Not making the grade

President's perspective / Barry Ackroyd

Not making the grade

President's perspective / Barry Ackroyd

It's been a tough start to 2016 for cinematography. We have lost some of the greatest-ever exponents of our art – Haskell, Vilmos and most lately Douglas Slocombe OBE BSC. Each of them so great and, in the case of Dougie, we lament the passing of a pioneer of British cinema who would have influenced even those two younger DPs.

Dougie’s visual works, starting as a world class photographer for Paris Match and then his prodigious output of films, are his enduring legacy. His life was long and his memory will live much longer. On behalf of the BSC, I salute one of our founding members and offer our most sincere condolences to his daughter Georgina and friends.

Not too long ago, I began a feature film where the production began by telling me that, "the main actor, the producer and the director are all taking a cut in their rates,” – due to it being a more risky kind of script and not a "blockbuster". Therefore, the rest of the crew, including myself, should all do the same.

I guess that, by now, anyone reading this article is smart enough to know just where this is going. And it is going to end badly. Well it did, in a way, but only for some. The film turned out to be successful, very successful. I fought my case, argued the obvious, that below-the-line crew are not the same as above-the-line, and I managed, at least, not to take a cut in what I had been paid previously.

The film went on to gross $218,791,314 at the box office, not bad at all. But here's the rub. Despite the initial ask for restraint, the head of physical production at the corporation/studio, who shall remain nameless, had a "principle”, and that “principle” was that the DP should not receive any payment for the DI grade. This argument I lost.

The filming went well, even though it was a very challenging script to shoot and included plenty of dangerous and difficult contributions from the entire crew. The below-the-line crew played their part impeccably and, as I said, the film was a success financially, creatively and critically. Although my struggle to bring sense to an office-bound, and probably frustrated, executive was not. I ended-up giving up almost six weeks to grade this two-hour 15 minute film, giving of my best as ever. Sitting there in the room were all the other contributors – the editorial team, the colourists, the brilliant VFX post production team – all rightly being paid. But, according to those somewhere in the chain of corporate command, the director of photography is simply meant to consider it a “privilege” to finish the film.

Look at this year’s BAFTA and Oscar-nominated films. Does anyone think that the five top nominations didn't benefit from the endless skill and dedication of the director of photography? Does anyone believe the DPs didn't see their production through to the end? Does anyone think that it's simply a privilege for Bob, Chivo, Ed, John or Roger to finish the film to the benefit of all concerned? No, these films shine out because of the work of their cinematographers.

Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki on <em>The Revenant</em>
Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki on The Revenant

So what is it that makes the above-the-line production team think they can create a caste system in filmmaking. To my mind it lies in the very divisiveness of the above-the-line/below-the-line dogma imposed on our industry. By keeping cinematographers as struggling artists, the executives can play the privilege of creativity card. We should be so lucky. The result is that the corporations get their cake and fill their faces.

What if there were shared residual payments, not for the few departments who have won their individual rights to the pot, but for all those who turn a script into a film? What if a percentage of the gross profit found its way back down the chain in some way? It would mitigate the extra, unpaid work and our handing-over of intellectual property. It might help make up for the time spent away from home and family, the unsociable hours and the enforced gagging orders, called “non disclosure agreements”.

Maybe this sounds like a first world problem? Maybe I'm just bitter and twisted? But, cinemas are full of avid cineastes and the potential for corporations to make profit from our skills and labours are at a zenith.

So what would be wrong with finding a surprise cheque in the post, that helped to pay-off the mortgage? Allowed us to take a real break? Gave us time to choose a better script (rather than the next script)? Time to think and time to catch up on the films we missed? Improve our art, and help us keep up with the new technology? Even get some time to write this article?

Digitally grading and finishing a film is a critical part of filmmaking. Unless the cinematographer is shown due respect throughout the entire process, and those who claim to hold "principles” admit that they are deliberately and knowingly taking advantage of cinematographers, then there is a conflict of interest.

I, for one, from now on refuse to go along with this dogma. Work in any walk of life ought to be paid for. When it is not, it becomes exploitation and organised exploitation is corrupt.

Cinematography is the mother of all cinema. Without the moving image there is nothing else. No directors. No producers. Nor actors. And certainly no presidents of production. I'm not saying cinematography is everything. Just that we, as cinematographers, know it puts the art into commerce.

Let me, on behalf of the BSC, congratulate Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki on his three consecutive BAFTA and Oscar wins. Amazing work. Long live cinema!

Barry Ackroyd BSC
President
British Society Of Cinematographers