BEST OF FRIENDS
Who’s one of the cinematographer’s very best partners on the set? The visual effects supervisor, and I say that with some degree of authority having discovered, literally at the dawn of my career, just how symbiotic the relationship is between the camera department and those charged with overseeing visual effects.
In those very early days, I was fortunate to work on two of the most influential visual-effects films of all time, first as the second-unit cinematographer on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and then, later, shooting additional photography on Blade Runner.
On Close Encounters I learned from the master himself, Doug Trumbull. Working second unit allowed me to visit with every other department on the set, culminating in my being taught how to run a carbon arc light – a lost art to be sure, but one that felt so valuable in that time and place. More importantly, I also got to spend time with the industry’s only motion-control unit (first used by Trumbull on 2001: A Space Odyssey, and then later on Star Wars). It was an awesome beast: a huge rack of analog equipment that could record the moves our operator, Nick McLean, made on the camera, then play them back later for comping in visual effects. That movie’s stellar visual-effects team (which included Dennis Muren, ASC, Richard Yuricich, and Scott Squires, among others) was a training ground for my approach to shooting plates, stressing the discipline needed to fulfill the requirements for great visual effects.
Years later, when I was preparing to shoot a movie called Strange Brew (1983) – aka the most important Canadian movie ever made, according to my younger friends who had watched it every weekend in college – I asked the producer who would be our visual effects supervisor, and he said, “Well, you, of course!” My first instinct was to call mentors like Trumbull and Richard Edlund, ASC, who became my de facto partners on the set. As my career moved forward, I saw how the relationship between the cinematographer and the effects team grew ever more crucial. Shooting a Pepsi-Cola commercial for Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992), the client asked me to go into the computer bay and work with the VFX compositor to show him how to light this bottle of soda-pop! He welcomed my input on how objects are lit in the real world.
More than a decade later, as digital animation bloomed, I shot Stuart Little 2 (2002) and saw how this partnership benefited both sides of the filmmaking aisle. Exploring the mechanics of how feathers and fur would be represented in digital compositing was a true learning experience. What was needed from me, the cinematographer, in the way of shading, shadows, and backlighting that could help separate a four-inch-tall character? The visual effects team from Sony Imageworks, led by VFX supervisor Jerome Chen, created a true collaboration, and on every movie since I have sought out the VFX supervisor first and foremost – the relationship feels so natural they should (and in a more perfect world would) be a part of this union.
A lifetime in moviemaking leads me to this sanguine little piece of advice: make friends with the visual effects supervisor as soon as you get on the project. He or she is not the enemy. In fact, this person is often your very best friend and will help determine how to accomplish your job better than you ever imagined.
Steven Poster, ASC
International Cinematographers Guild
IATSE Local 600