“Disruption, Applied”

As I noted at this organization’s National Executive Board meeting in June, “the key to thriving in this kind of environment of perpetual innovation is nurturing a culture within our Local that enthusiastically embraces change.”

For many years, change came slowly in the motion picture and television industry. If a new lens or even a camera came out, it was usually about improving existing technology, not breaking new ground. Disruptive technology was not yet a term in our lexicon. But since the dawn of the Digital Age, the technologies that are presented (on an almost daily basis) have the ability to be disruptive, in the best sense of the word. The historical nature of disruption in this industry has, at times, reached almost comical proportions. For example, in the mid 1990’s, when A-list cinematographers would often say, “We don’t want anything new,” it was a misinterpretation of the attitude, “We don’t want anything new until it’s better than what we’ve had for one hundred years.”

There was a period when videographers would ascend to the top of the industry because directors of photography (with noted acronyms after their names) didn’t appear to have a desire to embrace new digital technology. There was a whole group of people who said, “It’s our turn now because we know how to harness [digital technology’s] power.”

But, in fact, what are the core skills that would enable Local 600 members to master any new technology? If you’re an assistant, the prime key is an innate ability to keep an image in focus in a way that conveys the artistic intent of the storyline; if you’re an operator, you need to be able to move the camera in a way that will enhance the storytelling, typically without drawing a lot of attention to the moving camera; if you’re a director of photography, very little has changed. We are still using technology to create moving images that tell a story. We’ve added the wonderful help of the digital imaging technician (DIT), which is really like bringing the film laboratory onto a set. The DIT’s position enables the director of photography to communicate his or her intent immediately on the set, and that’s not much different from when DP’s once talked to their film labs (usually at 4 a.m. on their way to the day’s location) to find out what worked and didn’t work from the day before.

As for new camera sensor technology, which has led to smaller, lighter, more eco-friendly lighting fixtures on sets and locations (and in some cases, very few lights at all), I would say these are merely extensions of what DP’s have always done. I personally have spent years shooting stills at 3200 ASA with Kodak T-Max film, and now I can extend that into my movie work – an easy sideways step to how I see and apply light.

Another quote that seems particularly relevant to this issue comes from Kentaro Toyama, a former Gates Foundation consultant and the author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, who writes that “it’s not the development of technology that leads to social change, but the application of it.”

The traditional camera team has always had a certain level of ascendancy on sets, mostly based on the technical, artistic, and social talents of the director of photography. As the technology becomes ever more sophisticated, so does the need for Local 600 members to maintain a level of sophistication within the application of these new techniques. But at that same time, we must understand the continuing need for humility – a respect for the script, the director’s interpretation of that script, and the performances of the actors. The storytelling team is an organic unit, and we are only as successful as the entire team, no matter how much technical sophistication we may possess.

He may have been talking about an entirely different industry, but Mr. Toyama was certainly right on the mark: disruptive (and positive) change will come from how we apply the technology we continually strive to master, not merely from the gear itself.

 

Steven Poster, ASC
National President
International Cinematographers Guild
IATSE Local 600