During the late 1990s and the early part of this century, William A. Fraker, ASC, BSC, one of our organization’s great legends, would hold court at the Clubhouse and regale us younger members with stories about what he called “the great days of Hollywood.” Occasionally, he would interrupt his tales of a time we could barely conceive of with amusing snippets of editorial observation. One of those comments has stayed with me to this day: “I can’t believe I’ve spent my entire working life as an independent contractor.” Considering that he was referencing a period of more than 50 years, I could only marvel at the feat. Most of us have followed the exact same career trajectory.
But Billy was revealing something deeper with his remark, a much more profound sentiment beyond a bemused nod to the passage of time. Perhaps it was his tone of voice or the expression on his face, but I always interpreted it as a hint of gratitude.
Let’s face it: Sincere expressions of gratitude in the everyday world have become as difficult to find as a mainstream journalist without an agenda, and in the motion-picture industry, such displays are essentially nonexistent. Sure, you can point to the teary theatrics we see at the podium at many awards ceremonies each year, but most of those are so transparent they barely warrant a second look. What I’m referring to is a genuine, heartfelt expression of appreciation that is neither required nor expected. To deliver this most fully, an individual must not only be self-aware, but also self-possessed, which rules out most of the denizens of Hollywood.
It also means looking beyond the immediate moment and acknowledging the fact that, to quote another of Billy’s pet phrases, “It ain’t all about you, baby.” This must surely be the most unnerving string of words uttered in the history of the industry, the equivalent of verbal garlic to so many of the vampires we encounter in our work lives. You’ve seen it plenty of times. When someone starts to display a sense of entitlement, resentment is the natural response. None of that contributes to a healthy collaborative atmosphere.
As freelancers, we know the balance between boom and bust is a tenuous one, subject to powers and circumstances that are often mysterious and almost always beyond our control. At once exhilarating and infuriating, those influences are never called more clearly to mind than when I attend an event at the ASC Clubhouse. Invariably, a moment comes when I look around and take note of the other members present. What an amazing group! All of them are brilliant, enormously talented, the elite of their field. A few are industry giants, some are current hot shots, and others fill out the middle of the pack. And, of course, there are a few stragglers. A great deal of luck is needed to sustain a career in our business, and I suspect every one of us knows it. Perhaps that explains the humility commonly witnessed in that room. In ways both subtle and overt, we acknowledge that we’re fortunate to have come this far and are able to do what we do. (This, by the way, is not something unique to ASC members. I’ve noticed it among cinematographers of every stripe and from every corner of the world.)
Certainly, there are more things to be grateful for in life than the ability to work as a cinematographer. Indeed, it’s downright idiotic not to be thankful for a healthy day in a world in which an errant microbe can kill you. But there exists a different tack. Rather than getting caught up in the mechanics or the aesthetics of what we do, why not concentrate more on the relationships we forge and the things we learn about ourselves while on the job? That way, as blessed as we are, gratitude can be the only response.