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.