A Film By...
A few years ago, I got a phone call from a director with whom I had collaborated on an independent feature — a project that had come, of course, with certain monetary concessions concerning fees, crew and equipment. It was the director’s first film, but he had a substantial résumé directing for the stage; his familiarity with drama was eminent but not necessarily practical. Nevertheless, we had a great time making the film, and it proved to be a particularly worthwhile creative endeavor.
I had enjoyed it from the start, in preproduction, where style and tone were discussed while burning the midnight oil. Scouting locations had felt gratifying, as the director was open to my comments on their practicality and look. We shot tests and occupied a DI suite to create the LUTs for the film, and we decided to favor wide-angle lenses as we discussed the immersive and dynamic feeling they brought to our shots of the actors’ faces.
After production wrapped, we put the finishing touches on the film in the DI suite — and then I was on to the next project. So, when the director called me, I was thrilled to hear that the film had been invited to a small but prestigious film festival. He went on to tell me that he had been asked to come along, but, unfortunately, they could not provide travel or accommodation for the cinematographer. He suggested, though, that it would be great if I could go anyway, especially considering our close collaboration.
So off I went a couple of weeks later, excited and brimming with anticipation that there would at last be some recognition of our hard work.
I had tried to book a room at the director’s hotel, but the rates were prohibitive because of the festival, so instead I found modest lodging a few miles outside of town. I took an Uber to the premiere, but of course the Honda Accord was not allowed to drop me off at the front of the theater. As I walked from the car to the venue, I caught a glimpse of the director arriving in a black SUV, from which he was quickly ushered into the theater, over the red carpet. Thirty minutes later, I made it inside with the rest of the audience. I was seated in the front row and told that there might be some questions from the audience during the pre-screening Q&A.
There was full applause when the director was invited to the stage by the moderator, a prominent film critic. At first, they talked about what had inspired the director to take on this script. But then, when the conversation shifted to the cinematic language — the film’s look and tone — and the director started to share his intentions, I wondered if I was in the wrong theater. What he talked about had nothing to do with our intensive collaboration in prep, our philosophical discussions on set, or the expression of our feelings about color and density during postproduction. He referenced drama and literature we had never considered. And when it came to the look, he talked about Basquiat and Rembrandt — an odd couple, to say the least, and two artists we had never discussed.
It was then I realized he was not referring to “we” or “our,” but just to “I” or “my.”
Out of the blue, the director pointed me out in the front row, introducing me as “my cinematographer.” After a brief audience acknowledgment, the moderator asked if there were any questions for the cinematographer. There was one: “What camera did you use?” I was momentarily speechless. The thought raced through my head, “How irrelevant,” but my thought was cut short from being vocalized when the moderator jumped in to announce that, for the sake of time, we had to start the film.
Soon a welcome and comforting darkness descended on the theater. Relieved, I slumped back in my seat. But then, towering over me on the screen that was just 8 feet away, the first title appeared in the dark: “A FILM BY…”
A little more than 100 years ago, in 1915, the iconic American filmmaker D.W. Griffith (above, with cinematographer Billy Bitzer, ASC behind his Pathé camera) claimed in the credits of The Birth of a Nation that the movie was “a film by” none other than himself. It was the first instance of what is now commonly referred to as a “vanity credit.” As Margaret Heidenry wrote for Vanity Fair in 2015, the practice has become “an ongoing fount of backlot drama between directors and, well, most everyone else whose name scrolls by in a movie’s title sequence. When a director brands a film as his or hers, the argument goes, he or she diminishes the efforts of the some 500 cast and crewmembers’ creative contributions to an average studio picture while self-elevating their own status.”
It’s probably not a coincidence that the ASC was founded 100 years ago, when the debate surrounding the vanity credit was just beginning to rage. Our founders in the Society’s formation were very concerned about the role of the “cameraman,” as they were referred to in those days. They looked for artistic acknowledgment and strove to educate the world that a director of photography was not just a technician with a camera, but a visual artist who contributed to the actual storytelling. And so it was that our Society was founded as the American Society of Cinematographers, and not the American Society of Cameramen.
In her Vanity Fair article, Heidenry continued, “A director stamping their creative DNA on everything from a movie’s costumes to cinematography diminishes the inherently synergistic medium of filmmaking represented by the industry’s some 13 other unions and guilds.”
In particular, the Writers Guild has been more or less openly at war over the vanity credit essentially since its first appearance. In 1966, the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers forged an agreement whereby a director could only claim the vanity credit if he or she had also written the script; pushback from directors was immediate and vehement, and the ruling was abandoned. More battles followed, and then, in 2004, the Directors Guild acquiesced with its own guidelines for the credit — guidelines that they also defined as “non-binding.”
So, after a century of debate and arguments, writers and cinematographers find themselves in the same awkward position. Consider the duties of the cinematographer as noted in that most public of forums, Wikipedia: “A cinematographer or director of photography is the chief over the camera and light crews working on a film, television production, or other live-action piece, and is responsible for making artistic and technical decisions related to the image.”
Wikipedia continues with a significant observation: “The cinematographer selects the camera, film stock, lenses, filters, etc., to realize the scene in accordance with the intentions of the director. Relations between the cinematographer and director vary. In some instances, the director will allow the cinematographer complete independence; in others, the director allows little to none, even going so far as to specify exact camera placement and lens selection. Such a level of involvement is not common once the director and cinematographer have become comfortable with each other; the director will typically convey to the cinematographer what is wanted from a scene visually and allow the cinematographer latitude in achieving that effect.”
What all of this highlights is that the meaning of “collaboration” is applied selectively. In the first contact between a director and cinematographer, collaboration tends to surface uniformly — but then it often seems to erode during postproduction and in promoting a project. Frankly, I am not aware of cinematographers trying to pry credit from directors, but it does occur that directors pry credits from cinematographers, including with the “film by” credit.
Today, more directors are photographing their own films, and the possessory credit seems to be as popular as ever. Steven Soderbergh has long been photographing his own movies, but in his case, he has not only stayed away from claiming “a film by,” he has been a vocal opponent of that title. Cinema, he argues, is a collaborative medium where everyone working in it is a part of the process. “A film by” is a destructive, vain credit. I couldn’t agree more.