“One World”

I woke up this morning to a pair of email messages that I wanted to share.

The first was from a retired ICG member, Bernie Dresner, who, writing to me in his 97th year, recounted going to a Local 644 executive board meeting (many years ago) and reporting back to the committee about a New York City lab, where he had seen a Bolex camera mounted in front of a cathode ray tube to record images.

“When I explained how I felt about the future [of this device], one of the members spoke up and said [in Brooklyn phonetics, Bernie writes]: ‘Dun’t worry abaht it! It goes troo a lens, don’t it? Well, den it belongs tuh us!”

I found that notion – that if it goes through a lens it belongs within the domain of cinematography – very timely. Because the next email I opened was from GoPro, urging me to see their recent Red Bull Stratos video, wherein daredevil Felix Baumgartner literally jumped from a space capsule from Earth’s lower atmosphere and dropped 23 miles to the ground, while a handful of GoPro 3s – mounted to his helmet, chest, legs, back, and parachute – captured his unbelievable ride.

Both of these email messages led me to a recent article in The New York Times Sunday Leisure Section (January 26, 2014) about the current state of photography. The author, Philip Gefter, writes that “photography is vastly different in these early years of the 21st Century, no longer the result of light exposed to film, nor necessarily lens based. As digital technology has all but replaced the chemical process, photography is now an increasingly shape-shifting medium.”

What a curious reality we find ourselves in: photography now comes in as many different forms as can be imagined, everything from an iPhone, GoPro or VistaVision camera shooting film, to imagery created entirely in a computer without the benefit of a lens or light. All of it constitutes photography.

This is best exemplified by the recent announcement that the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) has accepted a new member, Sharon Calahan, who enters with many years of credits as a director of photography without ever having touched a camera. Sharon’s groundbreaking work at Pixar includes Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo, A Bug’s Life, Ratatouille, and more.

I’ve known Sharon for many years and have visited her at Pixar; what she does is exactly what we do as cinematographers standing on a set with a camera, only within a computer. When Sharon talks about her work, it’s the same language that we use on the set – light and shadow, shape, movement, color and design. As the newest member of the ASC, Sharon is held in the same high esteem as any other cinematographer in that body, or the industry, regardless of the tools she uses.

Recently there has been a controversial discussion about splitting the Academy Award for Feature Cinematography in half – one award for films that include a large amount of CGI (computer generated imagery), and another for projects shot with traditional photography. The driver is the feeling among some that traditionally photographic films are being overlooked in favor of the tech-heavy fireworks associated with CG. Certainly new technology has wrought massive changes in our industry, but separating traditional cinematography from work that has been married to digital effects will only serve to marginalize traditional photography; I think it would be a grave mistake to go down that road.

That’s because cinematography needs to be celebrated as a holistic process regardless of the tools involved. From Bernie Dresner’s report about the early days of telecine, to GoPro’s astounding space free-fall video, to Sharon Calahan’s computer-based storytelling, it is, today, all within the domain of cinematography. The New York Times is correct in its statement that “photography in these early years of the 21st Century” has become an “increasingly shape-shifting medium.” But that reality hardly makes the work we do as artists and craftspeople any less important.

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