The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents November 2014 Return to Table of Contents
Presidents Desk
Gone Girl
ASC Close-Up



There are many truths regarding the ways in which movies are made, but one in particular bears constant restating: no individual can do it alone.

This runs contrary to what many people — from the skateboard crowd running around with their GoPros to a significant number of seasoned professionals — seem to believe. More importantly, it goes precisely to the heart of what motion-picture making is about.

As it applies to cinematographers, our relationship with the director takes many forms yet is completely unique in the scope and intensity of its collaborative nature. At its basic level, the director guides the overall production through a consistent course of action; the cinematographer, on the other hand, transforms the director’s interpretation of a script into physical reality. In the best of situations both parties act as storytellers, and it’s their constant, free-flowing exchange of ideas that gives a project its vitality (if indeed there’s any to be found). The ways in which these efforts are conceived, intersect and play themselves out are more varied than last week’s listing of cat videos on the Web. Nonetheless, each approach is doomed to failure unless the two parties embrace an open and vibrant spirit of communication that’s relevant to what they’re trying to achieve.

The explosive technological evolution our industry has undergone over the past decade-and-a-half has made our job more superficially transparent to the casual observer, and unfortunately this includes most of the people we work with. But can you blame them? The ubiquity of the hi-def monitor has led them to believe all they need to know is right there in front of them and that it’s easy to do. In fact, quite the opposite is true.

If the greater part of progress is supposed to reflect a striving for simplicity, then technology has failed us all miserably. The fact is that our job has become even more impenetrable to those unschooled in cinematography. The scope of our responsibilities has also expanded enormously, and the constant demand to advance our proficiency has proven taxing in ways incomparable to any of the other crafts. But while every director needs to have a minimal understanding of the concepts and equipment that enable what we do, we must take extra care never to confuse the means for the end. In the most successful collaborative environments, the key point of discussion between director and cinematographer never concerns how to do something. Instead, it revolves around why they are doing it.

Despite the sometimes astronomical price tag, the technology we employ is nothing more than a tool, similar to a hammer or a spoon. In the same sense, that tool only comes to life in creative hands. Without a passionate impulse to translate an idea — a feeling — into concrete form, even the most sophisticated camera, lens and emulsion/sensor combination is reduced to a pile of junk. During the best of circumstances, this impulse springs from a blending of minds in which director and cinematographer act together to create something neither one could arrive at alone. As anyone who’s ever experienced one of those special moments knows, when all cylinders are firing in this manner it’s a little glimpse of heaven. Audiences recognize them intuitively, and we owe them an honest effort to capture that every time we step on set.

With technology continuing to grow at an unchecked rate, no one can predict how we’ll be making movies next year, let alone 10 or 20 years from now. What is certain is that the process will always be one of excitement and revelation, just as it has been since the first turn of the crank on one of Edison’s prototype cameras. You can also be sure that directors and cinematographers will be right there at the heart of it all, committed to doing their best. They will focus their energy, they will share ideas — they will collaborate so as to make the ethereal real.

So forget all the technology and let loose your inner dreamer. Isn’t that what really makes the job fun?

 

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