I will begin my call for profound changes in the process of film production with what is closest to me, i. e. with my own profession (cinematographer). Because in this example we can see clearly how film professions and their role in the production process change over time. Technological changes, new technologies are crucial for the cinematographer and it is possible to observe on the grounds of this job how many of them were there – and what a mess reigns in the production departments of the film responsible for its visual side.
In the beginnings of the film industry, the cinematographer was a technician, but in fact a crank-turning person. In the silent movie era, the filmmaker number one was the director, who was first of all the author of the film’s vision, was the cameraman was only filming what he was told. With the advent of sound the director was burdened with additional responsibilities, but the cinematographer remained only a technical visual specialist. Despite the fact that in the following years many prominent artists of cinematographers appeared in the USA, this profession did not regain its rightful place in the film studio system, but continued the heritage of technical profession.
It should be remembered that the way films are made in the United States and Europe varies considerably, which is often forgotten. In European cinema, the cooperation between the director and cinematographer looks completely different. Poland is a special case in this respect.
A specific, partner relationship between director and cinematographer evolved in the Polish cinematography as a kind of idiosyncracy, because it is difficult to find sources from before the World War II of such a model in Polish cinema. It is mainly a legacy of the Łódź Film School, where for years there were only two faculties: cinematography and directing (1). The kind of cooperation that was established there had an impact on Polish cinematography. The difference of Polish cinema was also determined by the fact that over the years it had a patronage of the state, which, of course, was a negative phenomenon in political terms, but despite the pressure exerted on its creators, few propaganda films were made. The Polish film could not honestly describe the reality and looked for new ways. In general, films were made in Poland more for festivals than for the public. Meanwhile, creators all over the world, especially in America, defined cinema as show business that, like any other business, has to bring a return on invested money.
This specificity of Polish film production meant that the experiment (an excommunicated term in Hollywood) of searching for a new form was very welcome. Especially in the visual layer. This resulted in the fact that the cinematographer during the Polish Film School era was usually a co-author of the screenplay. Of course not the screenplay in the meaning of the initial literary material, but subsequent versions of the screenplay. He was expected to find an original vision for a particular text. As a result he had his creative contribution.
It was only by making his first films abroad that Krzysztof Kieślowski realised that things are different in Poland and Europe, that the Polish cinematographer, unlike his foreign colleagues, is someone who has worked on the text much earlier, that he brings ideas and often not only visual ones, that it belongs to his duties. And Kieślowski was probably the first to include this in the subtitles of the film: cinematographers appeared as co-authors of the screenplay.
Marek Żydowicz understood this when establishing his festival, where cinematographers are treated as true artists. Unfortunately, this situation is an exception, because, as I wrote above, the cinematographer himself is treated as a technician, especially in the USA – and to add to that as a technician whose influence on the final shape of the piece is decreasing, due to the development of digital image recording and processing. Unfortunately, this American model is becoming established in world cinematography. The cinematographer’s position is shrinking dramatically.
The existing post-production tools cause that what American cinematographers pride themselves on as their creative contribution, i. e. film lighting, ceases to be their sole domain. I will give you an example from my own work. Harry Potter’s plan was created in the studio to decorate the forest. I planned to make this image more dimensional by introducing streaks of sunlight, which would give it a more “gothic” character. Thus, very strong lighting units were pulled in, which (in my opinion) were interestingly illuminating this forest. After the shooting one of the producers, whose task was to make sure that the filmmakers didn’t get too far from the “truth” about Harry Potter, or from the world described in the books, came up to me and said that according to his calculations the scene we had just realized could have taken place at 3 p. m. at the latest, while the direction of sunlight in the film suggests that things are already happening around evening. It was completely absurd, because in this very place time did not play any dramatic role! I defended my vision, but unfortunately, during the editing of the copy, I found with surprise that all these streaks of light were painstakingly removed, frame by frame.
Colour or lighting applied by the operator can be converted during the post-production period, not only in Hollywood, into completely different ones. This is just how films are currently made. One has an unimaginable number of currently available digital tools and different kinds of professionals who have an impact on the final image. The authorship of the vision has long been a group effort, not individual one.
That is why, as I have already written above, American cinematography, copied all over the world, has an even more drastic, industrial model of risk control. The producers realised that the document which is the basis for thinking about future film production, i. e. the script, is not enough in any way to assess the value of what really is being created. And producers first and foremost seek the security of their investment. One of such security measures is the ability to see the film before it is made.
It is therefore obligatory to create a storyboard, and at this moment animatics – a film made by additional artists, people who are familiar with CGI, concept artists who have some kind of narrative talent. The result is that the director, a cinematographer on set, is practically forced to do exactly what has already been drawn or presented in the animatic for. In a typical production, the cinematographer does not participate in the previsualisation stage or, for financial reasons, he is invited very late to the process.
Coming back to the example of “Harry Potter”: there was a corridor in the production hall, some sixty meters long, covered on both sides with storyboards: from the beginning to the end of the film. In addition, these storyboards were not made by one person, because it would not have been physically possible. Three or four concept artists were involved. On top of that there were animatics, prepared by a completely different department, managed by the visual effects supervisor. Looking carefully at the visualizations, one can easily see that the form of this film is amorphous already at this stage, that it changes depending on who draws a given segment of the storyboard or prepares the animatic.
What kind of vision does the director or cinematographer pursue in such a film? It is worth noting that the idea of previsualization is a good idea, and I will delve deeper into that later, only its implementation (animatics) has its drawbacks and, above all, deprives the creators of their right to authorship.
