A century ago, a group of 15 filmmakers gathered for camaraderie, to exchange ideas and solve technical issues. They were members of the Cinema Camera Club and the Static Club of America, the latter group named after the cause of mysterious white flashes showing up on exposed film.
Movies were silent then, the cameras were hand-cranked, and the film was sometimes developed in a bucket. The organization they founded, the American Society of Cinematographers, is often cited as the first of its kind and the inspiration for many similar clubs in Hollywood and throughout the world. Today, the ASC is stronger than ever, with 390 international members and more than 200 associate members who work in related fields.
The ASC is known for its magazine, industry standard handbook, and its annual awards show, now entering its 33rd year. The society’s technical committees work closely with manufacturers, post pros and studios to develop standards and practices that streamline production while faithfully delivering the filmmakers’ vision as intended. To camera pros around the world, the ASC’s greatest importance may be its advocacy for the primacy of image quality and control – both technical and artistic.
The ASC’s protests recently played a key role in reversing what many saw as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ decision to tighten the Oscars telecast at the expense of certain crafts, this year including cinematography. With the entertainment industry undergoing fundamental transformations — analog to digital, broadcasting to streaming, traditional exhibition to Imax and iPhones — the ASC is well-positioned to guide visual storytelling into the future.
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“That’s why education is crucial for us,” says ASC president Kees Van Oostrum. “It’s so easy now to get an image, but that’s only 5% of what we do. The other 95% is in deciding about the narrative aspects of an image, the composition, the movement and light and color. That’s a prerogative of the cinematographer that was there in the beginning, and it will always be there, and it should be respected.”
Ellen Kuras (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), a member of the ASC since the late 1990s, says it has been valuable to her as a source of peer support, and, as technology has changed, as a defender of artist rights. “Filmmaking is increasingly open to a lot more people, many of whom are not necessarily versed in the craft,” says Kuras, a cinematographer on Martin Scorsese’s upcoming “Rolling Thunder Revue” documentary and one of the directors of “Catch-22.”
“The ASC’s role in deciding how we handle the technology, how we standardize it and draw the boundaries, is very important for maintaining artistic integrity. When access to the tools was limited, the creative aspect of our work was more protected. As a large, influential body of artists speaking with a unified voice that counts for something, the ASC can make a stand, and defend the integrity of our work.”
For Academy-Award nominee Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Dunkirk,” “Interstellar,” “Spectre”), the society’s initials always had a magic ring.
“When I was studying in Poland, old issues of the magazine were passed from student to student,” he says. “The ASC Manual was undoubtedly one of my most valuable possessions. Not only was the ASC a club made up of people who created unattainable camera heroics, but it represented knowledge and the commitment to carry that wisdom further.”
Even though “its membership is comprised of the biggest names, it’s not turned inward in exclusivity,” he says, “and is constantly reaching beyond to both learn and educate. The biggest pleasure and benefit of my membership today is exactly that: sharing knowledge with colleagues,” says Van Hoytema.
That instinct for cooperation, alive in 1919, still animates the ASC a century later as it goes forward.