Who does the light, composition, color and camera movement of any motion picture belong to? According to U.S. copyright law they are the property of the producing entity. Moral law allows for a different interpretation. Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC refers to cinematographers as “authors of photography” and his assessment is correct. There’s an aspect of ownership to our contribution which supersedes that of all our collaborators.
The photographic elements that comprise a moving image belong to the cinematographer regardless of whether they insult the subject or create the most sophisticated effect. They’re the result of an intimate set of choices that all lead to the same conclusion: absence of light means absence of movie (hence, everyone else’s efforts). Even when the look is changed without our approval during post production, the original intent remains our own.
There is growing support in a number of European countries for legislation that will guarantee ironclad rights of authorship to filmmakers. This means that the principal creators of a work – the writer, director, cinematographer and editor – will be empowered to maintain ultimate control over their finished effort. Can you imagine the chaos that would descend should just one of them dig in with a grievance? We should consider ourselves lucky this sentiment hasn’t gained traction in the United States.
It’s a utopian notion for sure, but here’s a real jolt: it’s also a lousy idea, as most all-or-nothing propositions are. Right now a studio chief is thinking, “Why would I give ownership rights to the carpenter who just built my new mansion?” The same logic applies to us as hired-hands who are part of a collaborative endeavor. And while we indeed perform an irreplaceable service, I often encounter colleagues who have a ridiculously inflated idea of where we stand in the hierarchy. I call it “Cinematographer Derangement Syndrome.” They think the world revolves around the camera and blindly demand policies on par with the director’s right to final cut, which is an entirely different concept. They miss the point that Storaro once again so elegantly defines: we are merely part of the orchestra which the director conducts.
Our collective time would be more fruitfully spent pursuing goals that can actually be achieved. Shorter, saner working hours, pay for time spent in post, even a cut of residuals such as members of the DGA enjoy are all realistic and within reach.
Authorship of the image will always belong to us; that is immutable. But ‘artists rights’ isn’t quite the phrase it seems. Though it implies a certain potential, it should never be thought of as an inheritance. Otherwise it will come to represent only a long, pointless struggle.