Avatar won the Oscar for Best Cinematography last Sunday. It's not unusual for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to award the Best Cinematography Oscar to sweeping big budget epics. It is unusual for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to award the Best Cinematography Oscar to a film that was almost entirely created within the confines of a computer using motion capture technology.
There's an image that's been making the online rounds. Depending on who's posting it or tweeting it or linking it, it usually comes with a caption expressing bewilderment, disappointment or snark. I'm linking you to a snarky one because I'm that kind of guy.
What happened? Were Academy voters entirely aware of what they were voting for here? Did voters make the conscious decision to embrace the motion capture and 3D "revolution?" Or were they simply handing it the trophy because Avatar looked pretty? Both options taste sour in my mental mouth to be perfectly honest.
Before we go any further, let's make sure everyone reading this is on the same page.
What is the job of the Director of Photography, the crew member who gets to take home the Best Cinematography Oscar should his film win? If you simplify his role down to its essence, the DoP is in charge of how the film looks. The camera crew answers to him. The electricians and Gaffer, who light the scene, answer to him. He gives the film depth, he makes it visually appealing. This is an extremely difficult job and requires more finesse than many could possibly imagine. Where should the camera go? What kind of lens needs to go on the camera? How should the camera move? What kind of special equipment is needed to make it move? And that's before you bring in large cumbersome lights and try to manipulate them to create the exact image you want.
The artsy fartsy way of describing a Director of Photography's job is "painting with light." This sounds pretentious, but it's accurate. It's an art form, the same as writing, directing and acting. If you've ever seen a beautifully shot film, you can be guaranteed that the DoP fought a difficult uphill battle against physical restrictions, time and the elements to make it that way.
And yet way too many movie fans credit a film's visual style entirely with the director. But that's a rant for another day.
What is motion capture, the technology behind Avatar's Na'Vi? Simplified down to its essence, mo-cap is the process where actors get into special suits covered with censors and perform their roles in front of special cameras that record their movements and facial expressions, which are then put into a computer and used as a basis for animators and visual effects artists to "create" the character.
The same process was used for Robert Zemeckis' fully animated ouvre of Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol, as well as Steven Spielberg's upcoming Tintin and many of the characters in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. Unlike traditional animation or visual effects (where a character is created from scratch with no human reference), the idea behind motion capture is that it will preserve a true performance and lend weight to a CGI character.
Are we all on the same page? I hope so. Because I'm ready to make my point.
As impressive as the visuals in Avatar are, I don't think they stand on the same plain as The White Ribbon or Inglourious Basterds, two of the fellow Best Cinematography nominees. Or, if you want to keep the argument entirely within the sci-fi bubble, I don't think Avatar's visuals are comparable with fellow 2009 sci-fi releases Moon and District 9.
I don't want to make light of Avatar's accomplishments. It's a visually stunning movie and there are things in it that I have never seen in movies before. It's an accomplishment.
But when I really watch District 9 or Moon, I see a movie where a crew of people lugged lights and camera equipment onto a location or set and created fully-realized science fiction worlds in the lens of the camera instead of in a computer. When I think of District 9, I think of a clever director of photography thinking fast on his feet and devising clever solutions to immediate problems, making a movie against all sorts of odds. When I think of Avatar, I think of a clever director of photography sitting over the shoulder of a caffeine-powered animator in an air-conditioned computer suite.
Am I making light of the immense talent it takes to work on visual effects and computer animation? No. Okay, maybe a little, but there is a definite irony that the alien slum of District 9 and the lunar base of Moon feel more real than the far more expensive digital world of Pandora. Hell, if you want to jump back forty years, the traditionally-shot practical effects on display in 2001: A Space Odyssey still feel real.
So it's obvious that my sympathies/preferences fall toward the guys working outside of motion capture, similarly to how I'll always embrace practical effects and make-up over CGI. I just find it hard to fully embrace a filmmaking style where every single shot in a movie is decided created in a computer. What would Gordon Willis say? He's still kicking around, someone should go ask him.
Is this a case of me complaining about something and offering no real solutions? Believe it or not, no! There is a solution that will not only make me feel better about all of this, but will allow both "types" of cinematographer to receive recognition.
Two Cinematography Oscars categories.
It wouldn't be a new thing. The Academy Awards used to give out separate awards for Black and White cinematography and color cinematography. Update it. Let's see separate categories for traditional cinematography and, I don't know, digital cinematography, maybe? This way, Avatar could win an Oscar for it's camerawork without pissing movie fans off and something like The White Ribbon (which may be one of the most beautifully shot movies I've ever seen) won't go home empty-handed.
The results would be interesting to say the least. This would not only make a clear distinction between styles, but it would allow the cinematography of fully animated movies to receive recognition. If the 70% animated Avatar can win an Oscar, why not Pixar's Up? Or Wall-E, which actually hired master DoP Roger Deakins as a visual consultant? It's a scientific fact that the folks at Pixar are the greatest collection of moviemakers working right now. Why can't they compete if Avatar can?
It's not a foolproof plan. Will directors of photography find this insulting? After all, The White Ribbon went through many difference processes in post-production before achieving its final look. I'm sure James Cameron and Robert Zemckis would be none-to-pleased with people making this distinction, especially since they see motion-capture as the way of the future.
This really boils down to one final question: What defines cinematography? Is motion capture a tool or the future of filmmaking? As technology evolves at such a rapid pace and computers allow shots that were previously impossible, where does cinematography end and visual effects begin?
And that's the question of the moment. Try to answer it in the comments below.