When cinematographer Steven Poster was a teenager, he got a taste of the cameraman’s life by hanging around a newsreel lab listening to pros shoot the breeze while they waited for their footage. Today, as the newly installed president of the American Society of Cinematographers, he’s still listening.
Poster assumes the presidency of the ASC at a time when new technologies are sparking great debates within his profession, and his ability to hear all sides with an open mind may be the key skill he brings to his role.
“I think the ASC has always been open-minded to the benefits of new technology,” asserts Poster. “We’ve always been the early adopters.”
Poster’s observation is a way of dispelling the idea that the ASC — with its strong associations to such companies as Kodak and Fuji Film — is somehow anti-digital, an issue that, according to Poster, is rife with misconception.
“The buzzword of digital has led to huge misunderstandings,” he says, “because journalists don’t always explain that digital breaks down into three areas: image acquisition, post-production and exhibition. Each should be understood separately for where it is in terms of progress.”
Digital image acquisition is clearly the most debated question among d.p.’s. “Whatever systems exist right now to acquire images with technologies other than film are still in an early experimental phase,” says Poster. “It’s an exciting experiment, but we’re still taking baby steps.”
Poster takes pains to point out that “film is the benchmark, but there’s no reason why other technologies can’t be utilized if you don’t expect the image to be film quality.”
Despite what Poster terms as the propaganda that swirls around film vs. digital, he expects the ASC to remain an honest broker among competing views.
“We have no agenda other than to safeguard the quality of the image,” he says. “We don’t see it as a fight. When you see the work that Alan Daviau and John Bailey have done in alternative capture technologies, you realize that a master cinematographer can use any medium and make it work brilliantly. A commonly used saying in our profession is: ‘If you can light, it doesn’t matter what you shoot with; and if you can’t light, it doesn’t matter what you shoot with either.”
Throughout its eight-decade history, the Hollywood clubhouse of this invitation-only organization has provided a forum where new equipment and techniques are demonstrated and discussed.
“When we come together in the clubhouse, employers fade away and we become a group of colleagues,” he says. “It’s unique in this business.”
The ASC site, on the corner of Franklin Avenue and North Orange Drive in Hollywood, is about to get some new amenities, expanding into a campus that will include a 250-seat theater, cafeteria, offices and underground parking.
“We’re hoping to break ground this summer and it will probably take about 16 months,” Poster says. “It was started by (former president) Victor Kemper’s administration, and he’ll continue to spearhead it. We’re also restoring our original clubhouse and that will become our museum.”
The campus will also be headquarters for an ASC mentoring program, funded by an endowment. Poster characterizes it “as a series of educational programs that will take many shapes. The most important goal is to identify qualified people.”
Drive for diversity
While the ASC has long been described as a brotherhood by some, a good old boys club by others, Poster stresses that the organization is “actively searching out women cinematographers. That’s something I’ve championed since the moment I could recommend new members.” There are only six women out of 240 active members.
“The ASC doesn’t make cinematographers,” says Poster. “We invite good ones to join: men, women, Martians, whomever. There are no restrictions on anybody who’s qualified.”
The criteria, according to Poster, is “you have to have good character, doing good work, and the work has to be narrative, not commercials or documentaries.” And you have to be doing it for five years.
Poster himself benefited early on from the mentorship of d.p. Vilmos Zsigmond, who brought him onto “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and he tries to continue that tradition on projects he shoots. Versed in commercials, TV and features, Poster’s credits include “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Donnie Darko” and “Stuart Little 2,” which immersed him in state-of-the-art digital.
Now as ASC president, his goal is to ensure that decisions about technology standards are made for the right reasons.
“We need an open and honest discussion of all of the issues that we need to address today,” Poster says. “If it’s done right, everybody will profit.”