By Henry Turner
Cinematography is at once the most obvious and the most subtle aspect of filmmaking. A seemingly simple question of camera placement can determine the emotional thrust of a scene. That’s just one reason why cinematographers need shorthand communication to meet timeline, esthetic and budget requirements—and why they build long-term relationships with crew members whose work they can trust.
One such DP is Richard Crudo, ASC, who also happens to be president of the American Society of Cinematographers. Crudo’s first assistant, Brian Osmond, has been with him for seven years. “As far as I’m concerned he’s the best there is,” says Crudo. “Seven years and I couldn’t say how many movies, but in that time I haven’t seen one soft focus frame from Brian, and that’s quite a statement. At the camera, the first assistant is your right-hand man, but everybody is your right-hand man at some time or another. Your gaffer, your grip, your operator; everybody has their position to occupy that is important to the whole enterprise.”
Following the adage that the real job is getting along with the people you work with, Crudo points out another key element of a well-chosen crew: temperament. “You spend a lot of time with these people over the course of a shoot: 10 to 16 weeks, five or six days a week, 16 hours a day. They have to be people that you can live with. And it just so happens that my guys are terrific.”
But on overseas productions especially, it is often hard for Crudo to bring his preferred crewmembers. “Out-of-town productions are often resistant to hiring my guys—they want to pick people up locally. I did a movie in Poland last year and I wasn’t allowed to bring anybody with me. It was a disaster! The idiocy of not allowing me to bring at least my key people—I’d have brought Brian, my first AC, and my operator and my gaffer. Taking those guys would have saved an enormous amount of time, effort, energy and money, and saved me from working with untrained and unknown quantities in terms of crew.”
Despite their crucial importance to a production, DPs generally insist that great cinematography is a product of teamwork, in which several key members of the camera crew determine esthetics as well as technical considerations.
Stephen Lighthill, ASC, points out that, “a big part of a cinematographer’s job is the ability to recognize talent—especially for key grip, gaffer, and operator. Those are jobs that require not just aptitude but talent, as well as understanding that the story is king and that we all serve the story.”
Lighthill insists that his crew contributes to the artistic value of the work, and often brings new ideas. “I always learn from my key people,” he says. “Sometimes they will go off and work with somebody else when I’m in a down period and then we’ll get back on a show together, and they’ll say, ‘hey, we learned this trick with so and so,’ and they’ll introduce me to a new piece of equipment or a different way of organizing the work or a technique of lighting. It’s a cross-fertilization that’s really important. And when I’m not working I get a chance to go to the equipment expos, so I bring fresh knowledge of those things.”
Like Crudo, Lighthill has sour memories of an out-of-town shoot where producers demanded he hire a local crew and leave his trusted guys back home. “I had to constantly tell the crew where to put all the equipment, and that makes the job unspeakably difficult, because you have no shorthand communication. And since you can’t have mistakes, you have to endlessly go over equipment lists and double check everything, and then walk the set to be sure that you did communicate directly. You have to do the whole job twice.”
By Henry Turner