Kaminski: DP Is the Eye of The Viewer

Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski

Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s 30-plus-year career has transcended several eras of filmmaking technique, but his core beliefs around his contribution remain firm and unchanged. “I believe that movies have the power of changing one’s life, and one’s destiny,” Kaminski said.

The Creative Master Series session “Janusz Kaminski: Three Decades of Image Making,” co-sponsored by the International Cinematographers Guild (ICG) and moderated by David Geffner of ICG Magazine, featured an intimate conversation with the colorful Kaminski, who, in Geffner’s words, “created some of the most enduring images in cinema history.”

Poland-born Kaminski displays an undeniable American aesthetic. His understanding of the country, he said, came from American movies of the 1970s, “which, in my mind, were the best movies in the history of American cinema,” he said.

Kaminski, who emigrated from Communist-era Poland in 1981, attended film school at Columbia College in Chicago. Asked by Geffner why he chose a career in cinematography, Kaminski recalled assignment to a standard, four-student filmmaker team; he was arbitrarily dealt the cinematographer role, one he quickly came to cherish. “I loved the idea of having a concrete profession,” Kaminski said.

During that time, he lensed around 35 of his classmates’ film school projects, a portfolio that would ultimately land him his first feature film booking. Geffner screened a battle sequence from “Saving Private Ryan,” one of two Steven Spielberg projects for which Kaminski won a cinematography Oscar.

Noting the many film camera techniques used in the scene, including in-camera effects, Geffner asked Kaminski what he might do differently today, in an era of near-mandatory use of CGI and other digital tools.

Kaminski’s reply was immediate: “Nothing. There’s really no reason to shoot this movie another way. I believe in organic filmmaking, as the scene unfolds in front of you,” he said.

But for Kaminski, this organic filmmaking relies on more than serendipity. He described his rigorous preparation for each new project, and his explorations of novel photochemical, mechanical and optical manipulations — “experimenting with the image, to make it feel real” — that ultimately delivered finished footage for “Private Ryan” requiring no further interventions, effects or adjustments. “Once you’ve imprinted that in the negative,” he said, “there’s no way of going back.”

Further illustrating the veteran cinematographer’s multi-era experiences, Geffner screened a clip from Kaminski’s latest Spielberg collaboration, “Ready Player One,” which is steeped in the computer-generated imagery Kaminski publicly eschews. “I would say my contribution was 40 percent for the live photography,” he said. “It’s very much a movie created by Steven and ILM.”

One novel role for Kaminski was as a consultant to the film’s CGI animators and artists, helping adjust the virtual scenes’ rendered lighting to match his own working style more closely. Conversely, he was never asked to alter his own vision of the dystopian live-action scenes to match those of the project’s fantasy world. Kaminski worried that the rise of broadly-dispersed “filmmaking by committee” — where technology enables the modification of visual texture and tone at multiple points in the process — is diluting the medium’s true impact.

“What’s disappearing is the ownership of images,” he said, citing “too many cooks in the kitchen.” In the past, he said, “the cinematographer was responsible for the images all the way through the process.” The decline of the cinematographer-as-auteur approach, he said, takes its toll on the imagery. “Everything becomes a little more flaccid,” he said.

Kaminski’s parting message to the NAB Show audience left no uncertainty about the passion and drive his work embodies. “Don’t forget the true reasons you want to make movies,” he said. “It’s a tremendous art form, and it has the potential to change people’s lives.”