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ICG president Steven Poster on cinematographers in a digital universe

ScreenTech talks to Steven Poster about the cinematographer’s place in a new digital landscape.

Steven Poster, ASC is president of the International Cinematographer’s Guild (ICG), Local 600 and has shot a wide variety of film and tv, including Donnie Darko, Roswell and Someone To Watch Over Me. He also serves on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Nicholl Fellowships Committee and on the board of Craft in America. He has also been President of the American Society of Cinematographers.

ScreenTech: Has the shift from film to fully digital production made the cinematographer’s job more challenging? Has it been difficult to adjust to?

Steven Poster: In a lot of respects, the cinematographer’s job hasn’t changed at all.  First of all, I am not nostalgic for film personally – yes, I do miss my Kodachrome - but a lot of people are. Everybody I know has made the digital transition handily without a problem. But of course, there is a lot of nostalgia for film. Film is a very elegant solution to doing this work. And the idea that it’s become easier or cheaper or faster is a complete falsehood. That’s something that people on all sides are realising at this point.

It is a more complex system. But it does give us a certain amount of flexibility that didn’t exist before. I think there are great advantages and that there is little downside, other than the loss of that romance of film, which was lovely. It was a lovely, simple, relatively easy solution for anybody who had the craft and had the art. We’ve been doing it for 100 years: you put the film in the camera, you push the button, you take the film out of the camera and you go home.

ST: And no one was trying to get you to upgrade to a new type of film every year.

SP: The image control that we had was the choice of lenses, the choice of film, the choice of filtration and the laboratory techniques. Those four elements could create millions of different looks. The control we had was that we understood the process very thoroughly. It was in our veins, you know. Now, each camera is equivalent to a new emulsion. Filters are still filters and still do the same work, and in fact are more important today than they ever were. Lenses are still a major choice in how we record the images. And the equivalent to laboratory technique is the way we grade the material.

The difference between grading now and in the old days is that grading used to happen in the laboratory, now it’s on set. I had an experience just this summer where I was shooting a TV pilot with the Canon C300. Tiffen had made me a combination filter that was quite elegant, with a combination Pro-Mist and Glimmerglass. It had a lovely, glowy, pearlescent look. And I also had a full DaVinci Resolve system on the set, where I would go and colour the master after the first take, or in between the first and second takes, or even in the rehearsal take with the stand-ins, and create the look of that scene. It took no time at all, it was very fast. And the magic did not disappear. The magic was still there. People would come over and see what we were doing and they would get this sense of magic immediately, as opposed to having to wait for dailies from the lab. It was a very exciting way to work.

The Canon cameras were brilliant. One of the great advantages we have now with these cameras is that we can shoot at a much higher exposure index, so there’s much more sensitivity with a lot less noise. Except for day exteriors, I was shooting at 3200 ISO, and that gave me a whole new life in lighting. So am I sad that we don’t have film any more? To have that onset control of the look that will flow all the way through to the final was very exciting.

ST: How have digital workflows been a challenge to how the set operates?

SP: In America, a number of years ago when digital projection was starting up, a consortium the studios and other organisations put together a group to study what was the best way to deliver motion pictures to theatres and project and create standards and practices. It was called Digital Cinema Initiative. Everybody got together and worked on it and did the best work they could for the industry. Now I’m calling for another consortium to work together to develop processes for getting the files from the set into the editing room and colouring and protecting and cloning.

We don’t want to change anyone’s workflow. There are millions of workflows and everyone has their own preference. In fact, my friend Leon Silverman, Disney’s VP in charge of digital strategy, says “workflows are like snowflakes - no two are alike and the moment they hit the ground, they disappear”. But we need to come together as an industry to determine what minimally are the best practices to ensure that the material is going to be handled safely and properly and that we prevent catastrophic data loss and get the material from the set into the editing room properly. And there are a number of studios that are interested in coming together and doing it.

The new digital workflows and changes onset have been a major transition. I feel for these post production companies that are scrambling to find a way to stay alive. Technology developers – the engineers, the scientists, the companies that manufacture – have developed cameras and systems so rapidly that these traditional laboratories and post production facilities almost have nowhere to go to keep their business.

We were at a Hollywood Post Alliance luncheon and the head of the Hollywood Post Alliance said “look around you, next year 40% of the businesses in this room will have disappeared”. It’s frightening. And that’s not for any other reason than that there have been technologies that are developed that have taken over that work and is all now done on the set. So the companies are scrambling to find a way to keep a piece of that business and it’s hard. There has been a lot of trying to define what the crew looks like, and who does what where, and the Cinematographer’s Guild has been working with this very carefully for a long time.

ST: What has the Guild done to help cinematographers adapt to changing technology?

SP: One of the most important things the Guild has done is training. In fact, the minute file-based recording came around we developed a training programme for our loaders. And we developed our own best safety practices. We trained over 700 people across the country to do this kind of work, all with the intent of training people how to prevent catastrophic data loss. In the early days, producers would try to get some kid out of college with a Mac and they would end up being the ones handling the most important material of the show, and there were so many instances of lost or damaged material, that it became almost a joke. So we developed, and we trained, and we came up with the methodology of handling this digital material early on and it gave our members a leg up in terms of what the industry really needed. I’m very proud of that.

ST: What is the biggest challenge that the industry is facing now? Is it the economy?

SP: Well, of course it’s the economy. I think it’s a wonderful time for cinematography. I think the choices we have now in terms of technology and processes are just making our jobs that much more exciting. And we’re living in a time where there is a voracious appetite for media, so there is a tremendous amount of work out there. It’s just not the same work as it was in the old studio system. And that’s something that people have to adapt to.

I think we’re seeing this new worldwide market afford all the young people coming into this business – and there’s a lot of them – the opportunity to find ways of making a living. Maybe the high-end, wonderful, tent pole experience with huge crews and great facilities are fewer and farther between, but if you’re willing to work within the constraints of lower budgets, there are some wonderful scripts and stories to be told. I think we’re in a very exciting time.

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