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.



  1. It is a slippery slope to try and demand full authorship when we are really collaborators within a group under the orchestra director’s wand. I do wish that we would get residuals like the DGA members do (even the 2nd AD) but I understand that our union took that from us and use the residuals they receive in our place (Hollywood Post 60’s I believe) and put that into the P&W fund. I know that this isn’t necessarily a belief that is popular with our fellow cinematographers but I don’t think that we are the guardians of the image any longer so much due to the introduction of the digital intermediate, then digital capture and the proliferation of computer generated and manipulations of camera original “files”. Even if you originate on film once it goes through scanning and becomes a digital file it is open to the world to change things. Even with editors doing coloring or changing framing or zooming in the edit bay with images that are 4, 6, 8 or even 12K. I agree that we should put our energy into getting paid properly for the post work, working shorter hours and healthier conditions like getting back our weekend turnaround.

  2. Very realistic assessment of the challenges of formally assigning additional rights to Cinematographers. Better , as you mention, to get some residuals. And , should keep working on contracts to insure the cinematographer can see their work all the way through the final edits and color timing

  3. Dear Richard, I agree with your point.

    For the European countries those 4 principal creators of a work (writer, director, cinematographer, editor) have major creative decisions, therefore they should retain the creative decisions’ right.
    The decisions’ rights ultimately become ownership rights.

    This leads to the main issue.

    Using the analogy of the house, for the European countries those principal creators designed, built, secured and protected the mansion.
    They weren’t merely carpenters.
    So the European countries are pushing the idea that if the owner of the mansion wants to change something about the house, he should ask those artists that built it if they are cool with it.

    Which is the main issue.

    There always have been lines between the owner of the house and the artists who built it for him.
    There are agreements and contracts used to establish those lines and their relationships.
    If I’m not the owner, then I’m one of the people who build the house, got pay and is still alive after work. Whether or not I’m happy with the result overall, the most important thing is that the owner got what he/she wanted.
    Most of the people are usually fine with those agreements signed, the lines set, the health covered, the bills paid and the artistic decisions made.
    If I wanted to claim ownership on the house, I would have invested some money and bought a piece of the land, but I didn’t.
    Because my job and my pleasure is building houses, not owning a piece of them.

    If the European countries’ idea will pass, the right of ownership will cross those lines.
    Fighting over a line was a privilege given only to the directors when there was a disagreement over the final design of the house.
    If more people would receive that kind of ultimate control because of the artistic decisions, at least two more categories of artists will soon claim ownership rights as well: the talents and the sound.
    And they might have their point.

    I believe the director is the designer of the house – writers are architects – and sometimes, if the designer is not happy with the owner’s decision to change the mansion last minute while assembling the roof, you get a director’s cut.
    But my name is Paul and this is between y’all.
    Personally, I see myself more as the guy that decides how much sunlight the house should get. I position of the windows, so the Sun will hit you in the right spot, passing through the curtains, and wake you up at 7 a.m. everyday, without overexposing your eye too much. I plan the interior lights inside the house based on the marbles and woods floors chosen for each room. I also help designing the landscape and approve the paints for the rooms.

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