Last month the ASC recognized the indefatigable efforts of Technology Committee Chairman Curtis Clark, ASC by presenting him with its Presidents Award. Under Clark’s leadership, the committee has had a strong impact on the development of new technologies, thus protecting the prerogatives of the cinematographer and fulfilling the Society’s stated purpose: “… to advance the art of cinematography through artistry and technological progress, to exchange ideas and to cement a closer relationship among cinematographers.”
Clark was born in Oak Ridge, Tenn., in 1947. He majored in theater directing at the Art Institute of Chicago’s Goodman School of Drama, and studied cinematography at the London Film School. His professional career began in Great Britain, where he photographed and directed short films. His first feature credit as a cinematographer, Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), was an indication of things to come. Clark and Greenaway met because of a mutual interest in Super 16mm, a then-new format invented by Swedish cameraman Rune Ericson. Clark worked with Paul Collard and Kay Laboratories to test ways to maximize the quality of the format, making it a robust option for independent filmmakers. Clark recalls that new Zeiss high-speed lenses were an important part of the equation. “I immediately realized [the lenses] were an enabling technology because I could work at lower light levels and with greater depth-of-field. The Draughtsman’s Contract was the most expensive film the BFI had ever produced and the first film Channel 4 had produced, and Peter and I knew we were pioneering in a way that was very brave.”
Collard supervised lab adaptations that included optical-printer modifications and a unique color-reversal internegative process. Previously, no single lab had the capability of handling a Super 16 project from beginning to end.
The Draughtsman’s Contract was Clark’s baptism by fire, and its success taught him lessons about the intersection of technological breakthroughs and artistic imagination. Super 16 became a standard production tool throughout Europe, and Clark’s career gained momentum. He shot Alamo Bay for director Louis Malle, Extremities and Dominick and Eugene for Robert M. Young, and the IDA Award-winning documentary Thy Kingdom Come … Thy Will Be Done for Antony Thomas. With David Hockney and Philip Haas, Clark made another unique documentary, A Day on the Grand Canal with the Emperor of China or: Surface Is Illusion But So Is Depth, and he followed that with two more films for Young, Triumph of the Spirit and Talent for the Game.
Clark became a member of the ASC in 1991 after being proposed by Society fellows Stephen Burum, Allen Daviau and Steven Poster. As his career progressed, he began to focus more on commercials, where his deft handling of cutting-edge technologies in the service of eye-catching looks came in handy.
In 1999, he founded NeTune Communications, which provided integrated broadband services for the motion-picture industry by utilizing digital satellite, terrestrial wireless and fiber networking. That endeavor taught him volumes about how high technology is developed and adopted on both personal and corporate levels.
In 2002, Poster, in his capacity as ASC president, asked Clark to help him revitalize the Society’s Technology Committee. At that time, the digital revolution was embodied by the digital-intermediate process, which simultaneously presented new creative freedoms and a threat to the cinematographer’s control of the image. Clark drafted a detailed mission statement for the committee that listed an array of digital technologies and called for cinematographers to understand and influence how these rapidly evolving tools affected their role. The list encompassed technologies used in preproduction, production, postproduction, theatrical delivery and exhibition, and home delivery and exhibition. Clark wrote that without such understanding and influence, “our creative contributions, which have been the cornerstone of filmmaking since its inception,” could be marginalized.
Clark outlined objectives for the Technology Committee. These included making the ASC’s opinions and influence felt in the production community and in standards-setting organizations, furthering the education of cinematography students, and creating greater awareness of the contributions cinematographers make. Soon, the committee embarked on its first major initiative: a collaboration with Digital Cinema Initiatives, a consortium of the major studios, on the creation of standard test images to allow for an apples-to-apples comparison of DCI-compliant digital cinema projectors.
Around that time, high-definition-video cameras were starting to be used on theatrical features. The first Camera Assessment Series, conducted by the ASC and the Producers Guild of America in January 2009, was a milestone. The tests put a range of digital cameras through their paces and compared the results to 35mm negative. This huge undertaking involved dozens of ASC members, equipment manufacturers, rental houses and post facilities. “The collaboration with the PGA was a breakthrough,” says Clark. “It came about through shared interests and concerns. The new camera technology was no longer a sideshow, and we all needed to know if these cameras were ready for theatrical production.”
That was followed by the shift to file-based imaging, which took digital image capture beyond the constraints of Rec 709 color space. Meanwhile, a strike by the Screen Actors Guild accelerated the adoption of digital cameras in television production. By the time the Technology Committee and the PGA partnered on the Image Control Assessment Series in 2012, the world had changed dramatically. But partly because of the ASC’s efforts, cinematographers were now seen as crucial to successfully integrating the new tools and workflows.
Another important aspect of that mindset shift was the Academy Color Encoding System, a workflow and encoding architecture that helps achieve a more accurate and precise color pipeline regardless of which camera or resolution is used. An Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences initiative that depended in part on expertise from the ASC Technology Committee, ACES provides a set of encoding specs, transforms and recommended practices, all designed to expand the creative palette. In early 2011, the television series Justified became the first Hollywood production to use ACES in its workflow (AC March ’11). Today the system is in widespread use.
The Technology Committee has also developed a groundbreaking cross-platform data exchange for primary RGB digital color grading, the ASC Color Decision List. The ASC CDL enables primary color-correction data to be passed from the set to dailies and editorial post, and among different color-correction systems and applications. The bottom line is that the filmmakers’ creative intent is more likely to survive through to the viewer. Both ACES and the ASC CDL were honored with Emmy Engineering Awards last year.
The aforementioned are just a few of the time-intensive projects the Technology Committee has taken on under Clark’s leadership. The committee has also hatched a number of subcommittees, including those studying Advanced Imaging, Camera, Digital Display, Digital Intermediate, Preservation/Archiving and Virtual Production.