The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents March 2015 Return to Table of Contents
Presidents Desk
The Affair
Power Rangers
ASC Close-Up

Seeing as it’s awards season and everyone’s in a froth about hailing the superstars of our profession, I think it’s appropriate to refocus some of that spotlight on the vast majority of cinematographers, the unsung heroes of what we do. You know who I’m referring to: the lunch-pail guys and gals, the ones who deliver superior work day in and day out on every production they tackle, yet for whatever reason never manage to punch through to the honors level. They are truly the backbone of this industry, and if you can put aside any bias, you’ll find there’s as much to admire and learn from them as there is from those at the top of the pyramid.

As examples — and to avoid provoking anyone by naming any of my contemporaries — I refer you to John Russell, ASC (active from the 1940s through the 1960s), and John Warren, ASC (the 1950s to the 1970s). Russell shot Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, but apart from that picture, I defy you to associate either him or Warren with another tip-of-the-tongue title. Nonetheless, they were both on the job without pause for decades, and among their output are innumerable examples of the craft that compare with the best cinematography of their day. They were total pros and certainly productive, so why don’t we ever hear them mentioned along with the Gregg Tolands, William A. Frakers and Conrad Halls? Why didn’t they reach that level of immortality? Who knows? Maybe they just never went to the right cocktail parties.

Take a moment to examine the careers of some of the current journeymen and women whom you might ordinarily ignore. We’re living in an era when there is more outstanding unrecognized talent at the camera than ever before. None of these individuals is a household name, but, like Russell and Warren, they continue to work under the radar, steadily cranking out gorgeous images with a minimum of fuss. Eventually, a few of them might break away from the crowd. More likely, they’ll continue to do what they do in their very refined, little-noticed corner of the business while the big guns continue to get all the laurels — not unjustifiably so, just unnecessarily.

You might wonder why some cinematographers rise to the heights while others of equal or even greater talent seem condemned to do their thing in expert obscurity. Certainly, nothing is acquired without hard work and an extreme level of dedication. You also have to be ready to deliver when the opportunity for a big break presents itself. But those are the minimum requirements for reaching the middle of the pecking order. Beyond that, it’s undeniable that luck and good timing play an enormous role in attaining major success. It’s astonishing to see sometimes. Why this one and not that one? There’s a giant loony bin somewhere out there filled with those who have tried to find the answer. I advise you not to bother.

While this topic brings no satisfaction to someone who might be feeling boxed in career-wise, it does offer hope. Good taste is also an absolute for joining the elite class. If a distinct boundary separates the competent from the really well done, we can be assured that there’s an even more acutely drawn line between the really well done and the excellent. First-class work is unmistakable when you see it, and though it can’t be taught, it can be developed. Absent the ethereal nature of much of our work and the shifting trends of the moment, I would suggest a faster track to the top begins with putting less emphasis on technology and more emphasis on thinking through the ways in which we apply it. Cinematographers all use the same tools, yet some get consistently better results. Take note of their work, and then start moving away from the pixels and toward the real power of what we do.

Until that sentiment catches on, we can seek out and encourage the great work of those who don’t ordinarily get much of the attention. Don’t worry, the marquee names and big award winners will continue being marvelous. Just give a moment’s attention to the rest of the pack. And don’t be afraid to admit it: there is excellence there, too.


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