Editors, lensers stew when left out of equipment decisions

American Society of Cinematographers prexy Michael Goi remembers the day he was interviewed for a feature film by “a very famous producer” for a beach movie with African-American actors.

“I was told as soon as I entered the room that the movie would be shot on digital video,” he recalls. But Goi knew the limited latitude of the digital camera would make it difficult to capture details of dark skin tone in a bright sun environment. In other words, the camera itself would make it challenging for any d.p. to make the cast look great.

“I explained why shooting on film would save him time and money, but he said shooting digital was a done deal,” Goi says. What really stung was that the producer had already picked the camera before consulting with the artist who would wield it.

Cinematographers and editors increasingly find their expertise ignored when it comes to picking cameras and editing systems for TV and film productions. Editor Harry B. Miller III, who heads the American Cinema Editors Technology Committee, has been tracking this trend via his annual equipment survey of ACE members. At last count, he says, “about 38% of the editors surveyed got to choose the system they worked on.” That, he says, is “pathetic … to give the most qualified the least voice in choice of editing systems.”

Though many cinematographers and editors are infuriated, many of them are loath to complain on the record. When asked to comment for this story, one well-known ASC cinematographer snapped, “Do you want to get me blacklisted?”

Goi’s story had a happy ending. Three days before the shoot was to begin, the producer asked Goi if he still felt film was a better choice. When Goi said yes, the producer relented. “He figured that if I was willing to tell him he was making a mistake before I even had the job, then he should listen to what I was saying,” says Goi.

Overchoice blues

The tussle for control over tools of the trade is relatively new since, for decades, everyone shot on and edited film. For all those years, directors and producers largely expected cinematographers and editors to take care of the technical details such as lenses and film stock.

“When we just had film, you could make an artistic choice based on the emulsion of the film,” explains Steven Poster, former ASC president and current president of the Local 600 Intl. Cinematographers Guild. “With digital, the camera itself becomes the raw stock and the artistic choice.” So while the issue isn’t strictly one of film vs. digital, it’s a product of the digital revolution.

At first only a few cameras were manufactured for the professional TV and film market, so the choice was relatively easy. Now, with the proliferation of digital cameras and digital editing systems, producers are exposed to a dizzying array of options. Moreover, as Poster notes, “There have been camera companies that market the cameras to producers as opposed to the artists who have to work with these tools.” Add in the effects of living in a media-saturated environment, in which nearly everyone with an iPhone and a laptop is creating content, and it’s easy to imagine that all tools can accomplish the job equally well.

For cinematographers and editors accustomed to choosing their own tools, losing control over the choice — and thus having their knowledge devalued — is demeaning. Editor Edgar Burcksen turned down a project because the producers told him he had to edit with an editing system other than the one he preferred. “I said, if you want me to cut on this system, you’ll have to find another editor,” he said. “But they really wanted me, so they said they’d port it over to mine.” Another ACE editor said that “life is too short” to be forced to work on an editing system not of his choosing.

Not all producers are willing and able to be that flexible. Although some cinematographers and editors draw a line in the sand when it comes to using gear not of their choosing, most cinematographers and editors don’t have the luxury of losing a job — and certainly don’t want a reputation of being difficult — over the choice of tools.

“It’s not our purpose to be difficult as opposed to making good choices for the project,” insists Poster, who has embraced digital cameras. “We want to help. Sometimes choices can be made for penny-wise and pound-foolish reasons. And sometimes the expertise of the cinematographer has the ability to solve those problems in a way that will make more sense for the story to be told.”

YouTube fury

A popular animated short on YouTube that pits “Cinematographer vs. Producer” sums up the fury some cinematographers feel when faced with a producer in love with the buzz surrounding a new camera. When the d.p. lists all the technological shortcomings of the digital SLR the producer has chosen, the producer responds, “But it’s magic.”

Or, as cinematographer John Bailey (no fan of some digital cameras) noted in his ASC blog, “the very embrace of cutting edge technology chosen by cinematographers as tools to expand their creativity is being used to erode this creativity by the ill-informed and the directives of bottom line budgets.”

“The “democratization” of filmmaking made possible by user-friendly video and DSLR cameras seems to have had the unintended consequence of making almost anyone who can push a start button, a self-annointed camera expert,” he lamented.

Though there may be producers as clueless as the one depicted in “Cinematographer vs. Producer,” most note that they’re juggling many factors besides image aesthetics. New digital cameras have created new, and often problematic, digital workflows that have to be considered.

“Executive producer/directors consult with their d.p., wanting input on the use of gear,” explains producer Jake Aust of NBC skein “Community,” who oversees post on the show. “Cinematographers are not disregarded, but it’s one of a few inputs in the decision-making process. D.p.’s tend to be more concerned with the sensitivity of the sensor and what kinds of lenses they’ll be able to use. Producers also have to consider what works or doesn’t for post.”

Aust says when Joe and Anthony Russo, the executive producers/directors of “Community, originally considered shooting the series with a prosumer digital camera, they looked at more than creative issues. “They wanted to save time and money and have some operational flexibility,” he explains. After weighing the options, however, the show picked a high-end professional digital camera.

Artists can find themselves in a position — if they’re lucky to have the producer’s ear — of justifying their tool of choice by stressing its efficiency and cost-effectiveness for the entire production/post pipeline. For Syfy’s “Warehouse 13,” produced by Universal Cable Prods., supervising editor Andrew Seklir, Miller and lead assistant Seagan Ngai actively lobbied the studio to let them switch to an editing system they preferred. “A big factor, I believe, is we were able to show that switching would actually save money,” Miller says.

For everyone else, the struggle over choice of creative tools is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, regardless of how upside down it might feel to cinematographers and editors. “It’s absurd,” says editor Stephen Lovejoy. “When the plumber comes to your house, do you want to see what wrenches he’s using? The artist should use whatever tool works best for him.”

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