Musician-turned-cinematographer Michael Jari Davidson began his film career at the cusp of the digital revolution. Davidson has a long career in film, with his latest credits being from the Canadian indie feature Berkshire County and the short film The Last Halloween. Having trained at the Detroit Film Center, the Canadian Screen Training Centre in Ottawa, and Sheridan College in Okaville, in 2004 Davidson found himself working in an industry that was beginning to fully embrace digital technology. Advances in camera systems and increased image resolution quickly made digital video a viable medium for professionals, but also gave rise to the film vs. digital debate that remains a heated topic to this day.
Davidson well understands the divide between the two disciplines, but recognizes the pros and cons and importance of having both film and digital technologies in moviemaking. His work on feature films and series have given him exposure to both mediums, and while he has a great love for 35mm film, he has shot the bulk of his recent projects on industry standard digital cameras. The last film Davidson shot on film was in 2010, the winner of the Best Film at the 2010 TIFF Student Showcase, entitled Teen Getaway.
“Film is tried and true, with predictable results based on your chosen film stock and method in which you process it,” Davidson explains. “Discussions between director, cinematographer and the lab resulted in decisions being made that would last throughout the production to the screen. Film is an organic process, it has a certain softness to the stock and lenses that is forgiving to imperfections. It’s a system that has been around since the beginning of cinema with rock solid archival qualities.”
When I shoot a film, I’m shooting it to be displayed on a 40-foot high screen. When you see those magnificent wide shots on a 40-foot screen it looks amazing, but if you’re watching it on an iPhone you’re like ‘what am I even looking at?’
Digital technology initially wasn’t developed enough to compete with the visual superiority of film, but quickly caught up. “The cost savings and immediacy of digital production helped it to become ubiquitous,” Davidson says. He notes that the barrier to entry has been removed, now providing greater access and opportunities (with fewer cost constraints) so people are able to create and experiment with filmmaking who would not have had the opportunity otherwise.
Beyond the equipment, Davidson has also noted a behavioural shift and a new set of practices to go along with the technological transition. One of his biggest concerns is the issue of image control and authorship. In the new world of moviemaking he notes, “There are many more voices and opinions in the workflow from conception to exhibition.”
Ten years ago video monitors were very rudimentary or non-existent on set. “There was a trust in the process and that the cinematographer and camera operator were making the right choices,” says Davidson. With the emergence of advance video monitors came what is jokingly referred to as the ‘video village’, as everyone gathers to watch the playback for their chance to offer suggestions and feedback. Davidson feels this increased feedback may or may not be appropriate to the task at hand.
Before that camera rolled, everyone looked and made sure they knew what they were doing, because it was money burning when the trigger was pushed. Digital shoots can be prone to ‘run ‘n gun’ shooting and rolling on rehearsals have become pervasive. The ‘fix it in post’ mentality is a slippery slope.
In the old film discipline, many more conversations and decisions were made before the cameras rolled. Davidson recalls that more attention was paid to detail and there was a greater importance placed on rehearsals. “Shooting ratios were lower, so cast and crew made sure they came prepared and got it right. Before that camera rolled, everyone looked and made sure they knew what they were doing, because it was money burning when the trigger was pushed. Digital shoots can be prone to ‘run ‘n gun’ shooting and rolling on rehearsals have become pervasive. The ‘fix it in post’ mentality is a slippery slope,” Davidson comments. “I’m not saying that’s endemic of the whole industry, but I certainly think there’s been a shift.”
Increased accessibility for anyone to try their hand at filmmaking has its pros and cons. Davidson calls it a double-edged sword. “It’s a blessing and curse, ” he says. While he feels the growing number of movies being made doesn’t necessarily devalue film professionals, it certainly has diluted the market. Festivals are inundated with submissions and distributors can pick and choose from the handfuls of new Blu-rays that land on their desks weekly. “It’s harder for artists that are in the industry because there’s so much noise and so much product in the marketplace, it’s harder to break through.”
Technology has not only changed moviemaking behind the scenes, but viewers are now also consuming video in new formats. Cinemas are not the only places to go watch a movie. In addition to televisions, people are now also viewing content from smaller screens such as tablets and smartphones. Different considerations must be made when different resolutions, compression, and screen size come into play. However, with so many screens and ever-emerging new gadgets, where do you draw the line?
Discussions between director, cinematographer and the lab resulted in decisions being made that would last throughout the production to the screen. Film is an organic process, it has a certain softness to the stock and lenses that is forgiving to imperfections.
Davidson puts it into perspective: “When I shoot a film, I’m shooting it to be displayed on a 40-foot high screen. When you see those magnificent wide shots on a 40-foot screen it looks amazing, but if you’re watching it on an iPhone you’re like ‘what am I even looking at?’ The smaller the screen, the tighter you want to frame. You want to have lots of close ups so that the faces are bigger on these tiny screens. But ultimately when you’re shooting a feature, you’re hoping that it gets a theatrical [release] so that’s how you frame and lens. I’ve seen my work exhibited, some of it has looked amazing, other times I’m like ‘Oh my God, it’s horrible, I can’t even believe they’re showing this!’ It goes back to the artist always being their toughest critic. You have to ask yourself, how many people in this audience have actually noticed that it’s not ideal? Probably not a lot. The digital revolution has been a really good advancement for us, but it’s complicated the entire process.”
Despite his admission to not being an early adaptor of new technology, Davidson has fully embraced digital and recognizes its place in contemporary movie making. He says “In my opinion, film and digital are two choices in the cinematographer’s toolbox. Both have their places. Every project is different and part of the cinematographer’s job is to make creative and aesthetic choices together with the director and producers based on vision, time and resources. The greatest challenges are image control and authorship. If the filmmaking team can take the time for creative discussions and make concrete decisions in prep, by taking the classical structure of the filmmaking process while using the efficiency of digital, I think that’s a very happy medium.”
It’s hard to predict what the next big technological advancement in filmmaking will be, it often takes user feedback and several upgrades for a product to become stable and establish itself as an industry standard. Davidson warns those newer to the industry not to be too technocentric, rather focus on having a good story to tell. For himself, he describes his method to success: “Stick to the system that’s been in place for a hundred years. Those stories and those techniques have been used for a long time, and so just stick to the basics and try to tell powerful stories with the medium we’ve chosen to work in.”