ASC Q/A: Good Cinematography, Set Etiquette and Staying Inspired

San Francisco State University students meet ASC panelists (from left) Paul Maibaum, Bruce Logan, Cynthia Pusheck, George Spiro Dibie, Haskell Wexler, Frederic Goodich and Suki Medencevic. (Alex Lopez/ASC)
ASC cinematographers (from background to foreground) Paul Maibaum, Bruce Logan, Cynthia Pusheck, George Spiro Dibie, Haskell Wexler, Frederic Goodich and Suki Medencevic answer questions from San Francisco State University students at the Clubhouse. (Alex Lopez/ASC)

What makes cinematography good?

A panel of ASC cinematographers recently addressed that question, and many more, during a Q&A session with student filmmakers fromSan Francisco State University.

Volunteering their time to meet with the students were ASC members George Spiro Dibie, Frederic Goodich, Bruce Logan, Paul Maibaum, Suki Medencevic, Cynthia Pusheck and Haskell Wexler.

Here are excerpts from the discussion:

What is good cinematography, or what makes a cinematographer good?

Paul Maibaum, ASC: That’s very subjective, but for me, if it touches me, if I suspend my disbelief, if I’m not thinking about the cinematography, then it’s good.

Bruce Logan, ASC: A good cinematographer executes the director’s vision. It’s a position of service to an artistic creation.

Cynthia Pusheck, ASC: Being a good cinematographer in television means serving a lot of masters, but ultimately, it comes down to serving the story. Your work always comes back to that.

George Spiro Dibie, ASC: Good cinematographers don’t want their work to be the star of the story.

Frederic Goodich, ASC: You have to be a good leader on the set, which includes being able to answer dozens of questions about every discipline. You have to be a friend to almost everybody there. And a lot of the job is being a traffic cop.

Suki Medencevic, ASC: Good cinematography is something you don’t just see, but also feel. It’s a complex profession; you have to be a diplomat, a psychologist, a leader, a cop and sometimes a tough guy. You must also constantly challenge yourself to strive for something better.

Did you ever feel like giving up on cinematography as a career?

Dibie: Give up? This is our passion!

Pusheck: I never felt like quitting. I came up the ranks in the camera department, and I eventually decided that in order to make the leap to director of photography, I needed to meet younger directors and build my reel. So I decided to take a year off and attend the American Film Institute. I basically leaped down the cliff and then crawled back up. In general, the situation for women who want to be cinematographers has improved so much in the last 10 years. On my first day on a union show, on the walk from my car to the set, every single person I encountered asked, ‘Whose girlfriend are you?’ or ‘Whose sister are you?’ This wasn’t that long ago. But one thing hasn’t changed: we still have to represent other women coming up the ranks. We have to be good — very good.

Haskell Wexler, ASC: You all have to ask yourself why you’re doing this. You have to not only develop the aspect of filmmaking you’re interested in — and you do that by making lots of small films — but also keep thinking about what kind of story you want to tell. Do you just want to make a living, or this work about something else for you?

How do you decide whether a project is right for you?

Medencevic: I look for a script that inspires me, that feels like a challenge. I also ask myself, why should I do this and not someone else? You have to consider: Does the script inspire you? Is the director someone you want to work with? Will the pay enable you to make a living? It’s hard to find all three elements in the same project, but I think if you find at least one of them, you should do it.

How can I tell the right time to ask a question on set?

Dibie: Every set is different, and every cinematographer is different. You have to observe before you approach and make a judgment. Be polite and never give up.

Pusheck: If you’re paying attention and you pick your time, people usually want to share. If they see you want to learn, they will help you.

What do you do if there’s a conflict between your vision and the director’s vision?

Dibie: They will fire you before they fire the director. Never tell the director, ‘It’s my vision, not yours.’

Goodich: Anger is not one of the emotions a cinematographer is allowed to have. Passion, yes. Intensity, yes. When this kind of conflict arises, ask yourself, why did they hire me in the first place? Then you can remind a director, subtly, why you’re there and what it is you’re both trying to accomplish. Also, the rules are a bit different depending on the project you're shooting. A commercial is planned in a very specific fashion, and if you perceive you’re not getting what the agency asked you to deliver, you can discuss what you need. On a TV series, if a director departs from the game plan, you may have to turn to the show runner and make sure they know what’s going on.

Pusheck: Yes, in TV, sometimes you’re protecting the director and sometimes you’re protecting the show. You want to help the director do a good job.

How do you move up from production assistant to other jobs on set?

Pusheck: If you want to be in the camera department, introduce yourself to all the camera people and volunteer to help them. If you want to come up as a gaffer, then go to talk to the electricians. And pay attention to the conversations on set; there’s a lot you can learn that will help you move up.

Maibaum: Whatever position you end up in, do the job you have been assigned to the utmost of your ability. Be the first person on the set and the last one to leave. If you’re working in a department you don’t want to stay in, try to find moments where you can help others out, but do it without taking away from the job you were given. And take direction. If someone asks you to do something, don’t question it, just do it. You’ll be developing your work ethic.

Logan: When you’re on a set, you’re networking with everyone there. It’s a fantastic place to move yourself along.

How do you deal with the stress of the job?

Maibaum: Stress is a given in this industry; there isn’t a person on set who doesn’t feel pressure. You have to learn how to use it as a spark plug, a stimulant, a positive.

Logan: Stress will come initially from your inexperience, but as you learn more and gain experience, the pressure will become internal because you want to achieve perfection.

Medencevic: No matter how many things you try to control, something will always arise on set that you didn’t anticipate. You have to cultivate creative outlets for stress, something that allows you to turn off and spend time on your own. For me, it’s cooking; the kitchen is my sanctuary.

How do you keep things fresh on a long-running TV series or an especially long shoot?

Maibaum: The beauty of being a cinematographer is that even if you go back into the same location again and again, every situation is different. You’re faced with different challenges, director, script, time of day. I was on one show for seven years [Sons of Anarchy], and it never got stale for me.

Logan: This job is the most exciting thing you can do. How could you ever get tired of it? If I ever got up one day and wasn’t scared about the day ahead, that would be it.

Pusheck: The frequent change in directors is one thing I love about episodic TV. But it’s not hard at all to find ways to stay inspired. We were in the same kitchen for Brothers & Sisters so often that we could do it fast, but we were always making it fresh. Sometimes I’d give more responsibility to the crew — ‘How would you do this?’

Goodich: Staying inspired is a matter of staying alert to what’s out there and reacting to it. You may plan what the shoot is supposed to be that day, but on that day, new things arise: maybe there’s a camera breakdown and you have to figure out how to keep the day flowing, or maybe the art department didn’t get the set totally built, so you have to work around it. Cinematographers are always problem-solving, moment to moment.

Medencevic: I think the key is flexibility and having a collaborative nature. And you have to keep your eye active — always. I think a cinematographer is a cinematographer 24 hours a day.

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