Heart Strings

I’d say the majority of cinematographers that I know began their careers, indeed cut their teeth, shooting some form of non-fiction – news, vérité, documentary features – and I’ve been no exception. This is no small praise, given that the non-fiction format provides a solid base for visual storytelling; it demands brevity and economy of information, and a photographic approach that is always in the service of the narrative.

Simply put, non-fiction is a fantastic place to start a career because the genre bleeds out professional dishonesty, long-windedness and ego – if you are not visually forthcoming and concise with the storytelling, it will never reach the same emotional depths unfurling before your camera. The margin for error is slim to non-existent: I remember being on a black-history documentary for Chicago’s Board of Education early in my career. I arrived at the South Side building with my crew before the producer or director, knocked blithely on the door, and when the peephole opened, announced that I was there “to shoot Elijah Muhammad!” It took two hours of nervous discussion before the leader of the Nation of Islam and his inner circle were convinced we meant no harm.

I really have to give a huge round of applause to the non-fiction work being done today, some of it the best we have ever seen in cinema history. Part of that is due to consumer demand, as we have a global market with a voracious appetite for information; part is due to advances in camera, lighting and support technology that now allow documentarians to emulate their narrative cousins – higher resolution camera sensors with phenomenal dynamic range and low-light capabilities arriving in the smallest and lightest of form factors – like never before.

But, truthfully, the work is so good because of all of you. I’m speaking directly to those members of Local 600 dedicated to expanding non-fiction in all its many faces – like reality TV, which is often criticized for its lack of union presence (getting better each season), but has provided a home for new and veteran Guild members whose careers are built around real-life storytelling.

By the way, working in non-fiction – at the beginning of, end of, or throughout an entire career – is a risky and brave road to travel. Support crews are smaller, the hours and location work would make even the most die-hard feature or episodic crew give pause, and, of course, the acclaim and notice of the genre is (unfairly in my opinion) rarely given the same due come awards season. And then, of course, there’s the lack of money.

So why do we (and I include myself, having recently shot a series of non-fiction pieces around the world of tap dancing, and about to start, in 2013, a major documentary on the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, which happens every four years) do it when the pay is tough, the travel brutal, and it’s the rare exhibition chain excited to show the visual splendor of a documentary on the big screen?

Simply because images that come from the heart directly enter the heart of audiences; the rewards are so great there is nothing to compare.


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

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