In the early days of cinematography — when black-and-white movies reigned — a thorny problem developed that threatened the quality of the budding art form. It was called “static.”
Indeed, when film ran through the hand-cranked cameras, static electrical charges were created. The static attracted foreign particles that stuck to the emulsions, causing parts of the film not to be exposed. In short, the pictures looked dirty.
A group of cameramen met to resolve the dilemma and find a way to create better images. Thus, in 1913, in Los Angeles, was born The Static Club of America.
Meanwhile, on the other coast, in New York, another group of cameramen formed their own fraternity, The Cinema Camera Club.
Ultimately, neither club survived, but both groups served as the foundation for the American Society of Cinematographers.
Thus, the ASC was founded in 1919 — only 30 years after Thomas Edison began experimenting with making movies at the Black Maria Studio in New Jersey, and only 25 years after the first “peepshow parlor” opened at the Chicago Exposition.
Their avowed purposes were to advance motion pictures as an art form by exchanging ideas and technological information, as well as to cement a closer relationship among cinematographers. ASC’s motto is “Loyalty, Progress and Artistry,” which still sums up the aims of the world’s oldest continuously operating motion picture society.
“It was a different ballgame entirely,” Stanley Cortez, an ASC member since 1934, recalls of those early years.
“They did not know what they had. They weren’t aware that this could be a form of art that could influence the entire world,” says Cortez, who worked on such classics as “The Magnificent Ambersons,””Night of the Hunter” and “The Three Faces of Eve.”
Cortez — who happily watched the ASC become “a force of influence”– advocated the use of the word “cinematographer” in lieu of “cameraman.”
Charlton Heston recently commented on this shift in attitude. “When I first came here,they were cameramen. Then, they became cinematographers,” Heston observed jokingly, before presenting a Hollywood Arts Council award in late January to the ASC’s president, Victor Kemper.
“He called the achievement of that ‘mystical quality’ the mark of every great cinematographer,” Variety reported at that time.
Over the years, the initials “ASC”– which follow the cinematographer’s name on screen — have become synonymous with prestige and excellence.
Membership to this creative and technical brotherhood was — and still is — by invitation only. In fact, becoming affiliated with the ASC is a rigorous process spanning several months.
Would-be members need to have a body of work of a particular quality. That wouldn’t include — asone member put it — exploitation films. In addition, potential members must have three letters of recommendation, and they must submit to one or more interviews.
“If a person is an ASC member, it’s only a plus,” says talent agent Patty Mack of Smith, Gosnell, Nicholson & Associates, which represents only below-the-line talent.
“It’s like a plume. It’s bigger than an award. They all want to be members…”
ASC members are quick to agree.
“I felt at the time that I’d arrived as a cinematographer,” says Robert Primes (“Bird on a Wire,””Quantum Leap” episodes), who was admitted in 1990.
Feeling the thrill
“It was such a thrill,” notes Steven Poster, who was invited to join “just in time” to have the ASC credit roll in “Someone to Watch Over Me.””This was something I wanted since I was 14 — when I started reading ‘American Cinematographer,’ ” adds Poster.
Allen Daviau (“Avalon,””The Color Purple,””The Empire of the Sun,””Bugsy, “”E.T.”) allows that he, too, craved ASC membership since his teens.
“You get to put faces on the names you’ve known for years. You get to know them as human beings,” says Daviau, praising the high level of comraderie among members.
“We all want to know about each other’s work. We’ll ask, ‘What led you to use that technique?’ ‘How do you light a scene a certain way?”‘
Hot tips such as these are shared often at the society’s office, commonly referred to as the “ASC Clubhouse.” The facility, a turn-of-the-century Mediterranean-style mansion at North Orange Drive and Franklin Street in Hollywood, has been home to the ASC since 1936. It was formerly the abode of actor Conway Tearle, who, with his wife Adele Rowland, entertained there with lavish receptions.
As the ASC has blossomed, so has its “American Cinematographer,” which today is a glossy, beautifully photographed showpiece spanning some 96 or more pages, and boasting more than 30,000 in circulation. Its how-to stories are relished not only by cinematographers, but also by producers, directors and students.
The ASC has come a long way since its formative years, when there were only a dozen or so members who simply gathered in one another’s homes. Today, the organization has 140 active members and 38 retired ones, according to ASC president Kemper (“Dog Day Afternoon,””The Candidate,””Last of the Red Hot Lovers,””Beethoven”). The ASC also has about 28 courtesy members and seven honorary ones.
About 80 associate members, most of whom represent equipment suppliers and manufacturers, also are part of the ASC’s ranks. Some of them occasionally present programs focusing on the latest technology.
Associate member Rob Hummel, VP of animation technology for Walt Disney Television, claims the ASC is taking a leading role in getting the industry to address the high-definition TV debate.
“The ASC is pushing for an aspect ratio that more closely resembles the theatrical experience to maintain the picture’s compositional integrity,” explains Hummel, who testified before a House subcomittee on the issue.
Long-time ASC member Linwood Dunn — who invented the optical printer, which allows compositing of images, and who did visual effects on “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,””Cimarron,””Gunga Din,””King Kong” and “Citizen Kane”– also contends that ASC members have been at the forefront of adapting all the latest technology to their craft, including computers, electronics and special new optics.
Although most industry insiders applaud the ASC and its goals, some of those same individuals also complain that the society has been plagued by a reputation as an elitist old boy’s network. “It was fairly elitist in terms of sticking only to feature cinematographers,” concedes president Kemper, noting that it wasn’t until 1977 or 1978 that those working in TV were admitted.
Today, members also are embarrassed to admit that the ASC still has only one female member — and they profess plans to change that.
“It being a men’s organization, I never thought I could make it,” says Brianne Murphy, ASC, who, back in 1980 was the first woman invited to join.
“It was a men’s club,” observes Murphy, now an alternate board member. “I get a lot of letters from women saying, ‘Oh, you’ve given me hope.’ ”
While acknowledging that ASC affiliation provides credibility, insiders agree that it does not ensure jobs.
“One goes for the quality of the work, not the initials after the name. I can’t say that all good cinematographers are in ASC or vice versa,” says producer David Korda, who recently finished filming “Two Bits” with Al Pacino and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.
Members admit that some excellent cinematographers still have not been admitted. But they hope to remedy that.
“We’re trying very hard to keep an eye on up-and-coming cinematographers. We want very much to keep young blood in the organization,” says Steve Larner, ASC (“Badlands,””The Buddy Holly Story,””Caddyshack”).
As new members have come on board in recent years, the ASC has shifted its focus, becomimg more aggressive, with a number of innovative educational programs planned.
The honorary society also has taken advocacy positions on artists’ rights as they relate to colorization. In addition, the ASC served as an advisor on the award-winning American Film Institute/NHK documentary, “Visions of Light.” Many claim that the ASC has been instrumental in helping to give more credibility to an undervalued film function.
“The ASC has helped the industry and the public in general to become aware of cinematographers … and their work,” says producer Bob Rehme (“Hunt for Red October,”‘No Way Out”).
“Filmmaking is the most collaborative art form; one of the major ingredients is the cinematographer,” adds Rehme, past president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.
Throughout the years, the ASC has helped to give dignity to the profession, points out ASC member Primes.
“We’re all trying to enhance cinema,” Primes says. “We’re all trying to make more beautiful images for the world to see.”