This column marks my first appearance here since the conclusion of my last term as president in June of 2005. To once again occupy this position is truly humbling, and I offer profound gratitude to the ASC Board of Governors for choosing to elect me. I’d also like to express appreciation to my immediate predecessor, Stephen Lighthill, ASC. No one in a leadership post of an organization like ours gets a free ride. He provided steady guidance and engineered some magnificent results in what I know can sometimes be a difficult, thankless job. For that, I salute him.
Looking back over columns I wrote during my previous go-round, I’m only a little chagrined at my occasionally prickly tone regarding the decisive arrival of digital technologies. I even recall hearing the word “curmudgeon” tossed my way, which was funny, because my general outlook fits anything but that description. What I was intent upon doing was taking digital manufacturers to task for the claims they were making about their equipment, some of which were quite outlandish, if you recall. I also tried to represent the cinematographer’s point of view in a way that still holds true today: the belief that a new product must not just measure up to what it’s replacing, but in fact exceed it by helping us do our jobs more creatively and efficiently. I assure you that this was not always the case during the first crest of the new wave, and anyone who took offense at my presentation probably deserved it.
Calling on the grace provided by nearly a decade’s worth of hindsight, it’s amazing to consider how much those same technologies have improved. Though the consensus remains that the film look is the gold standard of motion imaging, even today’s mid-market digital cameras, when properly deployed, deliver results that are every bit equal and sometimes superior to photochemical technology. (Bless film’s heart for hanging on, if only by the width of a sprocket hole.) Certainly, there are areas of contention. The across-the-board standardization we took for granted during film’s dominance is apparently gone forever. Everything we use seems to change three times a year. And in the postproduction arena, where it has never been more important for cinematographers to exercise control, there exist as many workflow options as there are moves on a chessboard. Nonetheless, the ridiculous arguments over the benefits of one medium vs. another have subsided, and we’ve learned that our fears and apprehensions concerning “the new” were unfounded. We have not only accepted the inevitability of a future that was thrust upon us much too quickly, we are also instigating new trends and forging new paths. Our job responsibilities have grown exponentially … and we have grown with them.
Yet, we must still keep the essential truth alive: technology is just a tool. Absent the hand of an artist — who, even in the most mundane situation, acts from some internal impulse, if not inspiration — all mechanical advancements are worthless. ASC legend Haskell Wexler takes this a step further by declaring that our tools are the least important part of our work: “It’s really about the people you’re involved with and the effort you make together, the relationships you create. It’s learning about yourself and experiencing things and growing as a human being.” For anyone who has been around the track a few times, Haskell’s observation is a refreshing antidote to what can sometimes be a cold or heartless business. Endorsing what he said is easy; embracing it and putting it into action represents something else entirely. If cinematographers are to maintain any sort of relevance in the future, we’re all going to have to make an effort well beyond the realm of technology. Haskell is a wise man, and we’d do well to listen to him.
Now, that’s not very curmudgeonly, is it?