By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood January 23, 2014 at 2:05PM
With VFX taking a much more prominent role in the virtual lighting of hybrid movies, the question of who's responsible for cinematography in evaluating Oscar contenders has prompted the Academy to consider a new visual imaging category. Obviously the discussion has intensified with "Gravity's" Emmanuel ("Chivo") Lubezki being the frontrunner this year. He would be the second cinematographer in a row to win the Oscar for predominantly virtual work and the third in Academy history.
But unlike last year's winner, Claudio Miranda ("Life of Pi"), who merely set the tone while Rhythm & Hues handled the virtual lighting, or "Avatar's" Oscar-winning Mauro Fiore, who wasn't involved in the virtual lighting, Lubezki was instrumental in the cinematography of the blockbuster "Gravity." He worked closely with both director Alfonso Cuaron and Framestore's VFX supervisor Tim Webber in pre-lighting the previs, designing "The Light Box," and then meticulously lighting every scene in this unusual jigsaw puzzle that was reverse-engineered.
So is such a category really necessary? Depends on who you talk to. Some believe it would more adequately address the blurring of VFX with cinematography while giving VFX greater recognition in the making of these hybrid movies. On the other hand, others believe it would just lead to a slippery slope in which each new digital tool leads to yet another category.
Yet it was the topic of conversation at the recent Visual Effects Society Summit, where former Academy president Hawk Koch insisted that something needs to be done to clear up the confusion about the imprecise role of cinematography and VFX in hybrid productions, while current president Cheryl Boone Issacs declared that it's important to evaluate the impact of new technology on the craft categories to keep them relevant.
However, Lubezki insists that it's just a matter of better educating his fellow cinematographers and the industry at large about the impact of these new digital tools. "The technology is becoming cheaper and the appetite of the directors and writers for hybrid movies is growing. You can do the conquest of Mexico or travel to Mars or the center of the Earth with a level of realism we didn't have before. There shouldn't be a gap or a line between virtual and real-life capture.
"But I have to give Alfonso all the credit for letting me shoot it instead of relying on Framestore to create it. I don't see any difference. Just the tools are changing and evolving. And this movie could not have happened a year before we shot it because we did not have the technology. And this movie could not have happened without Sandra [Bullock] because she was strong and agile. She's a true performer and kept us in line. It's cinema."
According to Weta Digital's Joe Letteri (nominated again this year for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug"), the workflow on, say, "The Hobbit" trilogy necessitates greater upfront collaboration between cinematography and VFX because the shots occur in parallel. "You've got 50 shots that all have to end at the same time and at that point it becomes the visual effects supervisor who's responsible for maintaining all of that and takes it up to the director [for approval].
"On 'Avatar,' Jim [Cameron] pretty much did the shot composition all by himself and he blocked out a lot of the lighting on the stage that he wanted. But then when we got the shots in, I worked out the lighting shot by shot and scene by scene with everybody because the process and look were all so new. But with 'The Hobbit,' you've got teams working on it where everyone now understands the rules. It's all the same work but the way it gets done gets broken out.
"On a normal film, composition and lighting have to happen at the same time, whereas on a digital film, you can block out the animation, you can do previs, you can compose the shots all in gray-shade form before you light. Or you can take the blocking and start lighting it before the animation is done. It's complicated and harder and harder to evaluate for award consideration. You no longer have those central points that everything goes through except for the director. But in the digital world, [shot lighting and virtual composition] are two different tasks. You've got a layout or animation team doing shot composition and you've got a lighting department and a compositing department putting the images together.