Higher Callings”

Showcase is a word that fits a lot of situations. But what it means, most often, to cinematographers, is getting your work seen in a film festival. Of course these days, film festivals are held in literally every corner of the globe – in cities, towns, and rural destinations large and small. But there are really a few premiere festivals – Toronto, Sundance, South by Southwest, Spirit Awards, and most obviously Camerimage in Poland – that have the ability to “showcase” work that can change/make a DP’s career.

There’s always been a level of interest in cinematography at these A-tier festivals. But what I’ve noticed of late is just how integral showcasing new technology (the kind our camera teams are the first to employ) has become as well. Hand-in-glove with that trend has been a steady ascendancy of our craft, both reflecting and acknowledging cinematography as a unique and singular art form. Parallel with this recognition is the affordability (and availability) of gear; just about anyone can pick a camera and make a film. Do these two things work in opposition – the elevation of the art of cinematography and the widespread, inexpensive access to image-making tools?

I’ll answer that question with a recent example. The movie that won the Golden Frog at Camerimage this past November was Carol, shot by Ed Lachman, ASC. Carol featured the most beautifully rendered tones and feelings, while remaining integral to director Todd Haynes’ approach to storytelling. This film, culled from some 300, may well have been the one executed with the most simple and clear intent, as it was shot entirely on 16-mm celluloid. I walked out of the screening of Carol overwhelmed with admiration for the obvious creative relationship Haynes and Lachman share to create such startling work on a small, indie budget. The film was truly stunning.

The lesson here, relative to the so-called “democratization” of filmmaking tools that Francis Coppola talked about decades ago, is that it still takes the sensitivity, training and intuition of an Ed Lachman and his camera team to create work that could reach the highest plateau of ascendancy – the Oscars in February – no matter how simple the tool.

In fact, whether it’s a DP with years of experience (like Lachman) or a relatively new artist from our own Emerging Cinematographer Awards, the beauty drawn out by those who can tame and direct technology will usually be rewarded at those film festivals that truly prize the art and craft of visual storytelling.

Sure, anyone can pick up a digital camera and go make a movie. But only those who have mastered even the most available and inexpensive of camera and lighting systems can help create the kind of emotional experience I felt watching Carol at Camerimage, or that others will no doubt feel this month at Sundance, or later in the year in Austin and Toronto.

And that mastery, whether built quickly through instinct or finely honed over many years through trial and error, only occurs with the support and dedication of a great camera crew. What’s so wonderful about this enhanced awareness of cinematographers and our tools is that people are not just going to film festivals to see movies. Later this month the film universe slips off its axis for the 10 days of Sundance – a festival jam-packed with new and exciting technology that, last year, showcased nearly a dozen virtual-reality projects. New filmmakers go to Sundance to learn, experience, and, hopefully, meet the cinematographer who will shoot their next project, and that kind of elevated communal interaction can only benefit this Guild.

If anyone needs more proof of the ascendancy of cinematography, I would cite a lovely little film (also screened at Camerimage) called Meadowlands. It is the directing debut of Reed Morano, ASC (who also shot the movie). Every mention of this modestly budgeted indie feature – marketing blurbs, reviews, on-line blogs – often begins with something like “directed by Cinematographer Reed Morano,” putting Morano’s prodigious history of film festival hits she has shot front and center. Her recognition as a cinematographer is essential to Meadowlands’ artistry and storytelling.

And that’s exactly as it should be.

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