REFRAMING CINEMATOGRAPHY: Interpreting Cinematography in an Emerging Virtual Practice

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Beattie, Debra

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Harvey, Louise

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Many of the current discussions around the practice of cinematography focus on the extension or disruption of the art form as it is increasingly practiced in the realm of the virtual. Since Avatar (Cameron 2009) won the Oscar for Best Cinematography at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Awards, a significant number of the nominated and winning live-action feature films in this category have been characterised by a heavy component of virtual images rather than images produced by a camera. Although cinema has a history that spans over a century, computer-generated imagery (CGI) has only been present in this form since the early 1990s. Moreover, CGI has only become substantial in many critics’ views as a disruption to the practice and singular authorship of cinematography since the release of Avatar (Cameron 2009), with films such as Life of Pi (Lee 2012) and Gravity (Cuarón 2013) seen as exemplifying this trend. The objective of this research is to investigate the current definition of cinematography and to interpret the practice of the contemporary art form. This process of investigation is driven by a self-reflexive analysis of my studio projects that have been challenged, shaped, and developed by the work and experience of other film practitioners—specifically, cinematographers and cinema theorists—whose ideas relate closely to the problem at hand. This written component of my doctoral research comprises a wide-ranging analysis of the history of cinematography, with a particular focus on the evolution of virtual image production. I achieve this by comparing and contrasting the work of early cinematographers with that of contemporary cinematographers. Following this, I make comparisons between current leading examples of virtual cinematography in the discipline. Traditional and ‘new’ virtual practices of cinematography are considered through the prism of concepts proposed by theorists such as Jean Baudrillard in the 1980s and Charles Peirce in the nineteenth century and specifically Stephen Prince’s own writings about Peirce’s ideas in the 1990s. Contemporary academic thinkers such as Scott McQuire, Stephen Prince, and Patrick Keating, among many others were also instrumental in constructing this thesis. I conclude the discussion with my application of the latest methodological virtual cinematographic processes to several of my projects where I fulfilled the role of cinematographer. Emerging from this research is a new and holistic understanding of the practice of cinematography and a contemporary definition of the art form. This research has shaped my own professional practice of cinematography by formulating a methodology of ‘cinematic verisimilitude’ which I apply to image-making for cinema with the camera and the computer.

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Thesis (PhD Doctorate)

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Griffith Film School

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Contemporary art form

History of cinematography

Virtual image production

Cinematographic processes

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