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Camerimage Film Festival: 10 Takeaways

With enough passion and grit, powerful, personal stories made one-man-band style can stand up against the best work of top Hollywood talent with far greater budgets.

Warwick Thornton’s “The New Boy,” inspired by his own experiences of being packed off to a Christian boarding school in Australia as a youngster, was in development for 18 years, finally coming together when Cate Blanchett read the script and suggested taking it on through her company Dirty Films. After working with him to adapt the lead role into the character of a nun who fills in for a priest whose death has been kept secret, the project began to come together, with newcomer actor Aswan Reid as the titular boy who begins to work wonders.

It just won the top Camerimage Film Festival prize, the Golden Frog, beating out work by some of Hollywood’s most lauded directors and cinematographers.

Thornton’s background as a Kaytetye man born and raised in Alice Springs who struggled to get by for years, first as a radio DJ, then as a cameraman who made his own short films, will inspire many who dream of filmmaking careers but find themselves far outside the centers of gravity of the industry. Thornton began winning global attention with unconventional work like 2005’s “Green Bush” at Berlinale, leading to 2009’s “Samson & Delilah,” which won the Camera d’Or at Cannes, and “Sweet Country,” which garnered acclaim at Venice and Toronto fests.

As a writer-director who “doesn’t trust anyone else” will get the imagery he wants, according to colleagues, Thornton shoots all his work himself and had a unique reaction to the Camerimage jury statement as he won the top prize this year for “The New Boy”: Taking the stage, he said, “That was bullshit” before tearfully commending the work of other filmmakers whose films he saw in the last week. His unique perspective is gaining more appreciation every year.

Humans have no chance at competing with AI on making a product.

But if filmmakers are doing what they do to make connections and build relationships with other humans, they’ll continue winning. Such was one of the more hopeful conclusions of filmmakers, scientists, philosophers and legal experts who took on the subject of AI and its impact on cinematography, presenting their findings at Camerimage this year.

Maciej Zemojcin, creative technologist at PixelRace, Poland, who works as a virtual production specialist for a host of current productions, says the pace of change is truly staggering, citing numbers that estimate the level of AI advances is five to 10 years ahead of where experts said it would be not long ago.

Somewhat less inspiringly, they also indicate “the average half-life of skills is now less than five years” and of those who do master advanced technology, just 12% feel financially secure.

Parity for women and minorities in cinematography is still distant but those who have broken down barriers are determined to keep the wave coming.

A group of female professionals at Camerimage 2023, noting the lack of any scheduled panels on diversity and inclusion, put together their own event for the fest’s 31st edition, sharing information, strategies and success stories.

Cinematographer Ellen Kuras (“Lee,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), costume designer Jenny Beavan (“Cruela,” “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris”) and a host of other major players were among those who came together to help keep the needle moving.

Talk focused on the obligation of those who have made it to ensure new talent from diverse backgrounds gets a crack when putting together crews for productions – and leaving that issue in the hands of producers was quickly dismissed as a wholly inadequate approach.

Even when a world-class director of photography films an actor, it won’t redeem a performance they hate (at least to that actor).

Boomtown Rats rocker and founder of Live Aid Bob Geldof was in Torun, Poland to help Camerimage honor Peter Biziou, the cinematographer who filmed “The Wall,” “The Truman Show” and “Monty Python’s Life of Brian.”

But as Geldof took the stage to share memories of filming “The Wall” with Biziou, who was honored with a lifetime achievement award at the fest, the notoriously outspoken singer couldn’t seem to stop himself from trashing both his own work and Alan Parker’s celebrated 1982 film itself.

“I was just embarrassed every day by how shit I was,” Geldof said of his portrayal of delusional rocker in the film based on Pink Floyd’s album of the same name. “I don’t like looking at myself, I don’t like listening to myself, I don’t like hearing myself. The last thing I want is to see myself on the side of a building.”

Geldof seems to feel rock stars in general do not belong in dramatic roles onscreen, adding David Bowie and Sting to the list of those he would call “not a good actor.”

Some production craft work is thorough enough to make audiences believe it’s AI.

Camerimage 2023 Bronze Frog winner Robbie Ryan, who filmed Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Poor Things,” called the film “a really strong crafts film,” noting the elaborate Victorian-era setting was essentially all built by hand.

More than a few audience members had trouble believing the extensive, elaborate sets in the laboratory and home where Emma Stone’s Bella Baxter character is reanimated were physical structures. But production design by Shona Heath and James Price was just that, Ryan said, noting Lanthimos is a true believer in both real settings and old-school shooting on film.

