Cinematographer Christoper Doyle Thinks 'Life of Pi' is a Disgrace

Recently, the gifted and infamously belligerent cinematographer Christopher Doyle ("Hero," "Chunking Express") became embroiled in a wee bit of controversy , which wouldn't be such a big deal if he wasn't, you know, so clearly wrong-headed on the topic of discussion. So, if only for the sake of Best Director winner Ang Lee and Best Cinematographer winner Claudio Miranda, let's break down some of the juicer bits, and offer up our stinging refutation.

[Re: Claudio Miranda] “I’m sure he’s a wonderful person, I’m sure he cares so much. But what it says to the real world is it’s all about us, we have the money, we put the money in, and we control the image. And I say f**k you, wankers. Are you f**king kidding? That’s not cinematography. That’s control of the image by the powers that be, by the people that want to control the whole system because they’re all accounts. You’ve lost cinema. This is not cinema and it’s not cinematography. It’s not cinematography."

First off, Best Cinematographers choose the Oscar nominees in their respective category before they turn it over to the approximately 5,900 Academy voters to determine the winner. Which means around 200 of Christopher Doyle's peers felt "Life of Pi" was a wonderful example of cinematography. Of course, none of Christopher Doyle's peers share his history of public nudity (thanks for the tip, Bill Murray!). So at least subjectively it sure as hell is cinematography, in the same sense that a duckling nominated for Best Actor would then be an actor. All of art is subjective, but the ruling bodies get to make some calls, or else it's sheer chaos. For the record, Claudio Miranda was also nominated by the American Society of Cinematographers, so it's not as though the Oscar nomination was completely out of left field.

But what of the other emotional argument Christopher Doyle wants us to consider? The key part is:

"That's control of the image by the powers that be, by the people who want to control the system because they're all accounts. You've lost cinema."

There are actually a few separate arguments in here, the first of which alleges that Claudio Miranda didn't have control of his own cinematography. This can immediately be struck down by any honest broker simply by noting Doyle has no idea of what went on during the shooting of "Life of Pi," nor does he know who was in the editing bay or "controlling the image" after the shoot. Certainly Fox 2000 could have hired 45 cinematographers and CGI mavens to work on "Life of Pi," but that's pure speculation, and Doyle clearly has no insider knowledge other than his own crackpot theories. Absent of compelling facts to the contrary, we have to assume that the final look of "Life of Pi" was heavily influenced by Claudio Miranda, and that Doyle's offhanded remarks are completely specious.


The next thought on the runaway Doyle verbal train is that we're losing cinema, ostensibly due to CGI work. This is tricky, because on some fronts we certainly are losing cinema. You could watch any of the hundreds of poorly handled films released each year and get a little worried. You could note only 10 percent of the domestic audience buys a ticket to the theater these days, down from 30 percent a mere decade ago. But is this something we lay on the shoulders of cinematography? Are CGI-created shots ruining cinema? I'd have to say no. Of the multitude of elements strangling cinema, cinematography is way down the list.

Doyle continues:

“Lincoln”! Oh! Let’s talk about patriotism. Do you not f**king realize the rest of the world just sits back laughing. Do you not realize that you poor old f**k with your Academy bullshit, you’re just sitting back, holding onto straws. You’re holding onto straws. Let’s get on with it. I don’t give a f**k what you think about me. Some of us have to engage with the real world. And it happens not to be about the history of Mr Lincoln freeing the slaves – which was the most disgusting first three minutes of a film I’ve ever seen. Oh, Mr Lincoln, oh, but you understand… stop f**king fluffing yourselves.

