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Tuesday, 21 August 2012 13:49

New ASC President Stephen Lighthill Talks Cinematography

Written by  Bob Fisher
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stephenlighthillascRecently chosen by his peers to serve as president of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), Stephen Lighthill, ASC brings a uniquely eclectic range of experience to his new role. As the Senior Filmmaker-in-Residence for Cinematography at the American Film Institute (AFI) Conservatory in Los Angeles since 2005, Lighthill’s mission has been to prepare the next generation of cinematographers to pursue their dreams.

Born in Springfield, Mass., Lighthill spent most of his youth in Connecticut and studied journalism at Boston University before gravitating toward filmmaking. After graduation, he drove to Los Angeles with a friend who was starting a job as an assistant documentary film editor with Producer David Wolper. The friends also detoured to San Francisco where Lighthill picked up an award for a student film. Maybe that side trip was destiny calling because Lighthill soon found freelance work on local television news and documentary crews in San Francisco. “Walter Dumbrow was the go-to cinematographer for Charles Kuralt at ‘60 Minutes,’” he reminisces. “They generally traveled to assignments together on a bus. When they didn’t want to drive the bus to the west coast and when Walter was on vacation, I worked with Kuralt. I loved those projects. That experience gave me insights into the importance of creating natural looks, which transport audiences to the times and places where and when stories are happening.”
Lighthill was on the second-unit crew when iconic Cinematographer William Fraker, ASC shot Bullitt in San Francisco in 1968. He was also an assistant cameraman on George Lucas’s early sci-fi film THX 1138 in 1971. Later that year, Lighthill, Judy Irola, ASC (then a local TV news photographer) and a few of their colleagues organized Cine Manifest, a collective that produced independent features and documentaries. Lighthill’s diverse credits with Cine Manifest include the documentary The Grateful Dead and Over-Under, Sideways-Down, a movie that aired on PBS. In 1980, Lighthill received a public television grant to make the political film Taking Back Detroit. He was editing film on a Steenbeck console when he got a call from Mark Kitchell about the 16mm footage for Lighthill’s anti-Vietnam War movement doc Sons and Daughters, which was archived in his garage. “Mark offered to review and catalog my film,” Lighthill recalls. “Every week, he mailed me a can of my footage with a number on it and a note describing the content. Mark subsequently included a lot of my footage in his documentary Berkeley in the Sixties.” The content also included Lighthill’s news film for CBS-TV and interviews he shot of people sharing memories of the anti-war movement around the University of California campus at Berkeley during the 1960s. Kitchell’s film claimed top honors in the 1990 International Documentary Association competition and was nominated for an Oscar in the following year.

In 1993, Lighthill moved to Los Angeles where Irola was heading the cinematography department at USC’s film school. Lighthill was recruited to teach when he wasn’t working on films, and he shot his first episodic TV series “Earth 2” in 1997. “After I got into shooting hour-long dramatic series for television, I had several months of free time a year when I would teach,” he says. “I have always loved teaching. I gladly embraced the opportunity to lead the cinematography program at AFI. One of the things we stress is teaching our fellows to put their hearts and souls into collaborating. I jokingly tell them when they enroll that they will earn a master’s degree in cinematography but they should be studying psychology, [because] they have to be diplomatic with all the people who they will collaborate with in the future.”

There’s no simple way to sum up Lighthill’s practical experience because he has literally done it all. He has shot news for local and network TV programs and has earned approximately 40 credits for documentaries, theatrical and television movies, and episodic TV series. The word “cinematographer” traces back to the 1890s in France when the Lumière brothers invented and built the Cinèmagraphe, a device used for both capturing and projecting motion-picture images on film. Cinèmagraphe was a conjunction of two Greek words to mean “writing with light and motion.” The American Society of Cinematographers traces its roots to 1906, a time when silent movies were recorded on black-and-white film that was hand-cranked through cameras. Pioneering cameramen organized clubs on the east coast and in Los Angeles, and these club members created a new language for telling stories with moving images. In 1919, after most of the east coast members had moved to L.A., the clubs consolidated into the American Society of Cinematographers with 15 charter members.

From the beginning, ASC membership has been by invitation based on the individual’s body of work. There are around 230 members today with national roots in approximately 20 nations. There are also around 200 associate members from other sectors of the industry. “Part of the magic of moviemaking is no one does it alone,” says Lighthill. “One of our goals at ASC is to reach out to our collaborators in all sectors of the industry, [the] producers, directors, the cast, production managers, location scouts and everyone else.” He recently announced that the ASC has organized a new committee tentatively called the Enlightening Committee. An important part of the committee’s mission is to inform industry professionals about the realities of how existing and new technologies are affecting the art form. “There is a lot of misinformation about how new technologies are changing everything,” says Lighthill. “Every project begins with a common vision and a need for everyone to collaborate to create a great film on time and on budget. That has always been the foremost concern of our members. A lot of thought and energy is being invested in understanding the realities of how new technologies are affecting that goal and how we can share that information with people in all sectors of the industry.”

Lighthill says that the new Enlightening Committee will focus on the urgent need to get everyone in the industry to focus on the importance of finding ways to effectively archive today’s films for tomorrow’s audiences. “I believe that the Digital Dilemma and Digital Dilemma 2 reports should be a call to arms for everyone in this industry, everywhere in the world,” says the DP. “Milt Shefter and Andy Maltz did a terrific job of researching and writing both reports for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Digital Dilemma report focuses on studio films, [while] Digital Dilemma 2 deals with the status of archiving independent movies and documentaries.” Lighthill stresses that ASC members are very concerned about the fact that there’s no uniform, universally agreed upon solution for archiving digital content. And while he observes that Hollywood studios may come up with a solution for archiving digital content in studio libraries, which have both significant cultural and financial value, it’s not likely to be inexpensive. And how independent filmmakers and cinematographers will archive their personal and professional digital films is a question that has yet to be answered.

Lighthill relates to this archive issue on a very personal level, since the news and documentary films he shot early in his career have since been integrated into award-winning, history-based documentaries. The docs that he worked on in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s are currently archived at UCLA and Pacific Archives in Northern California, and a Detroit library has archived Taking Back Detroit. Perhaps Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, ASC, AMC said it best. “Today’s films are the Rosetta Stone of our times,” he observed several years ago. “They are how future generations will know who we were and what we did.”
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