Indulge me some very personal ruminations this month about two people who recently passed away, both of whom helped to define the cinematographer I was to become and the man (and artist) I am today.
The first, George Jones, the legendary country singer, never even knew who I was, but he was important to me nonetheless. I was still in college at the Los Angeles Art Center College of Design, and home for the summer, mostly just hanging out at various camera rental houses and reading American Cinematographer cover to cover.
Late one night I got a call from Ron Pitts, the rental manager at Beherand’s Camera, who said: “Kid, I know you want to get into the cinematography business. Are you available tomorrow?” He asked if I knew how to load an Éclair NPR, which I had never seen, and then, over the phone, gave me instructions on how to load one of the most difficult 16-mm magazines ever invented.
Ron said to be at Midwest Studio, in the northern suburbs, at 6 a.m. I would be the camera assistant for three operators shooting a half-hour pilot for a country and western music show with the Jones Boys. When I walked onto a replica Paramount stage, at dawn the next morning for my first-ever industry job, each operator handed me three magazines, and said, “There’s the darkroom. Go load.”
These were co-axial mags that only the French could make so tough to load. It took me an hour just to get the first one set, and then I figured out I had loaded it emulsion side in! Thank goodness (because of my stills background) I knew the difference and finally got them correct. Having worked little bit in stagecraft as a teenager, I then proceeded to help paint, put up lights, and stage two-hundred folding chairs, before we brought in the audience and shot the Jones Boys (singing two numbers) from a few different set-ups for coverage.
We started breaking everything down at midnight, and finished at sunrise with nothing more than a few runs to McDonalds to sustain us. Twenty-four hours had elapsed with no breaks. As I was walking out the door, the producer said, “Kid, you were so great! I’m going to pay you twice what I was going to when you came in. Here’s a check for $50 bucks.” (The check bounced, thus my first lesson on the importance of unions.)
Mike Grey was a partner in a boutique commercial production company in Chicago named Film Group, which specialized in shooting cinéma vérité commercials, when he gave me my first job as a cinematographer. Mike started in business, moved to advertising and eventually filmmaking. He was further politicized during the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention and made several important films, including American Revolution II (1969) and The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971). Mike went on to write and produce essential TV shows and features, like The China Syndrome. He became an investigative journalist, writing books like The Death Game: Capital Punishment and the Luck of the Draw (2003), about this nation’s death penalty.
I was looking for a job as a camera assistant when I showed Mike and his partner, iconic documentary cinematographer Mike Shea, a film I had shot in college. Afterwards, they said: “You know how to light.” And I said, “Well, I’ve been a photographer since I was 12, and I studied at Art Center.” “Great. We’ll hire you as a cameraman.” One week later I was shooting my first national spot for Kellogg/Leo Burnett.
George Jones never knew I existed, yet working his live show taught me that “where there’s a will, there’s probably a way.” I also learned the value of making a deal upfront and always having a Union at your back. I can’t even count all the lessons I learned from Mike Grey, whose passion for honesty and strength of character was second to none in this industry. Perhaps the most important thing Mike gave me is the knowledge that the integrity you bring to your work is even more important than the compensation.
Two lives passing that couldn’t be farther apart, yet both left indelible marks that, to this day, inspire me to be a more complete artist and human being.
Steven Poster, ASC
International Cinematographers Guild
IATSE Local 600