Jacques Delacoux (president of Transvideo) and Marc Galerne (president of K5600) invited students to Camerimage 2013 in Bydgoszcz, Poland. They sponsored 6 students from the French National Film School Louis Lumière, 6 from La Fémis in Paris, and 5 from the Lodz Film School. Part of their assignment was to write articles about their experience for Film and Digital Times. The reports follow. If I were to grade (school grades, not DI grades) these papers, they would get an A+ .
Georges Harnack just finished his studies in cinematography at the École Nationale Supérieur Louis Lumière in Paris.
Here is George’s review of Slawomir Idziak ‘s essay “Visual Identity: The Idziak Look” published by the International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography in conjunction with his Lifetime Achievement Award at Camerimage 2013.
The Idziak Guide for Young Cinematographers
By Georges Harnack
My parents always preferred watching a movie at home on a television screen because it’s cheaper and closer than the screenings on the big white screen. One day, however, I tricked them into a theatre where a movie was projected. Although they were at first mad at me for having tricked them, by the end of the movie, they were amazed and thankful. The movie was Three Colours: Blue directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski and photographed by Slawomir Idziak. Since that movie, we’ve all changed: my parents ask me to join them for a movie and I decided to make movies!
So, what makes this movie so special? Thanks to the Camerimage Festival 2013, where the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award was given to Slawomir Idziak this year, I have had the chance to meet him at the Festival in Bydgoszcz. He held a conference dedicated to his essay “Visual Identity: The Idziak Look” and gave some more insight into the particulars of his work as a cinematographer.
His essay contains two parts: the first discusses the role and the challenges of a cinematographer in today’s movie business and the second is a detailed and practical case study of Three Colours: Blue. This case study is illustrated by many top quality photos from the movie and extracts from the script, so that the reader can truly understand how Slawomir Idziak translated the phrases into images. Furthermore, he does not hesitate to unveil many of his technical secrets (diagrams of his filters and their positioning in a shot, his choice of gels and his unusual camera-operations like flashing during a shot by opening the camera, etc.). This case study is a precise and concrete document on how the movie was made (a DVD is also included) and will certainly help cinematographers as well as directors understand the mystery and the success of Three Colours: Blue. This review however will concentrate on my personal opinion as a young cinematographer about the role and challenges of a cinematographer today.
Idziak starts his essay by pointing out a fundamental technical change, whose consequences are often underestimated: “In the 1960s…we had huge and heavy cameras, equipped either with a parallax viewfinder or with the possibility of looking through the negative. The camera operator saw a picture different from that recorded by a camera…. Once upon a time, the profession of a cinematographer was like that of a translator who, wanting to show ‘everything his eye saw on a screen’ had to ‘translate the real world’.
“In a way, the image was first generated and developed in the cinematographer’s imagination and the comparison of his vision with the reality of what was recorded emerged when the material was screened. Modern cameras are like mirrors showing the surrounding world in real time. Set monitors instantly display images that can be recorded and played back. The cinematographer’s job has lost the magical properties of authorship (or co-authorship) of a film’s image.
“Pleased with the “what you see is what you get” principle (WYSIWYG), more often than not cinematographers overlooked that their role is limited to watching what their tools had created for them.” .
I believe there are basically two possible reactions to this statement: the first would be a nostalgic one, where the cinematographer refuses to work with these new WYSIWYG tools and keeps his ‘old-fashioned’ known tools. Many famous cinematographers have been able to continue to use film-cameras for instance, but it’s getting harder every day for economic reasons. It’s therefore only a temporary possibility. The second reaction is to accept these new tools with the risk of loosing the large part that cinematographers used to have in the creative process. However, by embracing these new tools, one should be conscious of the consequences. The second reaction embraces the mindset that shooting in film pushed for, but searches for a way in which this mindset can exist given the immediacy of the WYSIWYG tools. In a way, it’s trying to get the best out of the two worlds: the speed and ease of the new WYSIWYG tools, with the necessary distance to these technologies. We are today still in the transition of film to digital, but things are rapidly changing and we should therefore quickly engage this process of redefinition.
Considering these important technical changes, Slawomir Idziak proposes to employ a new name for the cinematographer: the visual director or author of film images. This name recalls clearly the lost responsibility of the cinematographer with the WYSIWYG tools: a visual director is not just there to guarantee the images have been recorded, but to develop the visual style together with the director from the scriptwriting, through the set design, the shooting and the post-production. His role is not mere technical and restrained to the shooting, but also artistic and on a long-term.
This responsibility asks however for skills and experiences going beyond the recording of the single image. During his conference and in his essay, Slawomir Idziak talked about his experiences as an actor, an editor and director – they all allowed him to better understand the rhythm, the visual grammar and the dramaturgy while shooting as a cinematographer. Moreover, these notions make it possible for a cinematographer to establish collaboration with the director – to be like his visual ghostwriter – instead of an executor.
Slawomir Idziak did not only mention the apparition of WYSIWYG-tools as a fundamental change in filmmaking, but also the increasing constraints on the budget. During the conference he proposed some ways to cope with this. I have listed some beneath:
- Ask for more preparation time. This seems to be contradictory to the idea of a restrained budget, but the gain made in knowing more precisely what and how you want to film makes it possible to shoot less and rent only the necessary equipment. Slawomir Idziak recalled some films, where due to the lack of preparation time, he had to rent far more equipment than necessary – “just to be sure, in case.” Moreover, it’s only during preparation time that a cinematographer can really think about a particular visual style; once on set, it’s too late to try radical things out.
- Shoot one part of your first script, edit it and continue shooting after. Instead of shooting the whole script, there is much to learn by shooting just one part and rethink the movie. This way of shooting allows for the reduction of risk of a bad movie. Slawomir Idziak recalls in his essay his work with Kieslowski: they spent much time in editing rooms while shooting just to know what worked and how to continue.
- Shooting is dangerous. If you don’t have the budget for a shot, then find another way to shoot it, because you may risk the life of your crewmembers. Idziak talked about how they shot a car-crash scene without having to see the car crash, just by an intelligent choice of shooting angles.
- The spectator as a prey. According to Slawomir Idziak, we are attacked by images constantly and today’s spectator has built a protective shield against images. This should be taken into consideration when writing a script, because it basically means that a movie should have a visually intriguing start otherwise the spectator will not open up his mind to the rest of the movie.
Slawomir Idziak has much more advice to give to cinematographers and directors in his essay. What makes his advice as a cinematographer so particular is that his reasoning is not solely on the level of technique, but also on a higher level, on filmmaking in general. Indeed, I consider Slawomir Idziak more as a filmmaker specialized in cinematography than a cinematographer alone. I suggest that film students or young filmmakers buy this beautiful book dedicated to his life and work as a cinematographer at the Camerimage 2013 Festival in Bydgoszcz (published by the Tumult Foundation, www.tumult.pl) or via this ISBN number: 9788361580133.
I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I did.
 Visual Identity: The Idziak Look, Slawomir Idziak, page 13