I get questions. Oh, I get questions ….
Sometimes they come from seemingly well-informed individuals who have worked in the business for a long time yet still don’t know anything about the ASC or what role the cinematographer plays in a motion-picture production. I’ll do my best to fill in the blanks.
For the record, the ASC is not a union. It is a professional, educational and fraternal group — and the oldest organization in the motion-picture industry. Our roots date back to 1919, when the Static Club of America (headquartered in Los Angeles) and the Cinema Camera Club (located in New York City) merged to form the entity we now know and love. The ASC is also an honorary group, with membership by invitation only to elite directors of photography who have consistently distinguished themselves. To give you an idea of the rare honor the ASC suffix reflects, understand that in the history of the medium, fewer than 800 individuals have been granted the right to use them.
We are based in Hollywood; our legendary Clubhouse, at the southeast corner of Franklin Avenue and Orange Drive, was built in 1903, and we have occupied it since 1937. We currently have about 300 active members. Our associate membership is made up of about 150 technologists, equipment suppliers and manufacturers, and representatives of related companies. Among our many efforts, we have published American Cinematographer magazine since 1920. We also publish the industry bible, the American Cinematographer Manual, currently in its 10th edition and available in print and digital formats. Each February for the past 27 years, we have celebrated the ASC Awards for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography, an event that attracts nearly 1,600 people.
Our motto is “Loyalty, Progress, Artistry,” but you might also add “Education” to that, because we have a great many student-related initiatives. Throughout the year, when ASC members are not shooting, we routinely participate in practical demonstrations and panel discussions. We also mentor students and lecture at schools around the world. This fall, we are introducing a series of master classes that will be taught by our most esteemed members; it promises to be the absolute best of its kind in the world.
In recognition of the radical changes the cinematographer has experienced over the past decade, our Technology Committee has become the leading voice in shaping the evolution and introduction of new technologies throughout the world. Without its influence, we would now most certainly be burdened with the most inferior imaging workflows.
It is proper that we consider ourselves artists-scientists, with a somewhat heavier emphasis on “artists.” As the director’s right hand, the cinematographer is the director’s closest collaborator during prep, throughout production, and then again in post,
when we supervise the film’s printing at the lab and/or its digital mastering. This work goes to the heart of every ASC member’s commitment.
What right do I have to claim that the cinematographer is the director’s closest collaborator? It’s simple. As film is a visual art, the cinematographer is the only individual privy to the project’s entire visual plan. The cinematographer is also the person charged with transforming the director’s interpretation of the story from something written or verbal (and often quite ephemeral) into physical reality. And don’t forget that ours is the most immediate of the arts and crafts that make up a film. The critical nature of what we do is summed up in blunt form: If there’s no light, there’s no show.
But all that aside, perhaps the most acutely defining trait we’ve nurtured for over 94 years is the passion we have for the job. It’s something we cherish and guard preciously, and I believe it sets us apart from most everyone else.
And it is exactly this ethic that we need to bring with greater vigor to the community. Society has changed, as have movies and television. But the nature of our work and the motivations that drive us to do it have not. Without our vigilance, a magnificent art form could easily be lost forever. If you think something better will come along to fill the void, you’re wrong.
Of course, passion will still exist. Can it be manufactured on demand? I don’t think so. But don’t worry, we’re working on that, too.