On the digital legacy of Michael Mann’s ‘Collateral’ nearly 10 years later

If you're interested in an anniversary conversation that really has some bearing on today's film industry, I highly recommend American Cinematographer's recent chat with “Collateral” DP Dion Beebe. It's been nearly a decade (if you can believe it) since Beebe and Paul Cameron carved out a serious place for digital with that film, earning an American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) nomination in the process. It got me thinking about the history of the industry's acceptance of digital as reflected in the nominations handed out by both the ASC and Academy's cinematography branch over the last 10 years.

Academy members were a bit slower on the uptake, as you might recall. Beebe and Cameron were snubbed by the branch despite the ASC nomination. Of course, that was still a dicey time for the technology.

The first feature films shot digitally were Lars Von Trier's “The Idiots” and Thomas Vinterberg's “The Celebration,” which both played the Cannes Film Festival in 1998. Von Trier adapted to digital early and has stuck with it ever since, which computes, given the Dogme 95 movement he helped to launch. That movement truly began with “The Celebration,” which was shot by frequent Von Trier collaborator Anthony Dod Mantle. (It would be serendipity when, exactly a decade later, Mantle's work on Danny Boyle's “Slumdog Millionaire” would win an Oscar and an ASC Award, the first film shot predominantly on digital video to do so in both cases.)

People throughout the industry were playing with digital for effects plates and whatnot in those early days, of course. George Lucas worked with it on 1999's “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” before going full digital monty with it on that film's 2002 sequel. Michael Mann, the consummate tech-savvy filmmaker who directed “Collateral,” got his feet wet with it on 2000's “Ali” (Oscar-winning “Gravity” DP Emmanuel Lubezki at his side for the trial and error). Since then, many films – from “Domino” and “Black Swan” to “Argo” and “12 Years a Slave” – have dabbled in digital while being predominantly film productions.

Spike Lee was probably the first major filmmaker to give it a serious look with “Bamboozled” the very same year as “Ali,” while Steven Soderbergh and Robert Rodriguez soon enough joined Von Trier as the serious early adapters with 2002's “Full Frontal” and “Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams.” Neither has really looked back.

At the time of “Collateral,” members of the Academy's cinematography branch just weren't really ready to go there, it seemed. They opted for the opulence of “House of Flying Daggers” and “The Phantom of the Opera” instead. And two years later, when the great Dean Semler saddled up to the technology with “Click” and “Apocalypto” (earning an ASC nomination for the latter), it was still too difficult to break through with AMPAS, despite the tide changing with major films like “Superman Returns” getting on board.

Around this time, some of the legends began playing with these tools, no doubt sensing that their bold or otherwise less populist visions could be done at a cut rate given the affordability of digital versus film. David Lynch jumped into the deep end with “Inland Empire.” Francis Ford Coppola came out of hiding with “Youth Without Youth.” Sidney Lumet got great results with “Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.” David Fincher wasn't likely to wait too long, and indeed, he and the late, great Harris Savides lost their digital virginity with “Zodiac.” All the while, major Hollywood efforts like “Next” as well as comedies like “Superbad” and “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” were adapting.

2008 was a big turning point. For starters, Soderbergh utilized the new Red camera for his epic two-parter “Che,” which would go on to shoot things like “Knowing,” “The Book of Eli” and “District 9” and was a predecessor in a line of cameras that would give us others like “The Social Network,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” “The Muppets,” “Prometheus” and Peter Jackson's “Hobbit” trilogy. Meanwhile, the Academy finally caught on, nominating both “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Fincher again) and “Slumdog Millionaire” right alongside the ASC. Ever since, any digital film nominated by the ASC has also been nominated by the Academy, and as mentioned, “Slumdog” walked away with the gold from both.

However, “Slumdog” was a true hybrid. It was an outright marvel of photography, really, as Mantle also used 35mm and even still photography to capture Boyle's Best Picture-winning vision. The first film to win the Oscar for Best Cinematography that was photographed 100% digitally was James Cameron's “Avatar,” shot on the Fusion Camera System by Mauro Fiore. Ironically, though, the film lost the ASC prize to Michael Haneke's black-and-white effort “The White Ribbon,” while members of the overall Academy were surely responding more to its digital art direction than the actual photography.

Michael Mann was still sticking with it in the years after “Collateral,” by the way. Beebe cranked out some great work on 2006's “Miami Vice,” but 2009's “Public Enemies” (shot by long-time Mann standby Dante Spinotti) did not look great on the big screen at all. That said, it's absolutely immaculate on DVD or Blu-ray, becoming a benchmark for the tech's limitations. It'll be exciting to see what Stuart Dryburgh does with the director's upcoming cyber thriller next year.