The use of handmade miniatures to create a look many viewers won’t have seen for decades was also part of the magic, said Ryan, citing the otherworldly cruise ship where Bella finds herself learning fast about life and society. But the wild and psychedelic sea and sky were indeed effects, Ryan admitted, noting LED wall panels can still have a role complementing remarkable real-world craft work.

Getting your start as a cinematographer in the U.S. may not be the best plan these days.

Dariusz Wolski, who has filmed the work of Ridley Scott for years and worked with other leading directors from Tim Burton to Gore Verbinski, screened the epic biopic “Napoleon” at Camerimage, following up with an extensive talk with audience members. Several who are emerging cinematographers sought out career advice on how best to strategize a career in Hollywood.

Wolski surprised some by saying the premise of the question may be faulty. A better place to start and build a cinematography career is probably Europe, he said, where filmmakers have “more opportunities” and can try more unusual and risky work, which will help them develop.

He noted his own path to success was a long one, having broken in after escaping the era of Soviet-ruled Poland, but said things in the West are not necessarily particularly welcoming these days. Filmmakers with Hollywood ambitions shouldn’t be discouraged to try, he added, but prospects might well be brighter after you get more experience in Europe’s more accessible production system of smaller, but better supported films.

International film needs more than screening space.

Film audiences should have spaces where they can experience the work of one artist in-depth, or be immersed in an era of filmmaking, or an overlooked genre, argues Bill Kramer of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He spoke at Camerimage on the role of cultural centers for film, citing the experience gleaned so far from the Academy Museum, which opened in 2021.

Camerimage’s next big expansion, now under construction, the European Film Center, is already looking to be taking those lessons onboard, as its director, Kazik Suwala, has described its mission. The new space, which will feature four screening rooms, one with seating for some 1,500 people, will also offer space for exhibitions, a production soundstage with a wall of LED panels plus postproduction space.

Its education role parallels that of the Academy Museum, which is now planning to take its exhibitions on world tours, engaging with cultural centers abroad. The celebration of film art is “global,” Kramer said. “It’s for everyone.” That’s likely to include Camerimage with opportunities for co-programming focuses and attractions, Kramer said, which will help make cinema-going an event, helping to combat current declines in audiences.

Filmmakers at Camerimage aren’t spared critiques.

Audiences in Torun are serious about their passion for film – and their opinions. Whether it’s due to the high percentage of experienced filmmakers in the audience or perhaps just aided by Eastern European cultural traditions that value a good argument, those who screen at Camerimage can expect the unvarnished truth from audiences.

Just ask the filmmakers of “Lies We Tell,” the Irish entry in the cinematographers’ debut competition, who heard from an audience member that perhaps the film had overused rack focus shots – to say nothing of Sean Penn’s talk following his screening of the doc on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, “Superpower.” One viewer challenged him on including input from Vladimir Putin, while another guest actor at a screening, Adam Driver, felt the need to use expletives in responding to a harsh audience comment.

That viewer, who suggested a crash scene looked “cheesy,” inadvertently sparked a viral video that fest president Marek Zydowicz felt the need to publicly address, thanking Driver for being open to audience input – even if it was in this case in the category of “completely trivial questions and comments.”

Film depictions of graphic violence are still touchy in 2023.

The scene in “Ferrari” that drew at least some audience criticism, in which the aftermath of a fatal accident that killed several race spectators is shown, was admittedly a risky choice, said cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, and may well be jarring to some.

But, he said, “I think in a way, it’s not so much an indictment of visual effects; it’s the result of everything in the movie being absolutely real and then you see the one thing that you can’t do for real – kill nine people – and it feels almost otherworldly because so much of the film is real.”

The scene, which depicts the mangling of the spectators in detail, was intended by director Michael Mann to be unsparing and was factually accurate, Messerschmidt added, describing the 1957 tragedy, which marked the beginning of the end of the notorious Italian Mille Miglia road race, largely for safety reasons.

Directors of photography and crews will get fully back to work, whether sooner or later.

Directors of photography at Camerimage seemed a little more relaxed than they usually are, many having found time to visit family or take professional breaks as one upside of the recently concluded actors strike in Hollywood.

As for how soon everyone will get fully back to work, many remain divided. Several at the fest predicted a major wave of productions now going into gear, fueled by the backup in shooting caused by the strike.

Others, like several filmmaker agents in Torun this year, predict things will not just go back to the usual pace, at least not for a while, comparing the fallout to the aftermath of the COVID shutdowns, though on a smaller scale.

At least one industry professional, Willem Dafoe, at Camerimage to screen “Poor Things” with cinematographer Robbie Ryan, predicted things will get back to normal quickly “but the terms will be different.”

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