The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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President's Desk

Collaborating with the art department and A Hidden History of Film Style.

I don’t know of another group in the motion-picture industry more obsessed by its work than cinematographers. Given our all-consuming involvement with what we do, it’s easy to overlook the contributions of the other departments we collaborate with each day. We often forget that a huge part of how our images turn out is dependent upon what is served up before the lens. To that end, production designers and set decorators deserve a grateful nod from our side of the camera.

Let’s be honest: Art direction — as that collection of crafts used to be called — is responsible for at least half of any success we might enjoy. In almost every case, production designers are hired long before the cinematographer, and thus lay the groundwork we’re typically forced to adopt as our own. Their choices are not just limited to constructed sets on soundstages, but include locations and exteriors as well; everything we do photographically rises and falls by their (hopefully) good taste. Ever wrestle with creating a look for a poorly realized beige-on-beige cheese box of an apartment? Believe me, it can be one of the great unpleasantries of your career. But when you walk onto a set that has been splendidly conceived and decorated, you have to admit: The challenge is not to make it look great, but to avoid messing it up.

Get into a discussion of production design with most filmmakers, and you’ll find that period pieces or futuristic environments will eventually dominate the chatter. But that’s stating the obvious. Instead, the discipline’s true artistry is witnessed in the successful rendering of the more ordinary, recognizable spaces we encounter every day. As with cinematography, the best examples follow a unified line of thought that serves the evolving themes of the script. Guided by the right talent, the art direction can give greater meaning to the story while at the same time creating opportunities for the expression of the cinematographer's own magic.

Of all the films that make up our personal catalogues of visual references, I guarantee that the exquisite light gracing each of them is falling on equally inspiring sets, places and objects. This doesn’t necessarily mean the design is “beautiful,” according to the pedestrian understanding of the term; it means the design fits the story in the most relevant way, without calling attention to itself. That’s the same effect cinematographers strive for, so it’s no surprise that the two pursuits are so closely interrelated.

Over the years, there have been any number of long-running collaborations between cinematographer-designer pairings; the most successful show us that each artist raises the other’s game. But a word to the wise among our good friends responsible for what and where we shoot: Not every wall needs a sconce!

On a related topic, I’d like to recommend a fabulous new book, A Hidden History of Film Style: Cinematographers, Directors, and the Collaborative Process (2015, University of California Press). Written by Christopher Beach, who was selected as an Academy Film Scholar in 2013, it does perhaps the best job to date of poking holes in the theory of the director as auteur. Beach’s fascinating deconstruction of the political, historical and practical reasons behind the evolution of the way movies look is achieved primarily through examining the work of four notable director-cinematographer teams: D.W. Griffith and Billy Bitzer; William Wyler and Gregg Toland, ASC; Billy Wilder and John Seitz, ASC; and Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Burks, ASC. In brilliant, detailed descriptions, Beach shatters past assumptions and casts a new respect upon these celebrated cameramen and their contributions to the canon. The book is fully annotated, and the chapter on rule breaking in recent years — as well as Beach's analysis of trends introduced by the rise of digital technology — are well worth reading.

What’s interesting about so much of the overall visual structure of any motion picture is that a lot of disparate people and elements must come together in just the right balance for a project to be considered a “success.” Despite all manner of effort, no one as yet has figured out how to codify that outcome. I hope they never will. That vague feeling of uncertainty we experience every time we start a new show is a recognition of our responsibilities and the high stakes that are on the line. It also anticipates the potential to strike gold alongside our colleagues, which just might be the main reason we keep coming back for more.


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