In 2010, Albert Martinez's “Rosario” became the first film to shoot on the Arri Alexa, still a dominant digital camera today that has been used for films as disparate as “Mr. Popper's Penguins,” “Drive,” “Hugo,” “Amour” (Haneke adapted) and “Skyfall.” “Hugo,” you'll recall, won the Oscar after losing the ASC prize to “The Tree of Life,” (nominated alongside Jeff Cronenweth's work on David Fincher's “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”). Meanwhile, “Skyfall” – shot by the legendary Roger Deakins, a full-on convert after transitioning to digital on 2011's “In Time” – was the first film photographed 100% digitally to win the ASC award, in 2012.

That was actually an interesting year, as it was Deakins and “Skyfall” versus Claudio Miranda and “Life of Pi” at the ASC Awards and the Oscars. They split the prizes, “Life of Pi” taking the Oscar, but it was a digital duel that presaged the inevitable: a film shot entirely on digital video winning both the ASC prize and the Academy Award. That film was last year's “Gravity,” which was nominated alongside “Prisoners” (Deakins) and “Nebraska” (Phedon Papamichael). It was the first time a majority of the nominees were digital productions.

(And if you weren't keeping score, that's 13 predominantly digital films nominated by ASC, 11 by the Academy.)

This year, Cronenweth is surely back in the thick of it with “Gone Girl,” as the last three Fincher productions (all of them digital) have yielded both ASC and Academy Award nominations. Deakins continues his embrace of it with Angelina Jolie's “Unbroken,” while Dick Pope presents lush period returns in the digital realm on Mike Leigh's “Mr. Turner.” After turning out some truly exquisite imagery on the otherwise underwhelming “Prometheus,” Dariusz Wolski finds himself back behind the Red on “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” while Lubezki is back for more and has surely had a field day with Alejandro González Iñárritu's “Birdman.” Also, on the heels of gorgeous Oscar- and ASC-nominated 35mm work on “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Bruno Delbonnel is behind the Arri Alexa on Tim Burton's “Big Eyes,” and so, too, is Beebe on “Into the Woods,” still looking to boldly push the industry 10 years after “Collateral.”

Film isn't quite dead in the race, however. Proponents like Christopher Nolan (“Interstellar,” shot by Hoyte van Hoytema) and Paul Thomas Anderson (“Inherent Vice,” shot by Oscar winner Robert Elswit) are ever present, among others. And they surely will be until they're dragged away from analog kicking and screaming. But in the wake of last year, the Best Cinematography race looks to be absolutely dominated by digital productions this season, and it won't be long before the entire category is made up of digital undertakings.

Here is what Beebe had to say to American Cinematographer about the rise of this technology in the years since his landmark work on “Collateral” and the importance of maintaining the option to explore visual storytelling in both the digital and celluloid realms:

“We have seen an emergence of what I think is a digital aesthetic. It's a beautiful aesthetic, and it plays to the strength of that medium, which is the very open bottom of the curve. It can look into shadows; it's got an amazing range. Digital gives us the ability to work from a base of ambient light, essentially. Because of that, you tend to light in a very different way. And I do think 'Collateral' helped launch that because it played to the strengths of the format. We never set out to replicate a film look, but rather to discover a digital one…Film has a unique texture and tone, and digital has its own unique texture and tone. It would be a sad day if we lost the ability to choose between them.”

Alas, that day is rapidly approaching. But I've never quite wept for the loss of film, as sacrilegious as that might be – at least as it pertains to production. The archival and preservation qualities exhibited by a reel of film are second to none and that doesn't look to change with the threat of digital dark ages ever on the horizon. Yet while I respect and cherish what celluloid has afforded – the magic-caught-in-time quality of its essence as light dances through it on the way to that big screen – it has become a relic, particularly with the saturation of digital distribution, which has forever extinguished the greatness of what 35mm looks like when projected.

Instead, I find myself excited for what the future of the medium holds, a future that will no doubt owe a huge debt to filmmakers like Von Trier, Soderbergh and Rodriguez, and certainly films like “Collateral,” for breaking through those outer barriers and setting an exciting stage for what's still to come.

For more in-depth reading, I also highly recommend Jamie Stuart's plea to the Academy for dual Best Cinematography categories from last year.