Through a lens globally

As it celebrates its 20th kudofest, the ASC increases its int'l profile

When: Sunday, 6:30 dinner; 7:30 awards ceremony
Where: Hyatt Regency Century Plaza, Century City
Who: Special honorees include Sydney Pollack, Frederick Wiseman and Woody Omens; Nicole Kidman and Curtis Hanson are among the presenters

“Cinematographers are weird, you know? And I’m not just saying that because I am one.”

Richard Crudo, president of the American Society of Cinematographers, is smiling. Wryly. “Writers? Forget about it; they can’t stand each other. Directors? They’re petty, jealous and hate each others guts. You won’t see that with us. You get a group of cameramen together — disparate guys from all over the country, all over the world — and there’s immediate affection for each other. And a respect for the work we all do.”

The operative term is cameramen, and anyone who has attended ASC functions can attest, its members are an awfully chummy lot, and very male. Like a fraternity — and unlike Hollywood’s major guilds — potential members are admitted only if recommended or “sponsored” by three active or retired members.

But beyond charges of sexism, which the society is working to dispel, the venerable organization faces a crossroads as it celebrates the 20th anniversary of its awards ceremony on Sunday. The ASC, whose original mandate was to recognize the work of U.S. d.p.s, has become much more international in scope — perhaps by strategic necessity.

More urgently, advances in technology — mainly in the form of digital intermediate, which allows for the alteration of everything from color to contrast — have made it possible for the cinematographer to be left out of the post-production process.

When the awards were being conceived in 1985, the membership was rebelling against the Oscars’ tendency to reward so-called “picture postcard” films — movies more about the epic sweep of their exteriors than character-driven dynamics and creative lighting. That most of those awards were going to foreigners (12 out of the previous 15 Oscar winners were European, not counting Hungarian emigre Vilmos Zsigmond, who is an ASC member) only added to their conviction that Americans were being overlooked.

But the ASC has taken on an international pedigree in the ensuing years, having welcomed talents like Vittorio Storaro and Sven Nykvist into its ranks, and even bestowing them with lifetime achievement awards apart from the international lifetime honor it created to celebrate work mainly shot outside the U.S.

Last year, a non-ASC member won the feature prize for the first time, France’s Bruno Delbonnel (“A Very Long Engagement”), signaling a sea change. This year, three of the five d.p.s nominated for features — Dione Beebe, Andrew Lesnie and Rodrigo Prieto — do not possess a U.S. passport. All are dual members of the ASC as well as the cinematography societies of their native countries.

“I was once asked why there seemed to be more Europeans getting recognition for shooting the big Hollywood movies,” says Ellen Kuras, one of only seven females among the ASC’s 291 members, “and I said that’s because the cream of those countries gravitates to L.A.”

One of those is Beebe, an Australian who has made L.A. his home base and became an ASC member after his name was forwarded by past ASC president Steven Poster.

Beebe was subjected to a panel who judged his work and asked him a series of questions ranging from his attitudes toward cinema to his potential participation in ASC functions.

“What they are looking at is your work and your contributions to cinema,” Beebe says. “It’s really quite extraordinary how many international members the society has, and that they welcome foreigners at all because one could say it’s an American organization and exists to honor American cinematographers.”

Zsigmond, who escaped Communist-controlled Hungary in 1956 and a longtime ASC member, asserts: “We vote for the cinematography.”

Question of gender

The ASC has been accused of being a stodgy old bunch. Its original members spent the majority of their careers working under contract to the studios, where they had been indoctrinated not to talk about themselves or their work. They were trained to serve the vision of the director, who, like themselves, were invariably male.

The first female member was the late Brianne Murphy, who joined in 1980, more than 60 years after the ASC was chartered in 1919. Women have gradually begun to infiltrate the society in recent years, but many face a Catch-22: Without feature or primetime TV work under their belts, many lack the credentials the ASC prizes; and without the validation that an ASC membership provides, it’s hard for women d.p.s — many of whom work in the run-and-gun world of the indies — to land major gigs.

“If there’s no opportunity to shoot, then you can’t show them a reel,” argues Kuras. “They’ve really made an effort to try and encourage women. And I think the fact that the numbers are low is really a reflection of the lack of opportunities for women to shoot bigger films, ones that would be recognized in the repertoire of the ASC.”

