By Bob Fisher
The celebration of the 75th anniversary of the International Cinematographers Guild is and an important milestone. The Guild traces its roots to the second half of the 1920s. It was still the dawn of a new art form, and black and white, silent films were hand cranked through cameras at 16 frames per second. The main centers of motion picture production were New York, Chicago and Hollywood, where separate guilds were organized within several years of each other. Their mutual goal was to provide cinematographers and crews with an ability to bargain collectively with powerful studios that were emerging as a dominating force in the industry. George Spiro Dibie, ASC became president of the Los Angeles-based, Local 659 (see companion story) in 1984, and the first national president of the International Cinematographers Guild in 1996. Next year, will mark Dibie’s 20th anniversary as a leader of the Guild. We asked him to reflect on the challenges ahead:
Below the Line: What do you see as the most urgent challenges?
Dibie: “Below the line” is a term left over from the time when actors, writers, directors, cinematographers and others were under contract to the studios. Camera crews were considered below the line because they were budgeted separately. It is perceived as kind of a derogatory term today, as someone who is less important than the stars and director. The truth is that any great, or even good, film results from a collaborative process involving many people. One of the big challenges for all of us is to stand up and shout the truth whenever vendors and naive journalists tell the world that technology makes the artistry and skill of cinematographers and their crews obsolete.
BTL: So, you don’t buy into the notion that new digital technology allows auteurs to shoot their own movies, better, faster and for less money?
Dibie: Visit our Guild’s website (cameraguild.com) and read my editorial and letter to the Los Angeles Times about their interview with Robert Rodriguez and two marketing guys from Sony. [A condensed version of the letter also appeared in October Below the Line.] The problem is that financial people at the studios read and believe those articles, and they think that technology can replace people. It has always been that way. The “green book” is still a problem for us today and that contract is around 50 years old. It was an effort by Los Angeles guilds to lure variety and games shows shot with video cameras in New York to stages in Hollywood. They agreed to work for lower wages and for fewer benefits. A few years ago, labor relations people at some studios tried to use the green book agreement to cut labor costs on episodic television programs and other movies produced with digital video cameras. They claimed it takes less skill and talent because of the technology. The truth is that it takes more time and skill if you light digital video right because there is less latitude and color depth.
BTL: How do you cope with that?
Dibie: All of us have to shout the truth every time we hear lies being told.
BTL: Are there other issues related to new technologies?
Dibie: Training is always a challenge. Gordon Willis (ASC) said, “You can’t paint your idea on a canvas unless you know how to use a brush.” We are constantly training our members to use all the new tools, including the new digital cameras, and our talented cinematographers also freely share their insights about the art of lighting at seminars. An enormous, current challenge is the trend toward using digital intermediate technology on movies. We have been doing it for years on commercials, music videos and television programs. Now it is beginning to happen on movies. It is very important for this technology to be treated as part of the cinematographer’s job, because it is now far too easy for anyone to change your work in postproduction. Pretty soon they’ll be saying, “we don’t need costume designers or set decorators [because] we can fix it in post.”
BLT: What’s the biggest concern today?
Dibie: Jobs! Far too many American jobs are being exported overseas, where it is cheaper and governments are offering tax and other financial incentives. Our Guild is working hard to convince elected officials in local, state and federal governments that they need to be more competitive and aggressive. We have had some successes with state governments in New Mexico, Louisiana, North Carolina and Illinois, but every one of us has to take this on as a challenge. Don’t wait for George to do it. Let your elected officials know you are watching them and you expect them to do the right thing.