This being my first President’s Perspective, it seems only right to kick-off with a huge thank you to our immediate past president, Barry Ackroyd BSC. I’ve known Barry for nearly 30 years and I guess you could say that, over that time, he has been a kind of mentor to me, seeming to be there at crucial moments of my career – nudging me this way, or suggesting that way. It would not be too much of a stretch to say that were it not for him I doubt I would be a cinematographer.
It was because of Barry, around 1990, that I was introduced to Document Films, a Soho-based collective of filmmakers who took me under their wing professionally, and supported my burgeoning documentary shooting career. Later, at the turn of the century, it was Barry who introduced me to Ken Loach, resulting in my working on Ken’s film The Navigators. And then, from there, he got me second unit work on his larger movies. The upshot was that I found myself following in Barry’s own footsteps, from docs to features and scripted drama.
I detail this because in thinking about what the BSC means to me, I am reminded that we are a community of people who naturally, and instinctively, support each other. Though perhaps not unique, I struggle to think of a profession in which there is such empathy, mutual respect and a willingness to share with fellow practitioners. I suspect this is because, ultimately, it isn’t just a profession. There is a love for what we do which runs deep – a result of us having been introduced to cinema (or at least the moving image) at a young and impressionable age.
This isn’t a subject we learnt at school, this is something we absorbed as part of life. Story, colour, balance, tone and, above all, movement. It would be like not wanting to share food or its recipe. We pass it on because we can’t help ourselves. Anthropologists tell us that storytelling is what defines us as human and confirms our identity. And as we all know, cinematography is storytelling.
Our shared love for what we do is the built-in mechanism for refreshing and invigorating our industry. It can also be the means by which we address the lack of diversity in our camera department, something I hope to see happen increasingly in my time as president.
Mentoring is happening all the time: we have (or at least should have) a trainee on-set, observing, absorbing, making the best tea and coffee outside our own kitchens. There is even now the role of the DP’s assistant, someone who will stay close to the cinematographer on a particular production, very much the same way a director has their PA, gaining front-line experience of what it takes to be “on” 18 hours-a-day. I have yet to experience that particular association, but I think it a healthy development and another “in” to our world for those who are truly dedicated.
When I, as a curious graphic design student, first put my head round the door of the college film department at Leeds Polytechnic back in 1979, I saw facilities but hardly any students. The faculty struggled to lure people away from fine art, fashion, industrial design, you name it. Virtually nobody back then was interested in film. Today, film study is one of the most popular subjects to be found up and down the country in nearly all of our colleges. Are we therefore awash with DP wannabes? Is there a glut of cinematographers? Therein lies the crux.
Wielding a device that records a moving image does not automatically make one a cinematographer. It is a position one achieves through time, application, collaboration and, above all, passion. But it is a passion that often requires nurturing. When a cinematography graduate emerges from a school, college or university and sets out on a career, that is when consultation, advice and the proverbial arm around the shoulder really count. Shorn of peers and tutors, our “cottage” industry (some cottage!) can appear like a CGI Game Of Thrones citadel. What language, what customs are observed there?
The British Society Of Cinematographers represents excellence in our artistic craft, a pinnacle of sorts, but none of us climbs unassisted. True, no two cinematographers will approach or execute the same job in the same way. We all have our ways. But the inspiration and influence that, as I say, nudge us, come from all the interactions we have along the way – from peers, heroes as well as from totally unexpected sources.
This is no clarion call for dilution, compromise or, worse still, conformity. The BSC is a pinnacle of sorts, but never an ivory tower. As artists, we beg, borrow and steal (the latter Picasso-style – what I’d call innovation through adoption). As technicians we nurture our tools and our environment. As human beings we help and assist our comrades, and the next generation, as best we can.
The BSC as a voice, an advocate, a champion, extolling the vision as well as preserving it, is surely what our society should be about.
Mike Eley BSC
British Society Of Cinematographers