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Lensers Foster Greater Understanding Through Education

When the American Society of Cinematographers was formed in 1919, the goal was to advance the art and science of cinematography, and much of this was accomplished through informal get-togethers where members would gather at the org’s headquarters after a long day at the studios, have a drink or two, and kibitz.

“Somebody would say, ‘I have a problem,’ they’d ask, ‘How did you solve it?’ And he’d say, ‘Well, we did this and that,’ ” says George Spiro Dibie, who chairs ASC’s education and outreach committee. “So they were actually communicating amongst themselves and learning.”

A hundred years later, the ASC facilitates the same type of information exchange on a more global scale, organizing an extensive program of classes, Q&As, panel discussions and lighting/camera seminars at the ASC Clubhouse in Hollywood (est. 1937) and schools, trade shows, film festivals and other industry events as far away as China and Abu Dhabi.

The education and outreach events, dubbed Dialogue With ASC Cinematographers, feature seven or eight ASC members in Q&A sessions moderated by Dibie. Although these discussions typically have no set agenda or structure, Dibie discourages inquiries about equipment.

“Usually, they have a budget, and their budget will dictate what equipment you will use,” says Dibie. “I want [students] to learn how to light, how to tell a story. And collaboration is more important than anything, because on the set the cinematographer’s job is to serve the director. Then you have to deal with sound, with makeup, etcetera. We teach them how to be with all these departments.”

These events are not only freewheeling, but they are also free and open to the public. The ASC offers more exclusive masterclasses, designed for cinematographers looking to attain an intermediate-to-advanced skill set. These intense five-day workshops have an admission price of $3,000 and are limited to 24 students who must submit a résumé in order to be considered.

Topics covered range from commercial lighting, greenscreen photography and how to operate an Imax camera to working with production designers and costume designers.

“The opening class is always one of our cinematographers talking about his or her work or work that has inspired them,” says ASC president Kees Van Oostrum, the mastermind behind the masterclass concept. “There are also some specific tech classes that we pepper in, but the main structure is the three days on stage with three to four different cinematographers and visual effect people who go through the practical work of being on set, lighting, framing and shooting of a scene.”

Throughout the week, during classes as well as meal breaks, one to a half-dozen ASC “ambassadors” sit in with the students to socialize and answer any questions that didn’t get answered in class.

On the final day, ASC member Charlie Lieberman hosts a two-hour panel discussion with half a dozen ASC members and, typically, an agent, about aspects of the life of a cinematographer that have nothing to do with lighting and sets, such as career goals, finding an agent, building a reel, and relationships with producers, directors and family.

“I think my favorite question is how do deal with the negative feelings that come up when your career isn’t moving as quickly as you’d like,” says Lieberman. “And the answer is, if you didn’t have these negative feelings, you wouldn’t have ambition, and without ambition, you wouldn’t have a career, and you would never get into the ASC. So forgive yourself for these feelings.”

The masterclasses attract students from around the globe, some of whom receive grants from their governments to cover tuition. The ASC also awards scholarships for students to attend the classes through its vision committee, which was founded in January 2016 to encourage the advancement of unrepresented women and minorities.

“What the vision committee wants to do is spread awareness to people who make decisions, and a lot of those people who make decisions are cinematographers, because they can control the hiring of the key grip, the gaffer and the camera operator,” points out ASC member John Simmons, who co-chairs the vision committee with Cynthia Pusheck.

Although female representation in the ASC has more than doubled in the past eight years, to 18 active female members, the organization is still largely an old white men’s club, demographically speaking. Of the 398 ASC members, 5% are Latino; 5% are female; 3% are Asian, and 2% are black. But Emmy-nominated DP Patti Lee says she’s found the ASC to be nothing but welcoming since she became a member in December.

“Once you’re in the ASC, there aren’t different levels of ASC,” says Lee, who co-chairs the vision committee’s mentorship subcommittee with Todd Dos Reis. “You’ve been vetted and you’re part of the club.”

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