Seeing as it’s awards season and everyone’s in a froth about who’s hot, we should refocus some of that energy toward the majority of cinematographers, the unsung heroes of what we do. You know who I mean: The lunch-pail gals and guys, the ones who always deliver first-class work yet for inscrutable reasons are never recognized for it. You’ll find there’s as much to admire about them as there is about anyone at the top of the pyramid.
John L. Russell, ASC (active from the 1940’s through the 1960’s) and John F. Warren, ASC (’50’s – ’70’s) offer two examples. Russell shot Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, but apart from that I defy you to associate either with another tip-of-the-tongue title. This’s odd because both were in constant demand for decades. And despite facing a preponderance of low budgets and short schedules, their work in a wide range of features and episodic television compares with the best cinematography of their time. So why don’t we ever hear their names mentioned along with the Gregg Tolands, Owen Roizmans and Conrad Halls? Why didn’t they get the assignments that would’ve brought them to that level of immortality?
You could say it wasn’t in the cards. Perhaps they didn’t care enough to pursue those goals. Who knows? Maybe they just didn’t go to the right cocktail parties.
Jump cut to today and we’re seeing more outstanding talent at the camera than ever before. Like Russell and Warren, the majority labor under the radar with an absence of fuss as the unicorns hog the laurels. Not unjustifiably, mind you. Unnecessarily.
Great cinematography doesn’t come about in a vacuum. Everyone strives to be part of the best projects with the best people; only a few consistently succeed, and they’re not always the most talented. During the hunt, a few things can be controlled – values and personality, technical and artistic facility, dedication and a willingness jump when opportunities call. Not so about luck and timing. Though we’re loathe to admit that such vague and illusive notions have power over our careers, their capacity to elevate or frustrate is real. Like playing the lottery, there’s no influencing them save for inviting positive outcomes, and even then, there’s no guarantee. The industry is not a meritocracy; the cream doesn’t always rise to the top. Only a monstrous ego would deny that something extra – a little magic, perhaps – is needed to reach the upper tier.
Nonetheless, there is hope for anyone feeling boxed in. A fine line separates competent work from the really well done. An even thinner one exists between that and the excellent. With everyone using the same tools, the issue becomes a matter of choice – why something is done in a particular way as opposed to how. This exercise of good taste – a friendlier intangible if there ever was one – is a great part of what gives the elites of our profession their advantage. It precedes any technical concern and while it can’t be taught, it can be developed. Look at the work of all the top guns. Their mastery of discernment unleashes the real power of what we do and is the quickest way to step up one’s game.
In the meantime, don’t forget those unsung heroes. Seek out lesser hailed cinematographers…you’ll find plenty of good taste in their work, too. Combined with the right timing and luck, any one of them has the potential to leap to the head of the pack in an instant!