Talk To Me

As cinematographers we often have to talk about our work as much as we have to execute it. These days, it seems, verbal skills for our camera team members are as important as the technical and artistic skills we so love to put into practice.

The reasons are obvious: the magic of cinematography is more on the surface than in the past, when all we had was a light meter and our eyes, and no one saw the results of our efforts until the next day. Not only can people comment on what we do on-set (because of all the image monitoring), but they can walk into a big box store, buy a camera, and come out, at least in appearance, as a cinematographer.

I learned a valuable lesson in high school that speaks to this point.

I was working as a house-to-house portrait shooter — 20 different houses per day, three pictures of each member of the family and three shots of the group. It was in, out, and then on to the next house in a very short amount of time. We used a 2¼-inch, twin-lens Rolleiflex that took 120 roll film, and featured an internal attachment that allowed the camera to shoot 35mm film. When I asked the owner why we didn’t just use 35mm cameras, he said, “Everybody has a 35mm camera and they all think they can do it, but this looks much more professional!”

“Aha!” I thought. Appearance, vis-à-vis technology, is no substitute for skill and experience.

And that lesson feels every bit as true today as it was then.

Working in camera, we all need be able to verbally describe what we propose to do, and then, after the fact, what it is we’ve done. And it doesn’t stop on the set. In interviews and trade outlets like this one, we’re asked about the techniques used on past projects; we seek out panels at conferences and trade shows to talk up the art of cinematography, and can often spend as much time talking about what we do as actually doing it!

Years ago, I taught a class in cinematography at an L.A.-area college. The only assignment I gave my students was to see a film every week, and write up a one-page description about the cinematography. I didn’t nitpick the grammar, punctuation or presentation: I simply wanted them to convey in words what they had seen with their eyes. And nearly all of them refused to do it! They insisted a cinematography class had nothing to do with writing papers — so I subsequently flunked all but two of my students. (And I never taught at that school again.)

The lessons we can apply from both of those examples are that Local 600 crews must be equipped to explain what it is we do in order to retain the mastery of our art form. To make others understand and describe our world are the first steps toward making this entire industry realize that you can’t just buy a camera and look like a cinematographer.


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

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