The examples of studio production mentioned above may be too extreme from a European point of view, but we in Europe are copying this system. If anything changes in the production of European films, it is due to American film production software, applications that have been created for a completely different industrial system burdened with a different legal system, but above all for a very rich film industry.
Distributed authorship and money
In an ideal situation (which is not the case) the director is someone who is responsible for the whole project. But he doesn’t compose the music score himself. Most often, and this was the case with the Polish model, he is responsible for the dramaturgy of the whole, for guiding and motivating actors, while the cinematographer’s domain was the visual setting. His task was to filter the script through some specific visual style to support the dramaturgy of the film. At least that was expected from the operator in the Polish model. The director decided, of course, but he always expected visual proposals from the cinematographer.
Unfortunately, this simple system is not implemented due to financial reasons. The person who gets involved in the film first is the set designer. This is seemingly logical, because decorations must be created before the process of filming begins. But leads to the situation where the set designer often has a greater influence on the film’s visual shape than the cinematographer (2).
The operator is often employed when most of the set is already built. Anyway, even if they he happens to appear earlier, the decisions what and how to build are not in his competence. The artistic freedom of the cinematographer is limited to lighting the finished objects and actors! To be fair towards my set designer colleagues – it must not be forgotten that there are many outstanding artists among them. But it is also worth remembering that they are not there on the set. They just pop in to consult with the director the future decorations. This is simply their mode of operation and they don’t have time for more. They often don’t know whether the decorations they create are used dramaturgically in a given story or whether they are technologically efficient, i. e. whether they make filming easier or more difficult for the film crew.
I don’t want to criticize this group of great artists, but the tendency is that the set design is often made “for life” rather than for the dramaturgy of a particular film. I have the impression that this is sometimes due to a lack of drama education – set designers often forget that a given decoration is about only one angle, about one bathroom, and so on. Instead, whole rooms are built. A lot of money is spent on something that will be invisible on the screen. This arises indirectly from the professional habits of stage design designers, who get in the profession after graduating from schools of fine arts or architecture. These are universities that certainly do not educate students in the visual dramaturgy of a film.
Often, decorations are built that are inadequate to the needs, but on a budget that is still substantial at the beginning of production. The operator appears in production when the avalanche of money has built up momentum and the producer wants to stop it. At this moment, the money game starts between the heads of individual departments and production. The cinematographers and other heads of departments participate in this game in a similar way – they protect themselves just in case and the level of security depends on the size of the film budget.
The sometimes dirty money game
The head of any of the departments is aware that he cannot allow himself to be surprised by any unexpected need of the director. He doesn’t organize equipment, furnishings and decorations exclusively for the needs of the film, but secures himself with an excess that will allow him to sleep well in the night. He spends as much as he can. If the movie budget is increased due to the participation of a star, for example, this automatically translates into further funds for additional equipment. However, this has nothing to do with whether these measures are really needed. This is the same old song all over again: the producer, who decides about the money, is really not fully familiar with the technology. He is not aware of collusion between post-production companies (3). His knowledge is based on a comparative analysis of other films of a similar scale. The operator, but also heads of other departments know the system well and often “bleed” the producer, claiming that they need a lot of light, cranes or other equipment. Often the number of costumes is exceeded by 20% or too many make-up materials are ordered. The set designer builds four walls of a room mock-up instead of one corner that is really needed. Money is being spent, and you do not see that on the screen!
In relation to the principle that I am writing about from the outset,
film production within a predetermined budget creates technical and financial conditions for the director to transfer the script to the screen in the shortest possible time “.
Every Head of Unit secure themselves as much as they can, because during the implementation there is no time to replenish the resources, and they are not able to assess what may be really needed, because the screenplay does not provide this information. They did not work with the director before, so they do not know his way of working. So as they can, they try to protect themselves by excess. As a result, a significant percentage of the equipment does not leave trucks. It remains stored there, just in case.
The principle of parallelism of individual production departments makes it necessary to turn to the director to decide on every trifle on the film set. This has particularly bad impact on the decisions related to the visual dimension of the film. So what if the cinematographer came to the conclusion that the whole film is to be made in subdued colours, if the film’s costume designer made a bright red dress for the actress, the set designer additionally painted the walls of the interiors in yellow. The director is always the decision-monger, and he’s always right.
The director responsible for the viewer’s emotions in the cinema must additionally answer thousands of questions like in the example above, and it is obvious that he often does not focus on certain topics, because it is perhaps important, but secondary in the most important sphere, i. e. the dramaturgy of the work and shaping the characters. Moreover, the director knows that many mistakes made on the set can be corrected later in the post-production process. He believes that he can allow himself to treat visual dilemmas as secondary ones, because he can change this later.
The architecture of filmmaking has always been complicated, but nowadays it is even more complex. Technicians and CGI specialists are needed. We need a whole group of new specialists who also influence the image in the film. In positive, but also but also negative way….
To sum up, the conviction that the cinematographer decides about the visual layer has long since ceased to be true. But it’s not just about the position of the cinematographer in the team! In fact, nobody is fully responsible for the film’s visual side. On a typical commercial film set, if we are not dealing with a “visually thinking” director, the authorship of the film’s vision is distributed, individual departments responsible for this part of the film’s architecture struggle for greater influence on the final outcome of this work. Obviously, this has a negative impact on the artistic and financial side of the film. Can this be changed? I believe that I have a detailed description of these changes in the second part of this essay.
1 In the past, the acting department was at Gdańska Street.
2 It would not be a mistake were it not for the way the job of the set designer is performed. The set designer is not physically present on the set during the filming.
3 For example, the software market grows and software is becoming easier in use, but the prices of services remain unchanged
[Extracts from the Essay “How to make films cheaper and better” by Sławomir Idziak.]