Ninety years ago, members of two early cameramen’s associations — the Cinema Camera Club in New York and the Static Club of America in Los Angeles — joined forces and established a national organization to represent their interests.
On Dec. 21, 1918, 15 representatives from the two bodies met at the Los Angeles home of cinematographer William C. Foster, who was then shooting for Charlie Chaplin and Goldwyn Pictures, to begin the process that would draw up new bylaws and combine the two clubs into the American Society of Cinematographers.
Those 15 founding members, cinematographers all, became the newly christened ASC’s first board of governors. The next day, they met again, this time at the home of Fred LeRoy Granville, to choose officers. Philip E. Rosen was elected the first ASC president.
The following month — on Jan. 8, 1919 — the ASC was officially chartered in the state of California.
Thus was born a professional organization that would have a lasting impact on the look of American motion pictures, and on the technology used in their creation.
Today the ASC boasts more than 300 cinematographer members, plus 150 associate members from ancillary sectors of the motion picture business. These members, past and present, include some of the great artists of their day. They have thrilled audiences and inspired new generations of younger cinematographers.
Foremost among ASC’s early goals was the establishment of film shooting and processing standards. Another was to ensure that cinematographers receive proper credit for their work. Back then, filmmaking credit was attributed only to the motion picture company.
The credit issue quickly worked itself out. However, setting standards has been a 90-year work-in-progress that will continue into the future as new technologies develop.
ASC is unique among Hollywood organizations. Neither a union nor a guild, it does not negotiate or create policy on behalf of its members. It is an invitation-only, honorary society. One of its purposes is to provide a place for its members to socialize with one another.
“ASC cinematographers of all generations admire each other’s work,” says ASC prexy Daryn Okada. “They meet at the ASC Clubhouse to exchange creative experiences that spark new forms of imagery, and to challenge technology to innovate and advance for future audiences and the future of the industry.”
And, he might add, to devote themselves to the cause of educating the community. In 1920, the society began publishing American Cinematographer, the “magazine of record” for techniques and advancements in cinematography. It is one of the oldest entertainment industry trade journals still published; only Billboard and Variety are older.
Over the decades the ASC has also influenced myriad advances in cinematography. Accomplishments of the society and its members include: development of panchromatic film that recorded nuanced shades of gray; film stock that recorded an optical soundtrack; the barney bag that muffled noisy cameras; advanced optical printer technology; and innovative uses of cranes.
The ASC also has prevented the implementation of certain standards it considered detrimental to the art of cinematography. For example, it organized a charge to scrap an NHK-SMPTE proposal in the early 1980s that would have locked high-definition television transmission into an analog-only, fixed-aspect-ratio (nonletterboxed) signal.
Through the years, the industry always sought the ASC’s opinion and guidance in an ad hoc fashion on issues regarding the theatrical or television image. However, with digital technologies proliferating over the past decade, the filmmaking landscape had turned into a technological Wild West.
“Technical tides are changing fast,” notes Okada. “We want to ensure that motion pictures don’t get committed to a pipeline that limits improvement.”
In 2003, the society took formal action by launching the ASC Technology Committee to develop — with industry collaboration — recommendations for hybrid film-digital, and ultimately all-digital filmmaking.
“It was a realization that there were increasing challenges we would be facing with digital technology that would be systematically integrated within the workflow,” notes Curtis Clark, chair of the Technology Committee. “With that would come new issues of managing the look of a film and its creative intent.”
In conjunction with Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI), the joint venture of major motion picture studios formed in 2002 to establish a standard architecture for digital cinema, ASC created StEM, or Standard Evaluation Material, a digital mini-movie that is offered free to manufacturers and developers to aid in the R&D of digital postproduction and projection tools.
Another Technology Committee development that is gaining widespread adoption is the ASC CDL, or color decision list, in which certain image-specific color-correction choices can be shared and maintained consistently across post facilities and hardware/software applications. It ensures that everyone is looking at the same image and adjusting the same parameters.
“The creation of the ASC CDL was a response to provide some basic color-correction tools that have been redefined in a cross-platform environment,” Clark says. “We wanted to provide consistency between different applications. We see that it will become an industry standard and could make its way through the SMPTE standardization process.”
Next up for the committee is the evaluation of digital cameras, particularly those that can shoot in raw data modes that exceed the resolution and color depth of typical HD cameras.
Another effort to expand the ASC’s educational outreach lies in the society’s building campaign, which will restore its historic clubhouse on North Orange Drive in Hollywood to some of its original splendor yet increase square footage and functionality for meetings and seminars. A new, separate, three-story educational and administration center also will be built on the site.
The long-standing project has endured a series of setbacks, including 9/11, recession, city red tape and historical society objections. In the words of Owen Roizman, chair of the building committee, “It’s been very, very frustrating.”
But work has finally begun. “This will enable the ASC to increase and centralize many of our educational and technology activities,” Roizman says. “We love the building. We love the feeling that you get when you go in there. I get excited talking about it.”
As the ASC expands its campus — and its role in the industry — the role of the cinematographer has grown, too.
“When you had a studio system, you had a layer of management and backup where all the administrative stuff was taken care of by the department,” notes Stephen H. Burum, who began his career at the tail end of that era. “Today, the cinematographer has to be much more of an administrator, a manager than the old-timers ever had to be.
“It may have changed in a mechanical way, but not in a spiritual way,” he adds.
Okada concurs. “The ASC will always be about the creative talents of its members,” he says. “It just happens that the instruments of cinematography are technical. We will continue to educate the industry that our artistic passion drives our technical understanding.”
Cinematographers will probably never draw shrieks from the crowds or the cameras of the paparazzi along the red carpet. Rather, respect for the ASC comes from industryites in the know.
Cecil B. DeMille, in a letter to the society, once penned: “His hand has rarely held the scepter of public acclaim. … This figure, a giant in his industry, is the cameraman — the sine qua non of a profession which often boasts that no one in its ranks is indispensable. No one, I say, save the cameraman.”
ASC’S 15 FOUNDING MEMBERS
Joseph H. August
William C. Foster
Fred LeRoy Granville
Walter L. Gr
Roy H. Klaffki
Robert S. Newhard
Philip E. Rosen
Charles E. Rosher
Homer A. Scott
L. Guy Wilky