“Inversion Layer”

Things are not as they seem. And because our industry is constantly changing, things are never as they seem, especially in this new digital age.

The role of the director of photography had stayed fairly consistent for generations, and yet we see that changing for a number of reasons, even though the DP’s role – as a loyal partner with the director – demands the consistency we’ve had for generations.

The first kink in the chain has been a move, hastened by the transition to digital capture, to value technology over artistic skill and experience. That became evident to me when I started getting calls from my agent asking if I had “ever shot with a Red camera, because the producer wants to shoot with a Red.” When the choice of what a project will be shot on is made before the director and his or her DP are allowed to weigh in on the artistic merits of any given format, you know things are really upside-down.

This kind of inversion layer impacts the entire camera department and particularly requires clarification of the role of the director of photography, whose job it is to visually interpret the director’s concept of the script and the producer’s budgetary and scheduling needs. It’s a job of massive importance in terms of setting a correct workflow, and one that should begin early in the pre-production process.

Even before digital capture became common, I’d request workflow meetings in advance of production. For example, on Southland Tales (shot in 2006 on film) I knew we would do a digital finish and wanted to make sure everyone knew what that meant. So I asked for a meeting that not only included the director and producer, but the editor, the post-supervisor, the VFX supervisor, the postproduction facility and even a representative of the camera manufacturer. Having all of us in the same room before shooting started resulted in an effective, consistent and informed workflow.

With the advent of more intricate technologies over the years, those meetings should have become even more essential, and to some degree they have. But as this inversion layer I’ve spoken about has become more prevalent, workflow discussions have often become overwhelmed by “other voices,” whose interests are not always aligned with a show’s prime creative forces – director, DP, editor, production designer, VFX super, etc.

Our Guild cinematographers have a full understanding of new digital technologies, but that’s not their most important contribution. They lead a loyal and knowledgeable crew of camera assistants, DITs, and digital loaders, who understand evolving technologies as well as anyone in the industry. And DPs rely heavily on this well-assembled team to help them visually interpret the director’s vision and deliver material in a safe, efficient and controlled manner. Plain and simple, those outside voices who have said, “Don’t worry about any of that, we can take care of it!” are undermining the role of the director of photography. Without the DP’s seasoned eye to control the image – from visualization to color correction – the inversion layer gets even thicker, resulting in a murky haze that threatens the visual integrity of the project.

You want to ensure that work really flows in this industry? Then rely on Local 600 crews to do it faster, cheaper and better than anyone else. With the advent of computing power and software, and a technical knowledge base second to none, the clouds will remain high up in the sky (or on some server), not hovering darkly over the set.

Fraternally,

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