The notion of The Academy being woefully out of touch is not a new one. However, "Lincoln" didn't win Best Picture, and history is worth considering. Also, this could not be the most disgusting three minutes he's ever seen because my guess is he's watched a few Lars von Trier films. These comments are pure hyperbole and pot-stirring, and everyone has to engage in the real world, or else they're likely in a mental institution. But nothing is obnoxiously stupid as what comes next, the very moment when Christopher Doyle begs not to be taken seriously:

“I didn’t watch the Academy Awards but I’ve had a lot of feedback from people, including people from the ASC [the American Society of Cinematographers], by the way, and then you see, you give an award to a totally digitized image. I may be wrong, because I haven’t seen the film, because I don’t give a s**t.”

There it is. "I haven't seen the film." That's totally ridiculous! He has no idea of the ratio of CGI to practical, he has no concept of the depth of field or angles utilized, other than perhaps a trailer, which is like someone judging what pizza tastes like based on a commercial. You cede the right to critique if you don't actually SEE the thing you are critiquing. There aren't many pre-requisites to criticism, but attendance is mandatory.

The award is given to the technicians, to the producers, it’s not to the cinematographer … If somebody manipulated my image that much, I wouldn’t even turn up. Because sorry, cinematography? Really?”

Of course, maybe that's better than what happens when Christopher Doyle does show up. (warning: NSFW language).

Okay, sure, but what is the definition of "too much"? Should no computers be used? And aren't cinematographers technically technicians as well? Doyle continues maligning Claudio Miranda's win with:

“It has no relevance to the way film is going. It’s just these old people wanking. Do you know the average age of the people who vote? Sixty-five. Check it out. I may be wrong. It may have dropped to 64. [According to a 2012 report by the LA Times, the Academy is 94 percent white, 77 percent male, and has a median age of 62.]

That Los Angles times report was certainly damning, but this is a total false equivalency. He doesn't know the median age of the Cinematographers branch, nor does he ever cede that change is inevitable, and it's often a failing of older generations that they hate change, just as Doyle is doing here, he's the very problem with The Academy writ wmall. You could have looked at the Pacific Ocean and said "No one should ever cross that!" You can look at space and think "We need to avoid that area, it's not real life or true Earth!" But his is idiotic, because it simply is happening. Cinematography is changing, and no amount of Christopher Doyles will change that. One can choose to accept it and adapt or one can choose to ignore it and be run over. But let's not give credit for tilting at windmills simply because the subject curses a lot.

Just for kicks, because we've rented the studio for an hour, let's look at a few of his other examples of Christopher Doyle fool-talk:

[Re: "Lost in Translation"] "It's articulating the Bush doctrine of how to engage with the rest of the world. Let's all be Americans, that's what it's saying."

Totes. They were definitely showing "Lost in Translation" to the guys headed overseas for combat tours. Genius.

[Re: Hollywood cinema]"I think what we're doing here [in Asia] is much more valid. We've got half the world's population here."

Yes, because total population always contributes to artistic merit. Sorry Hopi Indians, your art is invalid!

"I say there’s only three people in cinema, which means the actor, the audience and me in-between...the energy has to be transferred directly to the audience between what is presented on the screen and what the audience is engaging in. So our job as cinematographers is to be that bridge, that conduit.”

Which "Life of Pi" clearly does. Also, there are no writers or directors in cinema. Clever.

[Re: America and its movies] "And every single person in the real world looks at this, and that’s why we make our films the way we do. Because you don’t have the freedom, you don’t have the integrity, you have to remake everything we’ve done anyway. I go to see Martin Scorsese, and I say, Don’t you think I should tell you about the lenses? And he says, What do you mean? And I said, Well, you’re remaking my film, which is Infernal Affairs. Infernal Affairs was probably written in one week, we shot it in a month and you’re going to remake it! Ha ha, good luck!"

And with that let's close the book on anything Christopher Doyle says going forward, instead focusing on his work, a field where he does fine work. Christopher Doyle is a talented guy, and he certainly has a knack for making the news, but he should probably leave the sweeping judgements of cinema to the professionals. I speak, of course, of Harvey and Bob Weinstein.

Laremy wrote the book on film criticism, a book which is, oddly enough, ranked #1 among all Kindle Cinematography titles.