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Why American Cinematographer’s Legacy Has Been So Illuminating (Guest Column)

For 28 years, it’s been my privilege to work in the editorial department at American Cinematographer magazine — first as an editorial assistant, then as associate editor, eventually progressing to executive editor and my current role as editor-in-chief and publisher. Many consider it to be “the best job in Hollywood,” with ample justification. During my tenure, I’ve visited stages and locations all over the world; along the way, I’ve strolled the decks of James Cameron’s “Titanic”; toured Gotham City and the Batcave with Christopher Nolan; admired Tony Stark’s vintage-car collection on the set of “Iron Man”; and piloted the Millennium Falcon between takes on “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” I’ve met nearly all of my filmmaking heroes, and I’ve traveled far and wide to help spread the gospel of cinematography.

The reason for this access is the magazine’s trusted reputation, cultivated over 99 years, as “the filmmaker’s Bible.” As motion imaging’s international publication of record, American Cinematographer has earned the admiration of its subjects with in-depth production coverage that combines technical detail with philosophical and aesthetic insights. More than just a how-to reference, AC has served as a de facto film school not only for cinematographers, but other renowned artists as well. Directors Paul Thomas Anderson, Alfonso Cuarón and Yorgos Lanthimos have credited AC for providing them, in lieu of film school, with their primary education on cinema tools and techniques; Martin Scorsese has been reading the magazine since his student days at NYU; cinematographer Larry Smith (“Eyes Wide Shut”) said that Stanley Kubrick used to wave its pages beneath his nose; and Steven Spielberg once told me, “One of the biggest honors I’ve ever received was when the magazine put one of my early films on the cover back in the Seventies.”

For a card-carrying cineaste like yours truly, this is heady stuff. Hearing these kinds of testimonials from such illustrious filmmakers motivates our entire staff to takes its mission quite seriously; we obsess over every technical tidbit during the fact-checking process, spelunk for the best behind-the-scenes photos as if we’re hunting down truffles, and pursue key sources to the ends of the Earth if they can add value to an article.

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We also respect the magazine’s long legacy as the main communications tool for its parent organization, the American Society of Cinematographers, whose clubhouse in Hollywood is known to visitors from all over the world as the temple of photographic wisdom. The ASC began publishing American Cinematographer in 1920 as a twice-monthly, four-page, tabloid-sized club newsletter that kept readers informed about its members’ latest projects and production methods. A year later, AC trimmed its physical dimensions and added pages. It became a monthly in March 1922 and adopted a more traditional and familiar magazine format in 1928.

Over the ensuing years, AC provided a mix of coverage ranging from amateur nature photography to major films like “Citizen Kane,” shot by renowned ASC member Gregg Toland (whose camera from that movie, a Mitchell BNC, occupies a place of honor in the clubhouse). The magazine’s modern era kicked off in 1966 with the appointment of Herb Lightman as editor. Lightman began leaving his desk to observe productions on location, and he also recruited prominent filmmakers to comment on and occasionally write about their own projects. The result of these efforts was notable coverage of classics such as “2001: A Space Odyssey” (featuring an interview with the elusive Kubrick himself), “Chinatown,” “Jaws,” “Star Wars,” “Blade Runner” and many other landmark productions.

Lightman held the editor’s post for 16 years, and his successors — Richard Patterson, George Turner and David Heuring — all added their personal stamps to the magazine. As the 20th editor, I’ve tried to do my part by establishing a global network of freelance writers, spotlighting deserving indie and foreign productions, adding new departments and supervising several redesigns, encouraging the modernization of our websites (ascmag.com and theasc.com) and, perhaps most important, by maintaining mutually fruitful, long-term relationships with cinematographers, directors, crewmembers and the industry at large.

As motion imaging has evolved from film and tape to digital technologies, I’ve witnessed a sea change in how productions are shot. But while technical matters will always be a cornerstone of the magazine’s content, it’s just as important to convey why a particular tool or technique is employed. There’s more to cinematography than gadgets and gear; ultimately, it’s the visual artist’s passion, aesthetics, and finely honed sensibilities that conjure those timeless moments of alchemy.

Stephen Pizzello is editor-in-chief and publisher of American Cinematographer, the monthly publication produced by the American Society of Cinematographers. He has several credits as a director and actor. 

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