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ASC Master Class Gives Cinematographers Intensive Hands-On Training


LR-Attendees around monitorTraining in the commercial arts is a notoriously difficult thing to evaluate. In a field where the success of results are – at least in a purely artistic sense – entirely a matter of opinion, the only realistic way to evaluate the qualifications of a practitioner is his or her experience. Of course, there’s always the financial imperative to fall back on; training in most cases is calculated to increase the trainee’s employability, but the considerations are frequently much the same. Prospective trainees in any creative field will be looking for independent, objective assurance that the tutors on a course have the requisite level of expertise.

Few organizations can be more qualified to provide that assurance to budding camera crew than the American Society of Cinematographers. The world’s first invitation-only organization in its field, the society was founded in 1919 and is an exclusive club. There have been fewer than a thousand members all told. Membership includes people who have demonstrated great ability behind the camera and a willingness to engage in outreach work and education, and as part of this latter initiative, the ASC runs an intensive Master Class. Taught both at the society’s clubhouse in Hollywood and at nearby production and postproduction facilities, the class boasts a faculty drawn from the society’s membership, and as such includes some of the world’s most respected cinematographers.

On set with the Varicam 35.
On set with the Varicam 35.

Taught over five days, the June 2015 course began with a day of at the ASC’s historic clubhouse on North Orange Drive in Hollywood. Stephen Burum, ASC, director of photography on films including The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way and Snake Eyes led a theoretical discussion with much reference to historic cinema, including black-and-white classics such as The Razor’s Edge and Casablanca, as well as greats of the Technicolor era, particularly West Side Story. The presence, in the ASC’s clubhouse museum, of an original three-strip Technicolor camera, could hardly be more appropriate. The chronology of equipment on display goes all the way back to the silent era, although it’s notable that no digital camera is yet considered sufficiently historical to have been included.

The course’s second day took place at the demonstration stage belonging to the famous Mole Richardson company. Taught by Theo van de Sande, ASC, the day took full advantage of the equipment on offer, including the ARRI Alexa and Panasonic Varicam 35 cameras, provided by the respective companies, as well as a full catalog of Mole’s own products, including their new LED lighting. Van de Sande’s considerable experience includes the first of the Blade films, Cruel Intentions, Volcano and many others. Footage shot on this day would later be examined at EFilm‘s postproduction facilities.

Bill Bennet with Alexa.
Bill Bennet with Alexa.

Specialist techniques for car commercials and greenscreen formed the core of the third day, with a morning of demonstrations by Bill Bennett, ASC, of his techniques for vehicle photography. While these approaches to lighting might ordinarily occupy some of the world’s largest sound stages with enormous reflective white panels, a model was used to bring the requirements down to a more achievable scale, and significant attention given to the treatment of reflective and chromed objects. In the afternoon, Sam Nicholson, ASC, demonstrated greenscreen effects work with a demonstration of real-time camera tracking and compositing. Postproduction specialist Josh Pines was on hand at the end of the day, to provide a quick-fire description of the Academy Color Encoding System, a subject that would be touched upon again during Friday’s postproduction session.

The final day at the Mole Richardson stage was led by Caleb Deschanel, ASC, a cinematographer with experience including The Right Stuff, The Patriot and the recent hit Jack Reacher. While Deschanel, like van de Sande, included lighting exercises, the highlight of the day was undoubtedly discussion of the techniques used to produce the aerial sequences for The Right Stuff, particularly including swashbuckling tales of filming fighter jets from bombers which could barely keep up with the smaller aircraft.

Joachim Zell
Joachim Zell

Appropriately, the last day of the ASC Master Class began at EFilm’s Hollywood postproduction facility, a building intimidatingly signposted as existing under the auspices of the MPAA‘s security protocols, so sensitive are the projects on which it works. Post specialist Joachim Zell, a vice president at EFilm, led a session describing the film finishing process, including colour correction demonstrated on the footage shot earlier in the week. There can hardly be a better place to view material on the big screen, and the opportunity to compare the incumbent Alexa against Panasonic’s more recent contender, the Varicam 35, was interesting in itself.

After an afternoon chaired by Curtis Clark, ASC, discussing his work on Alamo Bay, the course ended with a segment on politics – perhaps the least-expected class, but just as welcome given the attendance of a whole panel of ASC members with centuries of experience between them. The following dinner, being something of a celebration, inevitably provoked some memorable moments, but prospective attendees will need to book their own course in order to fully appreciate the lighter moments of education.

Sam Nicholson
Sam Nicholson

At the best part of $3,000, the ASC’s Master Class isn’t particularly cheap, though if those criteria about experience are in any way influential, it’s hard to see what other organization could so ably satisfy them. The course is often quite freeform and will best serve people with an inquiring mind and the willingness to ask questions, but there can be almost no better circumstances in which to do so.

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