President’s Desk: A Film By... Part 1

Kees van Oostrum, ASC (Photo by Jacek Laskus, ASC, PSC)

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…”

To be continued …

Kees van Oostrum    
ASC President

Read Part 2 here.

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