The American Society of Cinematographers

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Presidents Desk
Gordon Willis, ASC
ASC Master Class
Page 2
ASC Close-Up

ASC cinematographers educate filmmakers from around the world through the ASC Master Class.

Photos by Alex Lopez and Laura Stabilini.

The ASC’s third Master Class, held in June, gathered 22 young cinematographers from all over the world for a five-day intensive course that focused on lighting, camera techniques and workflow practices. As in past sessions, this Master Class featured lectures and hands-on workshops led by an array of accomplished ASC cinematographers — Bill Bennett, Stephen H. Burum, Paul Cameron, Curtis Clark, Richard Crudo, Karl Walter Lindenlaub and Sam Nicholson — and ASC associate member Joshua Pines. Past instructors have included Caleb Deschanel, John Toll, Robbie Greenberg, Dean Cundey and Dante Spinotti.

“The ASC Master Class is taught by the people who are the best in the world at what they do,” says Crudo, the Society’s president. “It’s where students get to meet these individuals face-to-face, get direct answers to questions, and participate in hands-on exercises under their close tutelage. It’s a unique opportunity, and I would advise everyone who’s serious about their career in cinematography to sign up — and be ready to learn.”

The class started off with a session on film history taught by Burum, who showed clips from the last 100 years of motion pictures and talked about the language of cinematography. “This class takes them through the history of cinematography, where film is exposed as a medium — a big source of inspiration to us,” explains Kees van Oostrum, an ASC vice president. “We touch upon the fact that cinematographers work in film, but in the practical, hands-on [sense] it’s geared to today’s workflow, which is 90 percent digital.”

S.J. Main, who studied directing at Columbia University, took the Master Class to better understand the director/cinematographer relationship. “The Master Class didn’t just talk about theory, but also offered hands-on lighting to show so many different styles,” she says. “These are the most amazing people in their field.”

Other courses included Crudo’s explanation of image control, Pines’ lecture on color space, Nicholson’s session on visual effects, and a seminar about workflow and incorporating the Academy Color Encoding Specifications and the ASC Color Decision List that was led by Clark, the chairman of the ASC Technology Committee.

At the Mole-Richardson stage, Lindenlaub, Bennett and Cameron provided demonstrations in which the students were encouraged to participate in lighting and interact with the ASC cinematographers.

Master Class student Scott Sandford, a cinematographer in the U.K., called the Master Class a “once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was so enriched by the support of this group of ASC cinematographers. The thing I liked the most was that while [Lindenlaub] was giving his key notes, so many other ASC members were in the background, providing support and answering questions.”

Bennett taught commercial lighting with a focus on lighting automobiles. “I first show them footage from various commercials I’ve shot of beautiful exterior car lighting,” he says. “Then I teach them how to emulate that ‘magic hour’ lighting onstage.” Bennett starts with a polished aluminum teapot, which reflects the environment, as a stand-in for the car. “We practice lighting by reflecting 4-by-8-foot sheets of white foamcore,” he says. “I light the foamcore and then reflect it onto the teapot. That’s a revelation for them.

“It takes a day to go through the process,” Bennett continues. “Although many of them will never go on to shoot car commercials, the same rules apply if you’re lighting a beer can or cell phone — any product that’s shiny and reflective. I’ve had Master Class students come back and tell me they have already begun to apply what I taught them for product shots in their work.”

Anne Monzon, a cinematographer from Manila, Philippines, says she learned a lot from all the sessions. “We got to pick the brains of these great cinematographers,” she says. “They’re so generous and open.” Douglas Birnbaum, a commercial cinematographer from San Francisco, adds, “The highlight was seeing Paul, Karl and Bill lighting the set. They’re passing down years of experience that we could never gain from trial-and-error.”

Bennett agrees that there’s no substitute for experience. “It took me a long time to evolve my concept of how to light cars beautifully,” he says. “I had to teach myself, observed others and then expanded it. It’s terrific to impart the basic experiences of 30 years in one day!”

Cameron, who taught a full day of lighting on the Mole-Richardson stage, marvels at the diversity of the students. “The Master Class [brought together] a great selection of people with varying experiences in the industry and from around the world, which was refreshing,” he says. Cameron’s goal was to learn where the students felt stuck in their careers, and to work through those issues. “A lot of the students felt very challenged shooting night-for-day,” he says. “I showed them setups from Swordfish, in which 75 percent of the day exteriors were shot at night. I verbally demonstrated a number of different setups for different budgets, and I think that was helpful.”

In another demonstration, Cameron taught how to light faces. “I have a more nonlinear than classic approach,” he says. “I stressed how to bring out features in a face. One thing I did was to put a 4-by-8-foot frame of diffusion with four single-tube Kinos on top and show how people’s faces react differently with light coming from different directions. It’s a basic setup I use on features, and it was a quick way to demonstrate how a couple of footcandles from an unexpected direction can bring out certain features.”

That was a demonstration that student Jared Page, a cinematographer from Detroit, appreciated. “I love how we were able to create vastly different moods even by something as simple as changing the position of the light,” he says.

In another exercise, Cameron gave a Nick Knight photo to a volunteer, student Justin Ervin, and asked him to re-create the image. “I brought my gaffer, Mike Adler, and grip, Carlos Boiles,” Cameron says. “It was a chance for a young cinematographer to work with two very experienced keys, which was definitely intimidating. But I explained that this is what it’s like in the world. When you go to different markets, you get the best keys you can, and you have to communicate with confidence. That was good experience for [Ervin], and I was very pleased with how he matched the photograph.”

Cameron also taught the importance of what he calls a “vibe” light, the first one he places on set. “The first light is the one that establishes the mood of the set,” he says. “One of the biggest mistakes, whether you’re lighting a small or huge set, is to turn all the lights on. It’s hard to pull your concept out of this overlit scenario. It’s important to turn on the lights that create the mood you want, and then selectively build on top of that.”

He went on to explain to the students his concept of “boxing the set,” as many of them didn’t know how to light a room for multiple setups. “I rim the outside walls all the way around the sets,” he says. “I demonstrated that with Dead Man Down. Students are normally intimidated by a day interior where you’re looking out windows and it seems massively overexposed. I talked about the concept of ND’ing windows down but still pushing light through them. You have to push the exposure down and minimize the interior as much as you can.”


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