(Source:┬áscifisquad.com) As impressive as the visuals in Avatar are, I don’t think they stand on the same plain as The White Ribbon or Inglourious Basterds, two of the fellow Best Cinematography nominees. Or, if you want to keep the argument entirely within the sci-fi bubble, I don’t think Avatar’s visuals are comparable with fellow 2009 sci-fi releases Moon and District 9.

I don’t want to make light of Avatar’s accomplishments. It’s a visually stunning movie and there are things in it that I have never seen in movies before. It’s an accomplishment.

But when I really watch District 9 or Moon, I see a movie where a crew of people lugged lights and camera equipment onto a location or set and created fully-realized science fiction worlds in the lens of the camera instead of in a computer. When I think of District 9, I think of a clever director of photography thinking fast on his feet and devising clever solutions to immediate problems, making a movie against all sorts of odds. When I think of Avatar, I think of a clever director of photography sitting over the shoulder of a caffeine-powered animator in an air-conditioned computer suite.

Am I making light of the immense talent it takes to work on visual effects and computer animation? No. Okay, maybe a little, but there is a definite irony that the alien slum of District 9 and the lunar base of Moon feel more real than the far more expensive digital world of Pandora. Hell, if you want to jump back forty years, the traditionally-shot practical effects on display in 2001: A Space Odyssey still feel real.

So it’s obvious that my sympathies/preferences fall toward the guys working outside of motion capture, similarly to how I’ll always embrace practical effects and make-up over CGI. I just find it hard to fully embrace a filmmaking style where every single shot in a movie is decided created in a computer. What would Gordon Willis say? He’s still kicking around, someone should go ask him.

Is this a case of me complaining about something and offering no real solutions? Believe it or not, no! There is a solution that will not only make me feel better about all of this, but will allow both “types” of cinematographer to receive recognition.

Let’s see separate categories for traditional cinematography and, I don’t know, digital cinematography, maybe? This way, Avatar could win an Oscar for it’s camerawork without pissing movie fans off and something like The White Ribbon (which may be one of the most beautifully shot movies I’ve ever seen) won’t go home empty-handed.

The results would be interesting to say the least. This would not only make a clear distinction between styles, but it would allow the cinematography of fully animated movies to receive recognition. If the 70% animated Avatar can win an Oscar, why not Pixar’s Up? Or Wall-E, which actually hired master DoP Roger Deakins as a visual consultant? It’s a scientific fact that the folks at Pixar are the greatest collection of moviemakers working right now. Why can’t they compete if Avatar can?

It’s not a foolproof plan. Will directors of photography find this insulting? After all, The White Ribbon went through many difference processes in post-production before achieving its final look. I’m sure James Cameron and Robert Zemckis would be none-to-pleased with people making this distinction, especially since they see motion-capture as the way of the future.

This really boils down to one final question: What defines cinematography? Is motion capture a tool or the future of filmmaking? As technology evolves at such a rapid pace and computers allow shots that were previously impossible, where does cinematography end and visual effects begin?

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