I’ve always thought that my becoming a cinematographer was an incredible twist of fate given I stumbled upon a film course completely by accident one day while searching for a darkroom. The college I attended - again, more by chance than strategy - happened to have a film course brimming with equipment and resources but which also happened to be pitifully short of students. Seemingly, few in the vicinity were interested in film, whether it be technical or theoretical. Such was the 1970s.
But the (not always discernible) career-path having been located, I have never forgotten during the forty years since that I lucked out massively when I walked through that faculty door. The industry’s traditions and iconography, having formerly been just a source of entertainment for me in my youth became, overnight, my professional heritage.
By the time I left the course I was aware of the very basics as well as the responsibility one had to the creative process and the team involved. One’s character informed the collaboration which in turn fed the work which in turn nourished the character, and round again in a kind of positive loop. Later, that education crystallised into the role of Head of Department.
The interconnectedness of the industry is key. Levels of trust take years to cultivate. Right now, it seems as though trust is being stress-tested in an era of abundance. When it comes to work there is almost what can only be described as a feeding frenzy. The lunge for content is extravagant and visceral. Crews are swept up by multiple US productions with huge spending power while smaller (and often UK produced) projects struggle to find personnel. The not insignificant wage disparity between US and UK productions has been a constant for many years, but the gap seems to be widening and is thus a contributing factor.
Undoubtedly, COVID has contributed to this green-light heaven, as well as an overriding sense of having to play catch-up, making up for the very lean fifteen months or so during which the industry has struggled.
Now, there appears to be low-hanging fruit for the in-demand and heads are turned left and right with offers. Choosing to commit has always been a feature of our work landscape. The trail of ‘what-ifs’ can be the stuff of legend. But the idea that one might step off a production because a more lucrative offer has chanced along is something I just don’t understand. That might make me sound naive and I’m happy to accept that charge, but loyalty to the director, the producer and the project - one that you helped shape - seems to me to out-price any perceived advantage to jumping ship.
Freedom of movement for workers and their ability to legitimately terminate their contracts should be a given. There are multiple reasons why continuing to work on a production might become untenable, some relating to private/family matters, some interpersonal, some unavoidably contractual.
But seeing a job through is a test of a cinematographer’s mettle and is how we all learn. We can all imagine we are on a roll and that we should strike while the iron is hot. But it’s amazing how quickly that can iron cool and ultimately what we have is our reputation. That reputation is both a reflection of our own work and, by association, that of all cinematographers.
The workplace, especially in the film and TV industry can be a veritable cats cradle of inter-relationships (or, worse-case scenario, a version of Ker-Plunk) which requires intricate levels of self-awareness coupled with authority over the image - that thing which is unique to us and the reason we are there. We have fought for it and we continue to fight for it. Seeing the work through to its conclusion cements that commitment to the image in the eyes of production and, perhaps more importantly, to those coming up. The cinematographer leads by example.
I went back to the cinema the other day, my first time in fifteen months. There again was the unnecessary ambient light and the annoying guy six seats along doing elaborate origami with cellophane wrapping. There was the inadequate masking of a 4:3 image whereby the black either side was rendered grey - a real annoyance during the night exteriors. But I didn’t care. I really didn’t care. Being back in a theatre was enough for me with all the attendant joys of utter immersion and engagement. The extended Bond trailer seemed to induce a kind of sugar rush.
When we talk about control of the image, it is this, the largest format of presentation that springs to mind. It is a reminder to us that it was cinema that initiated our dreams and it is cinema that holds us to account. It is humbling and exciting and the respect it induces in us should be passed on.
Mike Eley BSC