British Columbia

'Keepers of the Magic:' meet the eyes behind the iconic images of cinema

Cinematographers aren't generally household names — but they're getting the spotlight in an upcoming documentary screening at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

Cinematographers get the spotlight in upcoming VIFF documentary

The cinematographer for 2001: A Space Odyssey was Geoffrey Unsworth. (TIFF Film Reference Library)

The glowing interior of the Jupiter-bound spacecraft in 2001: A Space Odyssey; the haunting suburban streetside in The Exorcist; the forbidding and seemingly endless frontier in the Revenant.

Iconic films are often best known for their imagery — and cinematographers are tasked with crafting the appearance of each frame.

Rarely these artists become household names, but Vancouver-based filmmaker Vic Sarin thinks it's time they got their due.

"You never think there's an eye behind those images," said Sarin on CBC's North by Northwest. "So I wanted to do something about exploring that area, and celebrating the people who are behind those images."

Sarin is a cinematographer in his own right with over 70 credits to his name, including four episodes of the classic: Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

His most recent effort is Keepers of the Magic, a documentary that explores the creative eyes behind iconic films, and features cinematographers who worked on The Godfather, The English Patientand City of God.

This iconic image from the Exorcist has come to define the film. (Warner Bros)

Sarin says the job takes a tremendous amount of skill — and not just in terms of being able to understand the particular nuances behind cameras and lenses.

"[The skill] is how you use that technology to enhance what you're trying to tell, through that lens. And that, I think is a gift," he said. "At the end of the day, I really think that you have to fall in love with the camera."

Cinematographers are responsible for the look and feel of the film — they track the movement of the camera and lighting, carefully planning out each shot that ends up on the big-screen.

Or in Sarin's words, they're responsible for "the magic."

Filmmakers had their hands full, battling the elements, during production of The Revenant. (Kate Fair)

"When I was in my early teens, I wanted to make films, because of images — they were total magic to me, and I wanted to be part of that magic," he said. "You can write words and words and words, but you can show one picture, and it captures everything."

The magic happens every time you watch E.T. ride a bicycle in front of a full moon, or notice the ripple in a glass of water as a tyrannosaurus-rex stomps in the distance. Sarin says it's the cinematographers that bring these scenes to life.

The digital age

But the canvas has changed.

Sarin says the magic is starting to disappear with the advent of digital technology. The vast majority of modern films are shot digitally, as opposed to being shot on traditional celluloid film, which he says has taken away from the artful texture of cinematic images.

The sentiment has been echoed by some concerned filmmakers in Hollywood. Directors Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan have both campaigned to keep traditional film alive.

The recently released The Jungle Book relied heavily on CGI to bring the animal characters to life. (Disney Enterprises)

Sarin says the growing use of computer-generated images is also taking away from the art.

"In the old days it was magical, because we had to create those things through different venues, without having any technology available," he said.

"In one sense, I think we have gained so much, but in the other sense, I think we've lost something too," he added.

Keepers of the Magic screens at VIFF on October 14 at 10:30 a.m. PT.

With files from CBC's North by Northwest

To listen to the full column, click on the audio labelled: Keepers of the Magic explores the role of the cinematographer