The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents February 2011 Return to Table of Contents
Green Hornet
John Seale, ASC, ACS
A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up

At the time of this writing, I have just returned from the Camerimage International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography in Poland. As fun as it was to spend some social time with my fellow cinematographers from the other societies, the most gratifying part of the experience was meeting filmmaking students from all over the world. Many of them told me that this column is the first thing they turn to in the magazine, that this column puts a human perspective on what is sometimes a daunting and distant industry, and that it reveals that all cinematographers go through some of the same things, whether they’re Oscar winners or first-year film students. If you get some of those insights from this page of sometimes (admittedly) rambling thoughts and fragmented pieces of life and industry observations, then I’m happy to have helped open that door.

In this column, I want to reflect upon life as a cinematographer — all facets of our lives (creative and mundane), the highs of being on set, and the anxiety of trying to get the job so we can be there. On the latter subject, let me tell you something: I love going to job interviews. I really do. I know many people hate them because it’s difficult to read people’s minds and say the right things to get the job, but I don’t worry about what someone might want me to say, because I can’t say anything I don’t really believe, anyway. I do my research based on the script I’m given to read, and I form a visual idea for the job that excites me, and I go into the meeting and tell them what it is. Sometimes it’s what they were thinking, and they go with it; sometimes they hadn’t thought of that approach, and they go with it; and sometimes they want to go in a different direction. But whatever the case, I’ve expressed my point of view, and if I don’t get the job, then it’s probably not the right project for me.

You cannot get every job, but you can position yourself to get the ones that mean something to you and your career, and you can, I hope, avoid the ones that kill your spirit and love of the business. I once interviewed to shoot a new director’s first film. He wanted to watch my reel with me, so we did. Afterwards, he said, “You’ve done some very nice work, but there’s something about you I just don’t care for. Let me see if I can put my finger on it. You’re very confident, and you strike me as someone who is used to being in charge. I think it needs to be clear to everyone on this film that I’m the one in charge, so I don’t think this is going to work.” I told him he was absolutely right: it wasn’t going to work. He was more interested in the status of his position than in the quality of his own project, and that spells trouble to me. It’s nice if the director cares as much about the movie as I do.

I recently stumbled upon a student-film shoot in Los Angeles, and I stopped to watch for a while. They were filming a scene in which a young woman walks out of a restaurant and pauses to check her makeup in the window while a young man watches her from inside the restaurant. After the rehearsal, the setup was taking quite a while, so the sun was getting low by the time filming started. When they did the first take, the sun hit the closing door in a way that sent a brilliant flare through the window when the woman paused to check her makeup, and when the door closed, the flare subsided and revealed the man watching her. It was one of those moments that would have taken many hours and some large lights to replicate, and, just like that, the opportunity was over because the sun moved quickly behind a building. The director said that take was useless because it was flared out, and I was tempted to step forward and tell him what a brilliant image he’d just captured. But his student cinematographer piped up and said, “Not only was that an amazingly beautiful shot, but I’m going to take full credit for creating it, and it’s going on my reel even if you don’t use it in the film.” I had to smile as I walked away. The future was in good hands.


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