Elbow Room

President's Perspective / Mike Eley BSC

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Elbow Room

President's Perspective / Mike Eley BSC

To say that cinematographers have had to adjust to working in the digital age is a statement so redundant as to be up there with, “Music hasn’t been the same since The Beatles packed it in”.

I would argue however (with a handy mixed-metaphor) that the hoary old chestnut has merely turned into an elephant. And it’s in the room. Right there.

Things, images, are now said to be ‘easier’, generally. Quicker, more accessible, readily available and easier to distribute. It’s as if the ubiquity of the digital image has enabled it to trespass all areas, lending it the status of a universal currency, one that is very easily manipulated.

It’s a crowded house all of a sudden (or should that be a crowded video village?) and at the root of it all is the issue of authorship.

The change from film to digital has brought an insecurity to our day-to-day work, especially when it comes to honing and perfecting the images envisioned by the DP and director. Where once it was the cinematographer and the lab contact, together producing rushes, answer prints and final show prints (and consequent run-offs), so we now have productions laying down a labyrinthine pre, mid and post production pipeline that takes in as many personnel as deliverable formats, i.e. very many.

And whereas that lab relationship was regarded inviolate, the two main lynchpins a DP relies on to see through the vision – the DIT and the colourist – are fast falling under the remit of others, with the cinematographer often having to use sharp elbows to get a look in.

The first example, the DIT, is, on the surface, not so troublesome and comes down to on-set etiquette. But it’s distracting when one least needs distraction. Seen, rightly, as a member of the camera team, the DIT and their work represents the formative part of the process that will eventually be the look of the film. An understanding between DIT and DP when setting out shooting is not only a creatively satisfying situation, but also an invaluable political one too. But if one chooses to have the DIT tent at close quarters, say, it’s amazing how quickly it can become the de facto video village with visitors from all departments lending comment and distraction. Apart from producers and the director, really only the gaffer and 1st AC should have reason to bother the DIT.

Observations as to how dark or how bright or how shiny something is should not be emanating from ‘the lab’ like some 2am White House Twitter feed. True, monitors in general are to blame for much of the encroachment on to our territory, but it doesn’t take long for ‘the best screen on set’ to be identified and thus become a draw.

"To have gotten that far with a project, to have gone through the travails of pre-production and shooting, only have one’s work removed from one’s remit and tampered with, can be galling in the extreme. I’d go further – it’s against the very tenet of what it means to be a cinematographer and author."

- Mike Eley BSC

Post-production and the invaluable work of the colourist throw up even more troublesome issues. Sadly, it’s not a particularly new one; that of the exclusion or marginalisation of the DP in the grading of the project. It would seem, anecdotally, that getting to choose the colourist one gets to work with is fast becoming the exception rather the norm. To have gotten that far with a project, to have gone through the travails of pre-production and shooting, only have one’s work removed from one’s remit and tampered with, can be galling in the extreme. I’d go further – it’s against the very tenet of what it means to be a cinematographer and author.

It should be as natural an enquiry toward the DP as, “Who do you want as gaffer?” or “Who is your focus puller?”. The relationship between DP and colourist has developed – because of the seemingly infinite possibilities within the digital realm – into being absolutely crucial for the final look. The phrase most enjoyed by studios and producers? “Nothing is baked-in”. Everything is up for grabs.

Remuneration for time spent in the grading suite often reflects this tenuous link between cinematographer and image in the eyes of production. Half-rate, or often no rate at all. One is expected to turn up because you might be vaguely interested in how the film will eventually be presented to a viewing public, as if we were turning up to approve the poster.

I recall attending, not so very long ago, with other cinematographers, an open-day of a posthouse, a proud presentation of what they could offer and the work they had done on a particularly popular TV series. A phalanx of colourists and post-prod personnel waxed lyrical over the state-of-the-art console and the variations on a theme they could deliver at the touch of a button. It was indeed impressive. However, something was missing. The elephant was looming and it had to be called out. “Where is the DP in all this?”, asked one of the visitors, since none had been mentioned in this rush toward a brave new tomorrow. The silence that ensued among our hosts, followed by a general non-plussed-ness, was eloquent and truly worrying.

We must not allow this to become the new normal. It is beholden upon all of us to stress to producers our involvement from prep to post. It’s our work and we should be in the room with the personnel of our choice.

Mike Eley BSC
President
British Society Of Cinematographers