Before the American Society of Cinematographers opened the doors of its historic Hollywood Clubhouse for the inaugural ASC Master Class in October 2013, considerable time and effort went into crafting the five-day session to ensure it would be as rich and rewarding an experience as possible for the students. Society President Kees van Oostrum — who, along with then ASC President Richard Crudo, initiated the idea of the Master Class — recalls the impetus behind the program’s creation: “We wanted to propagate a right way of working with the latest technologies that serve our creative intent, so cinematographers can remain in control of the image.”
With the Master Class, van Oostrum adds, students learn “not only how to shoot the footage, but the on-set working methods with the crew, including a digital-imaging technician, and the post process with the digital intermediate in a reference environment.” As one of the principal architects of the Master Class curriculum, van Oostrum stresses, “We don’t just teach technology, but the art and content matter of being a cinematographer. It’s an educational platform to show cinematographers how to go about finding their talent and being respected.”
Taking place over five consecutive days, the sessions incorporate a theoretical component that tackles such issues as color science, visual effects, set politics, and the analysis and appreciation of cinematography, as well as three days of practical lighting classes taught in a professional studio setting. Instructors have included ASC members Caleb Deschanel, Kramer Morgenthau, Shelly Johnson, Robert Yeoman, Dean Cundey, Affonso Beato, Karl Walter Lindenlaub, John Bailey and M. David Mullen, among many others.
From the outset, the Master Class has been aimed at cinematographers who have already developed an intermediate or even advanced skill set. This approach has had a powerful impact on the students, as well as the participating ASC members. “I can honestly say that I learned as much as — if not more than — my students did,” says Johnson, who has taught an all-day class on advanced lighting technique. “It’s very different to light sets in front of a group that is studying your decisions, and I tried very hard to make my choices meaningful from both a storytelling point of view as well as the technical side.
“What impressed me about the students was their willingness to learn and their obvious love for the art of cinematography,” Johnson continues. “They all had that twinkle in their eyes that a cinematographer looks for when giving advice. Their questions were focused and they had a great capacity to absorb the absolutely massive amount of knowledge that they were exposed to every day. My class occurred near the end of the week, and throughout our discussions and hands-on training, they were interested and energetic. When we took our material through color correction, they asked challenging questions that showed the highest level of appreciation for the techniques that were being demonstrated.”
Indeed, Crudo enthuses, the Master Class “has been a fantastic boon for the ASC. Everyone who has taken part has come away with renewed vigor about what we do and where cinematography is going.”
One surprise for the Master Class’ organizers has been the number of cinematographers coming from outside the U.S. “It’s at least 50 percent,” says Crudo. Students have come from as far away as Mongolia and the Philippines, Venezuela and Slovakia. Bill Bennett, ASC — who has been an instructor for every Master Class to date, teaching automobile lighting for commercials and branching into areas such as black-and-white infrared shooting — adds, “I’ve met students from all over the world — from every continent except Antarctica.”
Lukáš Teren, ASK, who has worked as a cinematographer on shorts, documentaries, music videos and commercials in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, recalls first learning about the Master Class: “I saw a video about it, and in it there’s a participant from Austria saying, ‘Why not?’ At that moment, I asked myself the same thing. I have always been a person who wants to learn more, and I thought the ASC Master Class would be the right place to gain knowledge — right in the capital of film, from the most experienced teachers in the craft.”
Filmmaker Summer-Joy Main agrees. “Honing an understanding of light, practicing setting up a shot for the camera, working with a crew, selecting the best lens and frame — these are crucial skills that require practical experience,” she says. “The Master Class offered that experience and, most importantly, it was under the direction of those most skilled at the craft.”
Hailing from the Philippines, Shayne Sarte notes that, at the time she began her own forays behind the camera, there was no film school in her country — so she learned by apprenticing herself to a director of photography, working as a grip and camera operator before stepping into the role of cinematographer. “When I learned there would be an ASC Master Class, I knew I had to do it,” she says. “As a cinematographer, you have to always be a student, and the chance to learn from the members of such a prestigious organization was a real opportunity.”
Earlier in her career, Louisiana-based Natalie Kingston attended a Maine Media Workshop, where she learned from ASC members Daniel Pearl, Rodney Taylor and Rexford Metz. “It was a life-changing experience,” she says, “so I knew I had to take the Master Class. Any time there’s an opportunity to take a class from an ASC cinematographer — much less multiple ones — I’ll jump on it.”
For David McGrory — who graduated with a degree in cinematography from the Los Angeles Film School in 2003 and has since been working as a gaffer in Local 728 — the Master Class also served as a means to establishing lasting working relationships. “[The value of] being able to contact those giants of cinematography to ask them for advice or support cannot be measured,” he says.
Those who have attended a Master Class session cite the chance to work with so many knowledgeable ASC members as the most obvious highlight of the course. But every student has his or her own most valuable takeaway. For Puerto Rico-based French photographer Pascal Henri Fontana, cinematography was something he initially learned on his own, as an offshoot of his successful commercial-photography work. He cites the Master Class as “an opportunity to learn different approaches from different ASC cinematographers, like Caleb Deschanel, Checco Varese, Don McCuaig, Amy Vincent — all their different approaches and philosophies.”
“What comes from the ASC members’ combined and varied points-of-view, unique personal opinions, and decades of experiences and judgment-calls is priceless,” says David Darby, ASC, who has participated in eight sessions and is a regular fixture on the “Politics on a Film Set” panel discussion. “If the Master Class had been offered when I was starting out, there is absolutely no way I wouldn’t have moved mountains to get into one.”