a damn gorgeous film.

Kaminski and Spielberg have given us amazing stories. Perhaps they’ll give us more. Regardless, we can appreciate Kaminski for who he is on screen. And, he’ll certainly find projects which allow him to show us who he is.

In the interim, I take his comments mostly as a reminder. Fight for your shots. Value your art. Defend your choices. Make mistakes. Contribute a voice. These are good pieces of advice for any profession.

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Writer for Film School Rejects. He currently lives in Virginia, where he is very proud of his three kids, wife, and projector. Co-Dork on the In The Mouth of Dorkness podcast.