A panel of seven ASC members had a candid discussion with Queensland University of Technology students about the life, work and art of cinematographers.
During the Society’s latest event in its ongoing education/discussion series — held at the historic ASC Clubhouse in Hollywood — students in their final year in the film, screen and new media program at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, heard first-hand accounts of life as a working cinematographer.
The ASC has hosted similar opportunities this year for high schools and colleges across the country, including Asbury University, Compass College of Cinematic Arts, Chapman University, Loyola Marymount University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, School of Visual Arts, Tulane University and Reseda Charter High School.
ASC members participate in these educational events on a volunteer basis, with the panels assembled by Education & Outreach committee chair George Spiro Dibie, ASC — who also serves as the discussion moderator.
Panelists at the June 29 event who hold both ASC and ACS (Australian Cinematographers Society) membership included Ross Berryman, Dean Semler, and Bill Bennett (Honorary ACS). The esteemed panel also included ASC members Patrick Cady, Paul Maibaum, and Charles Minsky.
The conversation — which was entirely based on questions generated by the QUT students — included topics of what methods were used to shoot particular films, the ways in which the cinematographer is a visual storyteller, how a cinematographer can be an effective leader for his/her crew, the relationship between the cinematographer and the director and how to manage a healthy work-life balance.
Student takeaways were as diverse as the topics discussed, and cinematography student Alex Shingles was particularly enthralled with hearing Semler offer insider knowledge on his ASC Award-nominated camerawork in Apocalypto. “I didn’t know that Apocalypto was shot on anything apart from a Steadicam because the shots were very fast, but they were very smooth,” Shingles said. “The fact that it was largely filmed with cranes was a bit mind-blowing.”
For cinematography student Olivia Holt, the conversation made her more excited and interested in pursuing a career in camera operating, and she enjoyed hearing the panelists discuss the real-life commitments of being a cinematographer. “I really liked when they spoke about having a family and traveling because it’s something that I’ve been quite concerned about because I’m so family oriented…. I think that’s something that a lot of women in particular could struggle with,” she said. “But I think they’ve got the right approach of just making sure your partner knows what they’re in for.”
Film student Kairavi Desai was inspired by the discussions about on-set culture. “I was surprised by what roles they play outside of their department to enforce a studio or set culture,” she said. “They taught me that it’s not just about you and your department and your work because you’re collaborating — you’re making a film together. I learned what part you can play and what you can do to make the production smoother and that you don’t have to just conform to your department. Building relationships with the whole crew — having that kind of family culture — makes things so much better on set.”
Desai’s takeaway was exactly what QUT senior lecturer Sean Mahar hoped his students would embrace from the discussion. “There were some really good insights today, coming from the experience of the cinematographers, about the culture on set of productions. I think that this is something that we can’t teach in a film school. This comes from the wisdom of the tribe,” Mahar said. He continued that he hoped students would retain “how respect and courtesy and a culture on set is very important and helps people feel valued, and you get the best out of people as a crew.
“That level of engagement of people as people on set is very important for students who are grappling with issues of authority, power and confidence. In student productions, they can be immature and harmful to each other, and it’s great for them to look to the industry and think how we treat each other is valued and very important.”
For QUT lecturer Jason Tolsher, who worked in the camera department for 15 years before becoming a full-time educator, it was the “idea of story being so centric to the art and craft” that he hoped his students most gained from the conversation.
“It’s so easy to get caught up in all the technology and the fun of actually putting your hands on equipment and figuring out how to achieve certain looks. And that’s all great — but it must serve the story,” Tolsher said. “It’s a constant reminder we make to our students that we want them to make content that is driven by the story that they’re telling. That relationship, as cinematographers, should be at the forefront of their thinking at all times.”
As the QUT students left the Clubhouse, they enter their final six months before graduation, where they will shoot a collection of 10-minute dramas. Their lecturers hope that the candid conversation with ASC members will serve as a source of inspiration as they undergo these projects. Tolsher noted, “Hearing from passionate storytellers and craftspeople before they embark on that experience hopefully emboldens them to create great work.”