Issue: Issue Winter 1999/2000

Visual Perspectives: The American Society of Cinematographers

ASC, or The American Society of Cinematographers is the oldest continuously operation motion picture society in the world, formed in 1919 by two early cinema camera clubs. The charter was, "to advance the art of cinematography through artistry and technological progress, exchange ideas, and cement relationships among cinematographers." William S. Hart and Mary Pickford first put the letters "ASC" after a cinematographer's name on screen, and through 80 years, 425 members have earned that glory.

Since 1936, the society has been located in a splendid 1903 Mission Revival House--the second oldest house in Hollywood, once occupied by silent screen star Conrad Tearle--on a quiet side street above Hollywood Boulevard hubbub. A best-kept secret even locals are unaware of, it's open daily to the public and at its annual February Open House.

And what has gone on behind those wrought iron gates! A walk through the interior gives a hint of its history: All domed ceilings, stately pillars, and hardwood floors. Throughout the house, vintage cameras on tripods dating from the 20's stand ready to shoot Mary Pickford or Rudolph Valentino. On walls in the bar, library and meeting rooms are pictures of early filmmakers like Erich Von Stroheim and D.W. Griffith at work. Glass cases display antique Technicolor three-strip cameras, Lumieri-Brothers hand-cranked cameras, and even 3-D glasses.

History has been (and is still being) made here. Those who have walked through its doors have contributed to such great films as "King Kong," "Gone with the Wine," "From Here to Eternity," "On the Waterfront," "A Farewell to Arms," "Bonnie and Clyde," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Apocalypse Now," "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "Schindler's List," "Dances with Wolves," "Legends of the Fall" (each of which has received an Academy Award for cinematography) and hundreds more.

Indeed, in over 70 years of Academy Awards, about 40 winning cinematographers (including world-famous names like Haskell Wexler, Conrad Hall, and James Wong Howe), have been ASC members, as is Russell Carpenter, the 1007 winner for "Titanic."

So what exactly does a cinematographer--or "Director of Photography" do?

The late, legendary director Ernst Lubitsch ("The Shop Around the Corner" and "Heaven Can Wait") once observed," To make pictures, you must first of all know how to see drama through the eyes of a camera."

In the old days, the cinematographer actually operated the camera and lit the set. Today, they compose the scenes, creating a "look" and visual perspective, in collaboration with the director. "Contemporary cinematographers are like maestros who supervise a crew like a conductor leads an orchestra in interpreting a score," says cinema writer Bob Fisher. "Some people compare it to painting with light. Others say it is a language and that cinematographers are actually writing with light."

How this happens is part of the magic. You may not be aware of the craft behind it, but you react to the stunning shift from sepia-toned, tornado-torn Kansas to the dazzling luminosity of Oz in "The Wizard of Oz," or the shadowy blacks and grays in sultry film noir classics like "The Big Sleep" or "The Maltese Falcon." Think of how the soft-focus close-ups of Loretta Young or Katherine Hepburn enhanced the great 1940's romances. Or of how slow motion shots, as in Jake LaMotta's fight scenes in "Raging Bull," heighten tension by dramatically extending the scene. Conversely, leisurely long shots of vast expanses in films like "The English Patient," or "Out of Africa," convey distance of time and space.

Of course, art is often in the eyes of the beholder. Writer George Turner, in the 80th Anniversary special of American Cinematographer magazine, relays how audiences in 1941 were put off by Gregg Toland's arty, "expressionistic" photography for Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane." Today, the film's style is part of mainstream filmmaking. Toland (a master, who also filmed "The Little Foxes," "The Best Years of Our Lives," and "The Grapes of Wrath") was ahead of his time.

How (and whether) new technology affects the art of filmmaking is just one of the exchanges of ideas at ASC monthly meetings where creative and sometimes technical issues are discussed. Since the 60's, ASC membership, 225 strong, includes TV feature film cinematographers and special effect practitioners).

"You go through your career learning lessons about how you add or reduce light," says Victor Kemper, ASC's President, (whose credits include "Dog Day Afternoon," "And Justice For All", and "And Justice For All", and "The Candidate"). "But there is also something innate, which whispers in your ear and tells you to move the camera a foot in a different direction, or to shield a face partially in shadows--to set the tone--and an ordinary scene becomes great. And you have to be able to do it consistently, scene after scene, picture after picture."

One thing is certain: films with great cinematic moments will continue to be made, their impact in no small part due to the art and craft of ASC cinematographers. Maybe even from an idea sparked at the ASC clubhouse.