“Talking Story”

About a week ago I visited the set of a young cinematographer’s first feature film. What I saw was a hard-working, happy crew, and a director, a producer and department heads all working in seamless unison. I was asked to sit with the director and executive producer in video village while this young DP was setting up and executing a shot. Afterward, the producer turned to me and said: “That camera is fantastic! It makes such great images.” I turned to him and said: “No. Your director of photography is the one who makes great images. That camera is just a tool.”

This story is yet another example of our work – as cinematographers, operators, assistants, DITs and publicists – being devalued for a number of reasons. Not the least of which is the advent of incredible digital technology and tools that we Guild members now use to make images in ways that never existed before. These tools are readily accessible to nearly every level of filmmaker, and they’re not that expensive. Everyone carries something in his or her pocket that can make “good pictures.” In fact, we’re in the midst of an era in which more images are being captured, every moment of every day, than at any point in the history of humankind, let alone the history of filmed entertainment.

Given that reality, it’s not difficult to understand the sentiments of that producer, who (perhaps innocently) attributed quality image making to the tools our camera teams employ, rather than to the eyes, ears, hands and arms of the human beings that so expertly guide those tools. Of course our value would be questioned in a world that often confuses technology for craft, and cameras for creative vision.

What’s not being considered in the above story, and many others like them, is the enormous burden of responsibility Local 600 members carry to make consistently great images with the sole purpose of telling a story. That’s a far more difficult and hard-to-quantify set of characteristics than a camera that just makes pretty images.

We should never allow anyone to devalue our work. And we should never be intimidated by the notion that everyone has some type of camera in his or her hands these days, regardless of their level of experience or craftsmanship. What we do is a difficult craft (and an even more difficult art form) to deliver day in and day out with such a superb level of reliability and efficiency.

Before the digital era, we Guild members were considered magicians on a grand scale. These days, cinematographers and their camera teams are usually creating close-up magic: “Watch my hands. I’ll deliver amazing images right before your eyes.”

A prime example was a recent screening of Gravity, which opens with the best 16 minutes of cinema audiences have encountered in many years. That 16-minute-long shot, and the contemporary masterpiece of digital filmmaking that followed, came from a director, Alfonso Cuarón, who innately understands our value as image-makers. He gave his longtime cinematographer, Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, the creative freedom and respect to perform the sleight-of-hand magic that helps make Gravity so memorable.

And that, my friends, is a story that never gets old in the telling.

Fraternally,

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