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The Global Cinematography Institute Embarks on Expanded Cinematography Education

This past year I’ve had the extraordinary privilege of joining the teaching force with a brand new school, the Global Cinematography Institute, founded by Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter) and Yuri Neyman, ASC (D.O.A., Liquid Sky). As their mission statement presents, the GCI is devoted to the education of cinematographers and their extension into the digital and virtual realms.

Academy Award Winning cinematographer and GCI co-founder, Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, teaches the intricacies of lighting for feature films.

The school is intended to be a graduate program for cinematographers who are at the onset of their careers and focuses on teaching the traditional methodology as well as modern understanding of digital technology and the new wave of virtual cinematography. As several of the instructors illustrate in their classes, the world of motion picture imagery can now be divided cleanly into BA and AA – Before Avatar and After Avatar.

Although that may seem somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it’s accurate as far as how James Cameron’s Avatar has set the future of cinematographic images as a hybrid between traditional cinematography and computer graphics, to a level that had never before been achieved. Mauro Fiore, who won the Academy Award for cinematography on Avatar, is the first to note that his photographic contribution to Avatar was about 30% of the movie, and he came on to the project several years after Cameron had started the production process.

With the power of CG technology, performance capture technology and virtual set technology, the world of the cinematographer is, potentially, changing drastically. Even more of a paradigm shift than digital imagery was to former film cinematographers, deep integration into virtual photography has the potential to turn the imaging world on its head. Zsigmond and Neyman’s approach with the GCI is to arm students with the necessary tools to get a head start in this potential new frontier.

Jay Holben teaching his Basics of Optics class for Level 1 students at the GCI.

It’s a short program, just four weekends long for level one and eight weekends long for level two. The teachers involved with the school, starting with Zsigmond and Neyman include some extraordinary names in the imaging world: Matthew Libatique, ASC; Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC; Suki Medencevic, ASC; David Stump, ASC; Seamus McGarvey; ASC, BSC; James Chressanthis, ASC; Sam Nicholson, ASC; Christopher Probst; myself and more. The faculty includes all working professionals with first-hand experience in the field that they bring to the classroom. The weekend program is designed around the working faculty’s schedules in addition to accommodating working students. Classes are focused on a “learn today what you can use tomorrow” mentality.

The classes offered by GCI are:

Feature Film Cinematography taught by Academy Award winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, HSC. Zsigmond, a refugee from Hungary, won an Oscar for his work on Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, along with three other nominations for The Deer Hunter, The River and The Black Dahlia. He received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers in 1999 as well as an ASC award for his work on Stalin, and nominations for The Ghost and the Darkness and The Black Dahlia. The class looks at techniques and styles utilized in photographing feature films with critical study as well as practical demonstrations.

On the Universal Virtual Stage, instructor Ron Fischer walks the students through the ins and outs of virtual cinematography.

Lighting and Composition taught by Yuri Neyman, ASC. The Russian-born cinematographer shot the independent cult film Liquid Sky, in addition to D.O.A., Brittle Glory, and Milo. He founded Gamma & Density, a company dedicated to creating tools for cinematographers to have more control over the quality and integrity of their images, especially in the digital age. Through Gamma and Density, Neyman created the 3cP on-set color correction workflow system a comprehensive digital workflow for optimizing communication between the cinematographer and the colorist. The class focuses on the art and style of storytelling through lighting and composition. Students are assigned digital photographs and critiqued on their knowledge and application of the concepts discussed in each class.

Music Video Cinematography taught by Christopher Probst, Daniel Pearl, ASC. Probst is a powerhouse of music videos with several MTV award nominations and a Camerimage nomination for his work, Probst has photographed videos for Eminem, The Backstreet Boys, Fergie, Chris Brown, Britney Spears, Jay Z, Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson and many more. He also recently photographed Fire with Fire with Bruce Willis, Joseph Kahn’s Detention and provided additional photography for Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. Pearl is a pioneer in music videos. His work spans more than 400 music videos including an MTV award for The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” and major critical acclaim for the Michael Bay-directed Meatloaf video “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That).” The class focuses on contemporary techniques in lighting, lenses, camera movements and visual storytelling in music videos.

Digital Cinematography taught by myself, Christopher Probst and David Stump, ASC. Stump is the head of the ASC Technology Committee’s Digital Camera subcommittee. With a mastery of visual effects cinematography, Stump has contributed to films such as Blade, X-Men and Quantum of Solace. Stump is also the author of the upcoming Digital Cinematography, a primer on modern technology. The class focuses on the inner workings of digital cameras, the new technology and a fundamental understanding of how images are captured in the modern era.

GCI Co-founder Yuri Neyman, ASC, teaches the fundamentals of image composition for level 1 cinematography students.

Cinematography for Indie/Small Budget Films taught by myself and Christopher Probst. The class focuses on practical techniques to be utilized to create high-end results on micro to no budget productions. Many of the concepts and techniques are based on my book A Shot in the Dark: A Creative DIY Guide to Digital Video Lighting on (Almost) No Budget as well as years of both Chris and me working in the no and low budget trenches.

Image Management taught by Bob Kertesz, a leading digital imaging technician and video engineer as well as a principal in Bluescreen LLC. Image Management is a primer on how image data can be saved, stored, color corrected and manipulated on set and by post production,

Previs taught by Brian Pohl, co-founder of the Previsualization Society and previs supervisor on over twenty feature films including Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and Star Trek. The class examines the ways in which previsualization is moving from just a pre-production tool to following the image all the way through to post production and how the cinematographer can be more intimately involved in this powerful image management tool.

Virtual Cinematography, taught by Ron Fischer and Kyle Murphey. Fischer is a visual effects artist and the Technical Director of the UVS1 virtual sound stage at Universal Studios. His recent credits include Alice in Wonderland, Beowulf, and Polar Express. Murphey is a cinematographer and Previzion Specialist. He has installed Previzion systems and trained new operators around the world. Kyle graduated from Art Center College of Design with a degree in cinematography. The class covers an intensive examination of the cutting-edge technology that details how virtual cinematography can be put to use for practical application in creating virtual realities.

Often, when you’re teaching, you’re in your own little bubble. You have a class that you’re dealing with and specific material that you’re covering, and then you go home. With the GCI, many of the instructors are attending the classes of other instructors not only so that we can get a better sense of the overall curriculum, but so that we can learn ourselves. Neyman and Zsigmond have put together an extraordinary collection of experts in their given fields, all at the cutting edge of new technology, who help to propel students into the new and changing world of cinematography. They’ve dubbed the combined subjects of traditional cinematography and virtual cinematography as “Expanded Cinematography” hoping to empower new cinematographers with more tools to manage and maintain creative control over the image through all stages of production, not just photography and color timing.

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