Under A Bushel

President's Perspective / Mike Eley BSC

TWC - Paris

Under A Bushel

President's Perspective / Mike Eley BSC

“Serious shortage of people doing ‘proper jobs’ on film sets.”

“Streaming could kill the UK independent film industry.”

Those two headlines, both seen within weeks of each other earlier this year, were eye-catching and not a little surprising. The first was set around an organised appeal at the Cannes Film Festival by Skillset, highlighting a chronic shortage, worldwide, of electricians, carpenters and painters – those craftspeople and technicians upon whose backs all films, to a lesser or greater degree, rest. Without them, things not only grind to a halt, they very often don’t get started.

The second headline was based on the perception that big beasts such as Netflix and Amazon are trawling the talent pool in this country to such an extent that small, independent films cannot find – or more importantly, afford – experienced crews to work on their projects. Also, that long-running TV series handcuff the kind of acting talent that can otherwise get an indie film off the ground.

The background to both headlines is the fact that we are currently experiencing an unprecedented boom here in the UK with regard to film and television production. I’ve lost count of the number of camera rental personnel and camera team members who, on being asked the perennial question, “You busy?”, reply with a look of wide-eyed astonishment bordering on terror, as if observing an engine about to explode.

There are many economic and logistical reasons as to why the UK is such a hub. We are the victims of our own success. We are exceedingly good at what we do. But, if we are to have an industry that is more than just a service one, we need to ensure it represents us as a nation. We need producers and screenwriters telling our stories, and we need a workforce that reflects our society.

It’s to be hoped too that producers don’t see this boom time as an opportunity to bump-up inexperienced hands working at lower rates since that benefits no one in the long run. Proper training is what is required.

But it is a timely reminder that our industry – and especially the camera department – is in dire need of diversity and, perhaps more surprisingly, ‘exposure’. This department needs to be seen in the round. Its history, its standing, its integral nature to, and connection with, everything an audience experiences when it goes ‘to the pictures’.

"If we are going to keep this engine running smoothly and efficiently, and if we are to celebrate its achievements as befits a national treasure, we must not be shy in opening up the bonnet and showing how it works."

- Mike Eley BSC

I write the following with a heavy heart, since I am a big fan of the BFI. It is a wonderful resource and archive as well being a showcase for world cinema and its heritage. I used to live close by on the South Bank and always regarded the cinema under Waterloo Bridge as ‘my local’. So when the BSC contacted the institute a little while ago to see if we could collaborate on a season of films to celebrate the society’s 70th anniversary, it was disappointing to get the following reply.

“We do not have space in this year’s programme for a cinematography season.”

Fine, I can understand that. The BFI is a prestigious venue and the planning for seasons and individual screenings must be an intense (but I’m sure enjoyable) problem to tackle.

But in the next sentence there was this, presented as a further reason for not pursuing the idea: “…audiences in the past have struggled to connect with seasons curated around cinematography, rather than a more traditional auteur or thematic approach, it just doesn’t seem to work as a narrative for more casual film fans sadly.”

There was something depressing about the stating-the-obvious nature of this verdict. I am sure film workers in the UK would love to know more about homegrown initiatives to support and promote their jobs, and I would encourage the leaders in our film institutions to get in touch and work with us to this end.

For if we came away with anything from last year’s Academy controversy involving AMPAS’s attempt to sideline the cinematography award, it was the oft-repeated quote (and often spoken by those who are not even cinematographers) that ‘cinematography is cinema’.

It seems inconceivable that one could separate cinematography from cinema like, say, one takes eggs out of a cake recipe. It is its very essence. That’s a universal perspective.

The local argument is even more compelling. If one looks at the remit of the BFI one sees the word ‘education’. The onus must be on all of our film institutions, wherever they can, to highlight the art and craft of filmmaking, and to promote those behind-the-camera disciplines that have made the British film industry so respected and loved around the world.

These films do not just get made by a director or its stars. They are sold on those names, for sure, but what a story aspiring young cinematographers, production designers and editors are missing out on if the light is only ever shone above the line. A business model built solely on a policy of bums-on-seats is reductive and, ultimately, self-defeating.

If we are going to keep this engine running smoothly and efficiently, and if we are to celebrate its achievements as befits a national treasure, we must not be shy in opening up the bonnet and showing how it works.

Mike Eley BSC
President
British Society Of Cinematographers