She says a more pressing ASC issue is the blinkered neglect of d.p.s who make commercials. “They have as much experience, if not more in some cases. More so than the issue of women, I’d say it’s about the commercial world vs. the theatrical world.”

The ties that bind

The ASC is one of the industry’s most tight-knit mutual-admiration societies and defies every backbiting stereotype ever used to bash Hollywood. Still, the ASC has faced charges of cronyism, tending to give its Lifetime Achievement Award to cinematographers whose best work is well behind them (“There is a kind of finality to it,” says one ASC member).

For every Vittorio Storaro, Conrad Hall and Haskell Wexler — Brahmins whose contributions to the cinematographic art are unquestioned and who were still doing A-list work at the time they were honored — there is a Fred Koenekamp, Bill Butler and past ASC president Victor Kemper, d.p.s whose credits are solid but not groundbreaking.

A nominee’s work isn’t the sole criteria. The 35-person committee that selects the honoree favors candidates who have supported the ASC and participated in its activities.

“Many times we won’t give the award to someone who is young,” says Zsigmond.

“You need to wait 20 years or so to see if a person’s work still stands up,” adds Butler, who warns against rewarding the “flavor of the month.”

“I guess there is a protocol,” says non ASC member Christopher Doyle, the renowned Aussie d.p. who has worked with everyone from Wong Kar Wai to Gus Van Sant. “I am also not an MBE nor a lord nor a national treasure in any of the many countries I have occupied. Who cares? It is the integrity of the work that matters.”

Lifetime honoree Zsigmond credits the ASC for bestowing a once-unknown prestige on cinematographers, and balks at the prevailing notion that d.p.s keep their light under a bushel. “You have to let the world know what you do, because they will walk all over you.”

That is the fear endemic among cinematographers, who see the arrival of digital intermediate — the form at which a digital transfer from film can be color timed and corrected — as a way of taking the look of a film, and a d.p.’s vision, out of the hands of the one who shot it.

“Things that could not have been done in a traditional timing session now can be done with a couple of dials and sliders,” says Tom Del Ruth, an ASC and Emmy Award winner for his work on “The West Wing.” “But it’s a double-edged sword as well, because in the cinematographer’s absence, the image can be altered without his input.

D.p. Allen Daviau asserts that “it’s part of our job to be aware of the advances in technology, and to know when they’re working in our favor and when they are not.”

Daviau, who won ASC awards for his work on “Bugsy” and “Empire of the Sun,” tells his students they will learn more by shooting film and by “previsualizing the photo chemical process.”

“Film is going to last longer than people think as an originating medium, because they continue to make better film all the time,” Daviau asserts. “Digital cameras are getting better, too, and we can make beautiful pictures with them. But digital doesn’t offer the range of film.”

Nancy Shreiber, a member of the ASC board, says with film stock “there are no mysteries.”

“When I’m on a shoot somewhere in the world,” she adds, “a print can be sent to me at a lab there, and I can sit with a timer and send very precise notes back. With digital intermediate, you really have to be there in the room. So it’s really something we want to protect.”

Crudo, Shreiber and other ASC members use the terms “Kodak” and “film” synonymously, and perhaps with good reason. Kodak has long had a unique relationship with the ASC, which lends the company prestige and a creative face to sell its products. Kodak, in return, sponsors many ASC functions, including pre-awards dinners tied to the ASC awards, the Oscars and the Emmys.

Some consider the relationship too close, which might go toward explaining why the organization has been slow to embrace digital technology. But Crudo says the relationship is no more special than others.

“Kodak has had a historically close relationship with the ASC,” he says. “We’ve helped them with a lot of research and product development. But we have close ties with most of the manufacturers. We probably have 150 associate members, and they’re all special.”

Historic ties cross over to the membership; Crudo cites a phenomenon among d.p.s — they seem to live to extraordinarily ripe old ages. “I think it’s because they’ve spent their lives doing something they’re passionate about,” he says.

Not that the ASC has any intention of becoming a retirement home. “I’m the youngest president in the modern era,” says Crudo, “and that was a distinct effort by the board to try and bring new blood into the organization. So we’re not a fuddy-duddy place.”

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