President’s Desk: Why We Don’t Fart in an Elevator 

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

When a prominent architect’s building is torn down, the community sometimes picks up arms and stages protests, defending the right of creation. When a painter sells a painting to a museum, it is not expected that the curator will grab a brush and change the work. Likewise, when a playwright delivers a play, one is expected to perform the words verbatim — who would attempt to correct or clarify the language used by Harold Pinter or Samuel Beckett? And when a photographer like Diane Arbus presents a portrait, the recipient does not demand possession of the negative or print their own version of the photograph.

However, in the world of cinematography, such conditions have become more and more a reality. Our industry has adopted the opinion that, based on the legal argument of the “work for hire policy” and the contractual clause that “signs over all rights,” any principles of civility are out the window. The reasoning is that cinematography is part of a multibillion-dollar entertainment industry where any concern for creative oversight is far outweighed by financial precedent.

But this line of thinking does not really track. After all, architects build million-dollar buildings. For example, the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures has run up an estimated $388 million price tag, and I do not think the Academy board would consider changing the exterior color of the ball-shaped auditorium without consulting with Renzo Piano, the architect. Similarly, the acquisition of a $40 million work of Vermeer in no way empowers a museum to change the painting’s composition to “please” a general audience. And if someone’s forked out $70,000 for an original photograph by Ansel Adams, who in their right mind would want to print it a little brighter? 

It’s simply not done, not because some legal statue prevents it, but because it has no place in our culture, just as we do not pee in public, fart in an elevator, eat with our hands, or burp at the dining table. So why is the work of the cinematographer, more often than not, relegated to a primitive free for all? 

At the ASC we have fought since our inception to be accepted as artists. But during the 100 years since our Society was formed, we seem to have achieved little in regard to civility and common sense. Yes, in some arenas we have gained respect, but in others we remain disturbingly exposed to repeated attacks on our position as artists.

Compare our situation with that of DGA directors, who are not only paid for postproduction but are guaranteed a director’s cut. Furthermore, it is quite uncommon — and basically not done — to not invite the director beyond the director’s cut. The situation with the producers has to be extremely contentious before that occurs. 

The director’s cut has been an accepted provision of directors’ contracts since 1964, when Frank Capra chaired the DGA’s Creative Rights Committee and went up against the studios to address the issue of creative control. Prior to this, directors could merely view a rough cut and suggest improvements to the associate producer. As the DGA’s website explains:

“Capra proposed that the companies and the DGA draw up a list of the top 12 directors in the world. In the event that any director held up postproduction in the way that the companies feared, the Guild, at its own expense, would fly in any one of those directors from anywhere in the world to finish that work, even if it was only a half-hour TV show. Impressed by the sincerity of the proposal, the studio heads agreed that the director is entitled to prepare his or her cut of the film.”

And so, the DGA’s Bill of Creative Rights was born. The Guild also followed up with a code of conduct regarding voluntary creative rights, educating the industry about the importance of civility.

After 100 years, I think it is time for cinematographers to follow through on our principles, and to demand that our work be respected.

Kees van Oostrum 
ASC President


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