The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents October 2014 Return to Table of Contents
Presidents Desk
Gordon Willis, ASC
ASC Master Class
ASC Close-Up



One by one, the last of the legends are leaving us. Over the past 11 years alone, the ASC has seen the passing of William A. Fraker, Conrad Hall, Laszlo Kovacs, Richard Moore and a host of less recognizable but equally loved and revered members of our family. Our good friends at the British Society of Cinematographers have been hit even harder. During the same period, their losses have included Jack Cardiff, Chris Challis, Freddie Francis, Guy Green, Ossie Morris, Gil Taylor, Alex Thomson and David Watkin. And note that the term “losses” is being used in the strictest sense: Their deaths represent still-fresh gaps in our organizations and the greater community of filmmakers. These men were admired, respected and, indeed, loved by their colleagues; their absence has left a hole in many hearts. The latest to join their ranks, of course, is Gordon Willis, ASC.

The Clubhouse staff often jokes about something they call “ASC Time.” While the rest of the world moves along, and regular folks age at what seems to be an accelerated pace, ASC members appear to remain vigorous despite the advanced number of years they all tend to live. With an average age of nearly 87, the above-noted group seems to bear out this phenomenon. I knew many of them quite well, and I can assure you that they retained incredibly vital and youthful spirits right to the very end. Of course, these qualities only serve to magnify their absence. With just a small handful of cinematographers remaining who fit their stature and demographic, we’re forced to recognize that the close of yet another era is fast approaching.

My generation of ASC members certainly missed getting to know the real old-timers, the studio cameramen who essentially created the industry. However, we’ve had the good fortune to become well acquainted with their direct descendants, those who learned from the pioneers and transformed their techniques for modern times. Believe me, you haven’t lived until you’ve sat at the Clubhouse bar and been regaled by the likes of Fraker and Hall as they poured out the details of their adventurous lives and careers. It seemed during those evenings that they would be with us forever, even if we knew that’s not the way things work. And as much as we hung on every word and wished those experiences for ourselves, we also knew that the stories they told could only have taken place in a world that no longer exists. I always used to whisper to my contemporaries who were on the scene, “Take a mental snapshot of this.” Amidst the laughter and camaraderie, I knew those evanescent moments were something we would always treasure. If they each had been able to stay with us for another couple of decades, they still would have been leaving too soon.

With the recent death of Willis, a true giant who is widely recognized as being first among equals, we’re once again reminded that the clock is running fast. Every time someone of his caliber passes on, a big piece of our profession goes with him — you might say a part of our soul is dissipated as well. Although we have some fabulous artists shooting today, we will never see the likes of Gordon Willis again. The industry has devolved to a point where his approach to the job just isn’t permitted, and that’s a loss for everyone. There exists in Gordon’s work, and the work of his fellow legends, a profound humility which tells you that thinking, feeling people created those pictures. The highest tribute we can pay them is to do our best to live up to the standards they set, and to pass those standards on to the next generation.

None of these reflections should be seen as morbid. In fact, when we lose someone at the ASC, instead of holding a wake we host a celebration of that member’s life and career. Hey, someday we’re all going out the same way: feet first. We can only hope that we meet again in a place where the skies are always clear, the crew is happy and the mags are loaded with an unlimited supply of negative stock. I know we’ll have a lot of laughs. And maybe my contemporaries and I will learn something new, too.

 

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