Whenever we think about the technical side of animation, the focus is almost always on subjects such as renders, rigging, textures, details, and so on. But we don’t tend to focus as much on an area that is often considered a vital part of live-action filmmaking: cinematography.
Why is that?
Could it be that it just isn’t brought up because of our ingrained expectation that animation is a different medium from live-action? Perhaps. That fact is certainly true in most cases. Animation is a medium with a set of rules that is different from the demands of live-action photography.
But as the tools and technology of animation evolve with each passing year, is it not fair to say that animation might have reached a point where we can now start to treat the ‘camera’ with the same amount of weight and importance that is regularly afforded to the actual animation process?
I personally think so. And according to an article on Animation Magazine that covered the subject, it is a sentiment that’s starting to gather steam in the animation industry.
In a fascinating editorial piece titled ‘The Evolving Role of the CG Director of Photography’, we are indeed given many examples of how the role of the cinematographer in animation is just now beginning to achieve credibility – and why it might be time for a title such as ‘CG Director of Cinematography’.
The article first covers a milestone achieved last year by Pixar’s Sharon Calahan: she became the first cinematographer who’s work consisted solely of CG Animated features to join the American Society of Cinematographers. Calahan has worked with Pixar ever since A Bug’s Life in 1998 and is one of the few cinematographers who work in animation with that title. She is currently working on The Good Dinosaur.
Jim Morris, President of Pixar and one of Calahan’s biggest supporters, made a point of how rare this recognition is: “It’s weird that it’s not widely recognized.”
He continues this line of thought by making an apt comparison to stop-motion: “Because the fact is — to use the stop-motion analogy, where you’re lighting puppets and miniature sets — in CG, you’re doing the same thing in virtual space. Over time, we found people who were like-minded, and believed that computer graphics was just another arm of cinematography. It’s just another set of tools to create imagery.”
He goes on to describe how Calahan faced “a Spanish Inquisition of 20 or 25 DPs grilling her. She does her own lighting studies, and she brought samples of how she breaks down a scene. She knocked ’em dead.”
Nowadays, every animation studio approaches the Director of Photography position in their own way. To put it simply: some have it, some don’t.
Animal Logic enlisted the expertise of Pablo Plaisted, a former animator who worked on Happy Feet, for The LEGO Movie, but the responsibility was shared with lighting supervisor Craig Welsh. Blue Sky Studios has Renato Falcao, who’s DP credits include Epic, the Rio movies, and this year’s Peanuts adaptation. Disney and DreamWorks have no such credits on either of their films – you get the usual job descriptors of layout and lighting supervisors – but DreamWorks has enlisted the help of renowned DP Roger Deakins for films such as Rise of the Guardians and the How to Train Your Dragon films. At Pixar, the DP credit is also shared between the ‘camera’ operator and the lighting supervisor.
When describing how Pixar came to accept the value of a DP, Calahan added, “In the early days, Pixar was a lot like Disney is now. Our first model was what we knew: cel animation. That was how we started on Toy Story. But through the process of learning how to make movies, we realized that our process was more akin to how somebody might make a live-action film. So we thought, why don’t we start thinking about it more that way instead of trying to compare it to cel animation, which is a very different working method. A lot depends on where a company — and its talent — is coming from.”
The Case for Cinematographers in Animation
Despite the scarcity of people in this position, it is nonetheless a job that will hopefully, given the rapid advancement in the technology and tools, be embraced by more studios across the industry in earnest. In fact, it may just be the evolution of the technology, and the involved nature of the process, that could make CG animation become more attractive to cinematographers with backgrounds in live action.
“The process is becoming more collaborative as the tools become more facile,” says Calahan. “I can be involved earlier in the process. Lighting can affect story and layout and sets and the art department much more than before. And I can do things to support the upstream departments by doing pre-lighting, so they can see what the intent of a scene is going to be. We also talk more as a group. There are fewer barriers to doing that because the tools aren’t in the way anymore. Our mental process has been slowly, gradually, becoming more and more like live action, where everybody is working together at the same time.”
Falcao also made a good case for the importance of the position, stating, “The rules of cinematography totally apply to animated movies. For cutting, you need an establishing shot, a medium shot, and a close-up. Sometimes the storyboards will break those rules, which is totally fine. But DPs have to make sure that the viewer doesn’t feel lost — especially in an action sequence.”
The article ends with Plaisted adding a final thought, once again pointing to the evolution of the medium: “I put a huge emphasis on the ‘rules’ of classical cinema, but I do think we are obliged to push forward the CG animation medium. For me, the rules are worth breaking whenever story, context and maybe even innovation demand it.”
The Importance of Having a ‘CG Director of Photography’
If animation is slowly (but surely) to be recognized as a viable medium in its own right, then I see no reason why we shouldn’t add ‘CG Director of Photography’ as a job descriptor. They bring to animation the eye of someone who’s been on a set and behind an actual camera, and therefore bringing a level of depth and perspective that previously wouldn’t have been associated with animation otherwise.
If it is one of the many ways that animation can be seen on par with live-action, then I wholly support it.
What do you think? Any argument for, or against, having cinematographers in animation?
Edited by: Kajsa Rain Forden