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Robin Hood
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up



A few months ago, a firestorm of controversy erupted as a result of Avatar’s cinematography win (for Mauro Fiore, ASC) at the Academy Awards. Almost overnight, it seemed cinematographers and cinematography societies all over the world were calling for some voice of reason as to what was in store for the future of “traditional” cinematography, and what our place was in the emerging virtual-production world. 

I researched some trade periodicals dating as far back as the 1920s to get a sense of how the industry reacted to major changes in the way we practice our craft. What I found were some colorful comments that indicated how the onslaught of new technology was worrying devotees of cinematography: “Vulgar!” “Completely lacking in artistic relevance!” “Does not deserve to be considered cinematography!” “The death of true artistry!” “Technology run amok!” These words were used to describe such horrifying events as the birth of the sound motion picture, the introduction of three-strip Technicolor, television broadcasting, widescreen formats and 3-D filmmaking. It was amusing to see how the same words or sentiments were recycled and repurposed in response to every major technological shift that had occurred in our profession since the dawn of the motion picture.  

I think there’s a kind of chaos of perception at work in these shifts, a chaos born from the belief that because a technology is capable of expediting an artistic vision with more clarity and precision than was previously possible, that technology must inherently be a threat to the human elements of collaboration and artistry. As we’ve seen with all of the innovations I mentioned, the nature of how we use these tools might change, but the spirit of collaboration and creativity is actually enhanced in the process. Above all, the artistry must drive the technology. 

In the newly refurbished ASC Clubhouse, there is a plaque with some illuminating words about our craft from none other than Cecil B. DeMille. I think they bear repeating here. (Please note that “he” and “his” are used as universal pronouns and are not intended to exclude women from the ranks.) The missive is entitled “He Is A True Artist”: 

“Amid the strange ingredients of Hollywood — a world typified by the human swarm and the artistic abstraction — there is a figure unknown to the chants of promoters and glorifiers. His hand has rarely held the scepter of public acclaim, his brow is not crowned with the envied olive leaf which so often settles upon the lordly producer and queens of beauty. This figure, a giant in his industry, is the cameraman — the sine qua non of a profession which often boasts that no one in its ranks is indispensable. No one, I say, save the cameraman. 

I believe this is why: 

He is the custodian of the heart of filmmaking as the writers are of its soul …  

His tool is a box with a glass window, lifeless until he breathes into it his creative spirit and injects into its steel veins the plasma of his imagination …  

The product of his camera, and therefore of his magic, means many things to many persons — fulfillment of an idea, an ambition ... realization of dreams …  

He is the judge who applies the laws of dramatic effect in complete coordination and fellowship with the director who interprets those laws …  

Light, composition, treatment are his instruments of power, which he wields with intelligence and sensitiveness to bring to full bloom the meaning of his art … 

His versatile management of an intricate mechanism yields astonishing results in mood, emotion, dramatic effect … 

A slanting shadow becomes a shattering portent of doom … 

A lifeless chair instills the feeling of infinite sorrow … 

A dead wall awakens a foreboding of plunging terror … 

A flash of a man’s face rises to the grandeur of drama, inspiring and ennobling … 

Before his wizardry, wrinkles fade from the faces of Hollywood’s ageless, imperishable beauties 

… chins take on lovely contours 

… years melt away …. 

Yes, the technique of the cameraman is the technique of artistic vivisection that lays bare the inner workings of our profession. If art can be said to be the expression of beauty in form, color, sound, shape or movement, then it must be said that same art is the art of the cameraman — expressed in the boundless reaches of his imagination. 

For his patience and singleness of purpose in a most arduous work, he is eminently deserving of that which is justly said of few men: ‘He is a true artist.’”

 

 

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