Focus on Cinematography: Snapshots of the CSC at 40

The Canadian film industry was still in its infancy in 1957 when Herb Alpert and 'Sammy' M. Jackson-Samuels decided that although they were few in number, Canadian cinematographers needed an organization to promote and foster their craft....

The Canadian film industry was still in its infancy in 1957 when Herb Alpert and ‘Sammy’ M. Jackson-Samuels decided that although they were few in number, Canadian cinematographers needed an organization to promote and foster their craft.

Forty years and some 700 members later, the Canadian Society of Cinematographers continues its tradition of educating and providing its members with technical information and a professional status as it grows side by side with the industry itself.

‘The csc has changed with the advance of motion pictures in Canada. We grew with the industry and became a necessity,’ says Jackson-Samuels, a retired dop-turned-watchmaker who still beams when he talks of the organization he helped found.

Unlike the American Society of Cinematographers, which was by invitation only, it was decided that csc membership would be open to the cinematography fraternity, and in 1959 Robert Brooks and Fritz Spiess sat down to write the bylaws spelling out the aims and goals of the organization.

‘There were two things that we emphatically did not want to do,’ says Brooks, who at 67 can still be found behind the lens. ‘We did not want to become political and we did not want to be a lobby organization and become involved in any union activities: the point was to promote cinematography and we didn’t want anything to clutter that.’

While some of the rules have evolved with the growth of the csc, it is still basically run by the same bylaws passed by Spiess, Brooks and 13 original members at Toronto’s Westbury Hotel in February 1959.

Members include cinematographers and dops, camera assistants, focus pullers, operators, Steadicam and Wescam operators, videographers and specialists, teachers and students, which adds to the diversity of the organization and makes it typically Canadian, says president Joan Hutton, the only female full member of the csc.

Recruiting is not a problem, says Hutton, since most people employed in the field are already members, including those at tv stations who she says were always the hardest sell.

With a large membership base and few in the industry left to recruit, the csc encourages cinematography students and recent grads to join by offering them a break on fees ($80 initiation fee waived, $65 in annual dues).

‘We are really going strong and we have a lot of good programs,’ says Brooks. ‘In terms of young people joining, it is a key for them. They could be the best but everybody needs a little help to get started.’

Monthly meetings bring members up to speed on the latest film stocks, camera and video equipment, and offer the opportunity to meet the innovators of the industry and view the work of cinematographers from Canada and around the world. Workshops, seminars and special events are scattered throughout the year and the CSC News keeps members abreast of the industry.

‘If you are a member you get to call on this large pool of talent,’ says Hutton. ‘Cinematographers traditionally are very giving people. I can think of a lot of people who if I had a problem will help me solve it, and that is all part of belonging to the csc, helping each other’s careers.’

Education remains a top priority for the csc, which offers a number of professional development courses. Until its camera assistants course was launched more than 20 years ago, anyone looking for technical training had to go to film school.

This highly acclaimed, intensive course attracts applicants from coast to coast, but only 15 in Toronto and in Vancouver ­ the maximum number the industry can absorb in each city ­ are accepted.

‘People pay around $800 for the course, which is what it costs to produce it, and it is a lot of money to pay if they aren’t going to get any work,’ says Hutton. ‘We want to keep it so that there is a really good expectation for when they are done.’

Hutton is working to expand the csc’s educational services in Montreal and the Maritimes and make them more accessible across the country. This winter for the first time the csc will also be offering a Betacam assistants course to train film enthusiasts on making the transition to tape.

Jim Mercer, who has been part of the organization for over 20 years, says the seminars and demonstrations are an important part of the csc as they keep people updated on the latest technical innovations.

‘I made the switch from film to video about eight years ago and the csc helped me do that,’ says Mercer. ‘They provide the technical liaison with video people. As with any new craft it’s not just a theoretical exercise, you have to have a hands-on demonstration of how the equipment works.’

With the current boom in film and tv production in Canada, experienced dops are finding their dance cards full, opening up opportunities for those starting off in the business to get some fast breaks in their climb up the ranks.

But it still takes time.

‘If you start as a second camera assistant it takes about 10 years to make it to dop,’ says Hutton. In order to be a success behind the camera, she says, a budding young cinematographer must possess strong technical and artistic abilities ­ and learn to balance the two.

Those who have perfected the delicate balancing act are recognized at the annual awards. Launched in 1961, awards were presented in four categories: best color cinematography of a theatrical or non-theatrical film, best b&w theatrical or non-theatrical film, cinematography for tv, and best cinematography for a tv commercial. Today, still judged by a jury of fellow cinematographers, awards are presented in more numerous categories including dramatic shorts, documentaries, industrial, unique production and student films.

Despite their world-class reputation at home and abroad, Canadian cinematographers are still trying to win over American productions shooting here, says Hutton.

‘When it comes to things like mows it’s very hard to get Canadian dops on them even though the talent is there. They want known quantities so they go with the American dops,’ says Hutton. However, she adds, ‘There has been a bit of progress.’

As to the volume of work available to Canadian dops, Hutton says it depends on the individual; while some work all the time, others may work only two months of the year and make enough money in that time.

According to Hutton, a commercial dop makes around $3,500 a day. On features and series, a dop can make anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 a day ‘depending on who they are.’

For the csc itself, one of the biggest challenges is having enough time to do all that needs to be done, says Hutton. ‘We are a volunteer organization. We traditionally have a very hard-working volunteer executive board who work very hands-on.

‘Everyone is so busy right now, I could be working three times as much as I actually physically can,’ she says.