At the risk of repeating last month’s introduction, I’d like to start with another famous quote that urges us all to “go confidently in the direction of [our] dreams; live the life [we] have imagined.” Great stuff, to be sure. Yet in the auditorium where I recently heard it were 100 young filmmakers. When the speaker asked if anyone knew who Henry David Thoreau was, not a single hand was raised.
It was shocking to me that no one there had heard of one of America’s greatest thinkers and poets, nor the movement Thoreau is associated with – transcendentalism – and its essential contribution to freedom of thought and creativity.
Now, I’m not saying every filmmaker needs to be a literary scholar. But certainly a basic thirst and desire for knowledge of some of what came before can only help us – as artists and craftspeople – in the process of what we are creating.
In fact, without knowledge or context, what may pass for originality is really duplication (like my starting this column with someone else’s words). Think of what is missed when we set off to work for directors and producers who have this kind of knowledge, and we are lacking. I believe it’s vital to be aware of the world around us, to be able to see what’s happening and translate that into our everyday working lives.
This month’s Emerging Cinematographer Awards are a great example. The honorees’ work (and the many submissions) all contained many more literary references than one might expect. That’s a good sign! These young cinematographers – be they assistants, operators, DITs, still photographers or publicists – have some understanding of the world around them. When I lecture at schools and talk to film students, I always ask how many are also taking classes in literature, philosophy, economics, psychology and political science, and, inevitably, very few are, which I think is a huge mistake.
We need to be as well-rounded as possible to maintain the superiority and quality of our art and craft. And that’s not an old-fashioned idea. Just because it was missed in school doesn’t preclude our seeking out that education now. Really, there’s no better time than at the dawn of one’s career to explore poets like Thoreau, or to listen to classical music, or (how many of us do this?) take the time watch old movies. History knows no limits for inspiration if we make the effort to seek it out.
I have often described this as a very “disruptive period” for our industry. There are forces trying to diminish the historical authority we hold over the image-making process; there are even forces out there trying to eliminate our jobs. I think it’s important we show such forces that we are not only skilled in the technical aspect of filmmaking, but also creative and artistic storytellers in our own right, no matter our classification or job. Depth and fullness of being command respect on a set or on location (and I’m not just talking about lingering at the craft services table).
Here’s something else Thoreau said: “It’s not what you look at that matters but what you see.” So, in honor of this month’s Emerging Cinematographer Awards (our 17th annual edition!) I would urge everyone to take the time to weave dreams well beyond the places you can reach with a viewfinder. Because putting technology at the service of imagination is what we’re all about.
Steven Poster, ASC
International Cinematographers Guild
IATSE Local 600