25 May 2009

More Real than Real

I have an acquaintance who is a photographer and cinematographer. I once asked him over lunch what the single greatest advance in film making has been. He replied, "The quality of film stock."

You may expect just such a bland technical observation from a photographer, but I might agree. Much of the basic look of modern film is derived from the fantastic films and film processes cinematographers have available to them, and of course the great skill they employ in using them.

To me this is most evident in their color saturation. The stunning, rich colors that immediately differentiate a film shot today from one made in the 80s and earlier are all about the film used. I think some digital transfers of old films may get their colors punched up a bit, but those older films still just look incredibly bland by today's standards. In fact, I find that dated look a challenge to my enjoyment of them. Just watch A Bridge Too Far next to Band of Brothers. Both are seminal WW2 pics, but I find the immersion of of the latter so much greater, with its immense color and sound fidelity.

Though maybe "fidelity" is the wrong word. Today's film stocks reproduce images that are more real than real. Looking out my window at work, the trees do not look like movie trees. The light is flat, the colors bland, and as my eyes see them right now, they are thoroughly unspectacular. But I am not viewing them through masterfully processed 35mm Kodak VISION3. If only life looked as good as art.

But aside from saturation, incredible film stocks and even more incredible analog and digital processing allows a cinematographer to recreate any period look, or simply create a unique aesthetic that complements the film. Cinematographers like Janusz Kaminski (Spielberg) and Roger Deakins (Cohen brothers) are geniuses at this, as seen in films like Catch Me if You Can (Kaminski) and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (Deakins). I'm getting goose bumps just thinking about the look of those films. I guess I'm a very visual person.

For the average still photographer, film stock is inconsequential, since we've all traded film for digital. Old timers still get dewy-eyed over Fujifilm Velvia 50, a supersaturated slide film that too is more real than real. But who needs it with Photoshop. Even the rankest of amateurs, like me, can take a very average photo and, with a bit of tweaking in PS, make the colors look brilliant. There's no looking back now.

A shot of Stonehenge, before and after a Velvia-like color boost in Photoshop.

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