The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents September 2014 Return to Table of Contents
Guardians of the Galaxy
Emmy Awards
Presidents Desk
Page 2
ASC Close-Up

For many of our readers, September not only marks back-to-school time but back-to-film-school time. With a seemingly endless list of institutions and services to choose from nowadays, aspiring cinematographers face a daunting task in seeking out the proper fit. There are surely some fabulous opportunities for learning out there; the top-tier institutions, known to all of us, are usually worth the time and expense. At the opposite end of the educational spectrum are the puppy mills, fly-by-night operations staffed by inexperienced hucksters who are happy to put a meaningless stamp of approval on people who are thoroughly unprepared to make it in the real world. This situation is a sad reality that can often derail an enthusiastic young person before he or she is even out of the gate. It’s also something we’re vigilantly on the lookout for at the ASC. As with most things in life, and especially in this case, let the buyer beware.

But here’s another piece of reality that might surprise the members of this year’s Lighting 101 class: even if you go all the way and pick up an advanced degree from a legitimate source, you will be qualified to do only one thing when you first set foot on a major-league set: start at the bottom.

This statement isn’t meant to discourage anyone. In fact, if you’re put off by it, you probably don’t have what it takes to make it in the business anyway.  It’s also not so inflammatory when you realize that until the number of film schools began to radically increase some 20 or so years ago, beginning your day with a surface gauge (i.e., a broom) in hand was the only way in. As unimaginable as this may sound to today’s instant-gratification generation, from the 1930s through the 1960s it was common practice for aspiring cinematographers to spend a decade or more in each of the subordinate camera-crew positions before moving up to the next level. Are you sitting down? Robert Moreno, ASC spent more than 29 years rising through the ranks before taking the lead chair — and he was far from an exception. This rigorous vetting process guaranteed that the person in charge was fully qualified to handle any challenge thrown at them. It also allowed qualified cinematographers to produce a generally refined body of work, even if they only rated among the journeymen and lesser-known names. Just tune in to the Turner Classic Movie channel at any time of the day and you’ll see what I mean.

Certainly, no one is going to endure apprenticeships like that anymore — I know I wouldn’t. However, there is a great wisdom in taking the time to master one’s craft. Notice I didn’t use the term "learn." Any ASC member can relate to you the basics of cinematography in a couple of hours. Could they teach you to actually be a cinematographer in that time? That’s a lifetime pursuit, one which none of us will ever fully complete because the learning, growing and evolving never stops. I’m not sure the film schools are getting that message through clearly enough, though the concept should be pretty obvious.

So what’s the real key to success for the motivated student of cinematography? The simplest answer is passion, an intangible that can neither be taught nor instilled. It can be inspired, though — and no institution in the world is better suited to that purpose than the ASC.

As the new term begins, I urge educators and students alike to look to us for guidance. The level of knowledge and experience held by our members and associates is truly staggering, and it can often be accessed simply by asking. Our website,, is currently undergoing a complete makeover, but remains a tremendous resource. Visit it regularly! Our Friends of the ASC premium subscription is something I wish had existed when I was starting out. Join up and learn from the best! Our American Cinematographer Manual is jam-packed with vital information covering everything there is to know about what we do; for more than 80 years it has been called “the filmmaker’s bible.” Get a copy and read it! Our Clubhouse hosts many educational events that are open to the public. Come visit us!

If you haven’t figured it out yet, shepherding the next generation is a big part of our mission. To all students, I say: Study hard, work hard, and avail yourselves of the ASC!


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