Will Cinematic Innovation Destroy Cinematic Craft?
When sound was added to film, it changed everything. Studios rushing to capitalize on the new innovation, hired audio techs from radio and records. They sealed noisy cameras in padded crates to capture the cutting edge sensation of a human voice synced to a motion picture. The visual poetry of silent film, with its deft manipulation of camera angle, shot composition, lighting, and art direction, quickly took a backseat to the power of "talkies." Sound editing and sound design were both crafts in their infancy. Audio techs and recording engineers were suddenly a hot ticket. Along with all that talking came music. Original scores performed by symphony orchestras and big bands replaced theater organists with musical content from the filmmakers themselves.
As sound became the accepted norm for movies, black and white cinematography reemerged with an artistic vigor. The additional expense of sync sound pictures forced studios to cut corners. With reductions in lighting gear, crew, film stock, and lenses, filmmakers were forced to create a new form of visual expression. Film Noir, utilizing innovative camera angles, art direction, forced perspective, and hard lighting designs, established a quintessential American genre. The economic necessity of Film Noir fused the age of talkies with the poetry of silent film. The shadowy world of Noir, with its contrasting fields of blackness and light, with its use of expressionistic set design and smoke, made it one of the most enduring and recognizable film styles in the world. Once again, visual story-telling became the driving force behind motion pictures… that is until Color came along.
The shining splash of Techicolor film processing created both a craft innovation and problem for filmmakers. On one hand, color created a hyper-sense of reality that thrilled movie audiences. Color, with all its wonderful psycho-chemical effects on the brain, dammed moody Film Noir down to a trickle. Who wanted shadow and streaks of black when Techicolor was visually electric? Technicolor and its fellow competitors required new camera gear, makeup, lenses, film stock, lamps, and a contractually obligated cadre of technicians enforcing a new set of Technicolor rules. High key lighting became the norm. Set designs and wardrobe tended to be overly garish. Rather than hammy B actors chewing up the scenery, it was the hyper-colored scenery that consumed them. When color movies became the standard of most Hollywood A-Movies, filmmaking returned once again to visual craft. Instead of an exploited gimmick, processed color became just another tool of cinematic expression.
Moving beyond the Great Depression’s “All Singing! All Dancing! Feel Good!” Era, and World War II’s chaotic struggle and elation of victory, post-war America turned its attention to social ills and the realities of racism, antisemitism, civil rights, women’s rights, class struggle, and crime. Life was no longer an MGM musical. Tap dancing did not actually tap-tap-tap your troubles away. A jaded post-war public with its disenfranchised youth was all too familiar with processed color and saccharine plots. Artists sought to make movies with social relevance and depth. Bucking the norm, some filmmakers in the 50s and 60s chose to shoot black and white instead of color. It was not just a matter of cost. Eliminating the distraction of color, these socially relevant films and screenplays fused a docudrama approach with Film Noir to create a new take on “reality.” Films like The Defiant Ones (1958), The Hustler (1961), Psycho (1960), Paths of Glory (1957), and Lilies Of The Field (1963), and even The Last Picture Show (1971) were mostly produced outside of an all controlling studio system.
Leapfrogging over such commercial innovations as VistaVision, Cinemascope, Cinerama, IMAX, OMNIMAX, HD, and 3D, we find ourselves ensconced in a post celluloid world. Wading through a 4K+ digital conundrum, filmmakers are now faced with a host of creative choices. It’s tempting to serve up sweeping HD pageantry rather than a compelling story. It’s tempting to short change the craft of lighting, art direction, storyboarding, and the necessities of preproduction for a digital fix in post. Finding your solutions in digital post lends new meaning to the phrase, “costly mistake.” True, there are solutions available, but for a low budget indie those solutions might very well break the bank.
Technical innovation is going to happen. The future cannot be stopped. With each leap forward there comes a temptation to abandon the merits of film craft for the whiz-bang toys of tomorrow. Don’t get me wrong, I love innovation. I love all the toys. I love it all. However, digital innovation may be the cause of a recent pushback by certain Hollywood wunderkind directors. Praising the glories of 70mm film stock over RAW HD strikes me as a bit nostalgic. There’s virtually no discernible difference between image quality produced by 70mm and RAW HD. Their protests come not from some idealization of the celluloid process but rather a yearning for old school craft.
Digital is the present and the future. For the majority of filmmakers, there is no going back. RAW HD is faster to shoot. It’s cheaper to produce. It is more forgiving. Editing on a laptop far outweighs the antiquated limits of celluloid post production. Digital is a format not wholly dependent upon a projector and movie screen. It can be streamed, downloaded, self-distributed, and sent around the world without the costly burden of a physical print.
Cinema is still a universal language, a language of visual poetry and human emotions. However, “What’s Next?” need not destroy, “What’s best?”