Independent Filmmaker's Guide
April 20, 2021
How To Create A Prolific Film Career: 50 years with Steven Poster ASC
From working with Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg on huge budget classics, to helming indie film darlings such as Donnie Darko and Strange Brew, Cinematographer Steven Poster, ASC shares what it takes to continue making films, over 70 films and tv episodes in fact, for more than 50 years.
Today we sit down with him to discuss how he’s built such a lasting career and how he maintains the wonder of the work.
Steven Pierce: Okay. So tell me about how you got started initially, right? You started out, you were born and raised in Chicago and you started in still photography.
Steven Poster: Well, I started in still photography when I was very young. When I was about 10-years-old and by the time I was 12, somehow I knew that that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know whether they were talking about bar mitzvahs and weddings, news, school portraits, the things that we come in contact with all the time for photography. But when I was 14, I was sitting in my living room one day looking out at the street, and an old Jaguar drove up. And a guy got out, he was wearing a cap, he was smoking a pipe and he had a light meter on his belt. And I ran outside and I said, “Hi, I’m Steve. I live next door here and what kind of light meter is that?” And he said, “Son, we’ll have a lot of time to talk about that. I’m building a house next door to you.”
Steven Poster: And he was a news reel cinematographer, [Morrie] [Gleckman] was his name. He was a CBS news cameraman in Chicago. And he also was one of the owners of the 16 millimeter news lab. And he became my mentor. And the day I met him, I thought he was the coolest human being I’d ever seen. And I said, that’s what I want to do. I love movies, I love photography. I had no idea that they could be combined. And from that point on, what I wanted to do was be a cinematographer. Even though I didn’t quite know what that meant.
Steven Pierce: Now all the reports of you showing up everywhere in a Jaguar with a light meter on your hip. That all makes sense now. Now I get where they’re coming from.
Steven Poster: Yeah, yeah. And the beard and the pipe. For years I smoked a pipe until it became unpopular.
Steven Pierce: How did you get into narrative films? You started in commercials, right? More in documentary commercial world?
Steven Poster: Industrials, documentaries, educational films, shorts, just anything that … And commercials, and anything I could put film through a camera at that point. And I got paid for it too on top of it, which was very exciting. Actually sometimes I didn’t get paid for it, and sometimes I was stiffed, but those are the things you learn in business coming up. But my concentration all through college was still photography because there wasn’t that much availability of cinematography education. So I started out at Southern Illinois University, and they had a photography department, which happened to be combined with printing management.
Steven Poster: So in our photography studios, we had lithograph printers and it was kind of an industrial education. I finally got out of there and went to Art Center where I now teach. And I was there for a couple of years, and finished up at The Institute of Design, which was the American Bauhaus in Chicago. All with the idea of design. Design was the background. And cinematography was the foreground and photography was the foreground. So I came out of that, and in my senior year at IIT I got a job. I went into a commercial company for a job as an assistant. And they looked at a little film that I had shot in college and they said, well you know how to light.
Steven Poster: And I said, well yeah, I do know how to light. And they said, we’re going to hire you as a cameraman. I said, okay, I’m a cameraman. And that was it. And I just never looked back from there. I did a couple of assisting jobs and realized I was not a good assistant. So I stayed with being the cinematographer. And I just built up my career to the point where I started getting shorts to shoot. I actually produced and directed a short that won the Atlanta Film Festival for best short in the festival. And realized that I wanted to do narrative work. And that’s where I was headed all along.
Steven Poster: I got in the union after about five years of shooting in Chicago. And was able to get on certain productions as a camera operator. And it was just building, building, building on that. Until I got a job working for the inventor of gore films. Herschell Gordon Lewis, Monster a Go-Go, Blastoff Girls, grade Z motion pictures. But we were making movies. He could make an entire color feature film for $25000. Go figure that one out in those days. And one summer we made three movies. So that was my first official work in cinematography, in narrative cinematography.
Steven Poster: It was pretty exciting times until I started getting more union work, and started … I moved to California, and it took a few years to get my union certification out here. But once I did, I was given a TV show to shoot called Class of ’65. And I was on that until the series ended, and went on to TV movies and from there got my first feature. A big-time horror film called Blood Beach.
Steven Pierce: Sounds great. Blood Beach.
Steven Poster: Yeah.
Steven Pierce: I may have to dig that one out.
Steven Poster: It was after Jaws. And the catch phrase was now that you’re not afraid to go in the water, you can’t even get across the beach. And it was a monster that lived under the sand and sucked people under and ate them.
Steven Pierce: Sounds like it’s prime for a reboot.
Steven Poster: It was fun. And then from there I went to Dead and Buried, which was a very early zombie movie. Yeah, it was zombies. And then just kept building and building on that until I got to the things that sort of made my career, like being second unit to Rictor Photography on Close Encounters.
Steven Pierce: Exactly. Yeah, I was about to say, you’ve got some major titles that have come up in your career here like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or Close Encounters. And sorry my notes just jumped around here. You also worked on Blade Runner. Yeah.
Steven Poster: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Steven Pierce: So what were those … That had to have been very exciting to be a young person to be able to work on. At that point, nobody knew what they were. They were just another film, right? So what was it like to work on those?
Steven Poster: Well, Close Encounters was huge. For me, I was hired as … In those days when a film went into a territory like the Chicago territory or the central territory in the country, they have to have people from the union there. There were three different unions before we merged. And so I got … [inaudible] hired me to do Close Encounters. I got there and I was the Chicago standby cameraman. And it took about two or three weeks for Spielberg to even let me touch a camera. But one day he came to me and said, “All right, we’re doing this party scene in the backyard. Take a camera out and show me what you can do.”
Steven Poster: And so I spent the day photographing kind of background stuff and this backyard party scene. And Spielberg saw the Dailies. It was on a Wednesday, so he saw the Dailies on Friday. On Sunday I got a call to come to his editing room. I thought I was being fired, I had no idea what was going on. And he looked up from the editing bench and said to me, “All right, I got these five shots I want you to do next week second unit.” He said, “Here’s what they are. Go tell Julia Phillips, the producer tomorrow morning on Monday what you’re going to do.”
Steven Poster: Little did I know that, that was a setup for me to tell Julia Phillips that they really needed a second unit.
Steven Pierce: So you kind of got thrown into the fire.
Steven Poster: I got thrown in big time. And after about 40 minutes of Julia screaming at me that I have no authority. Who told you? What is it … And then she finally said, “Okay, do it, but go tell Clark Paylow, the production manager.” So I had to do it all over again and tell him that he was going to spend money on a second unit. And that was it for the rest of the show. Every week I was doing a series of shots for Steven. I was also operating the camera in some of it. So it was for me … In fact I had such an education on that movie, that Gaffert, who was one of these old Hollywood generals in a short sleeve white shirt that never got dirty stood there like this. And he had about a crew of probably 75 to 100 people working on it, it was that big.
Steven Poster: He said, “Kid, if you’re going to grow up to be a director of photography, you should get up there and learn how to run an arc.” So for three days I went up to what’s called the perms, the top of the set where we had 40 arcs spread out and it was a great experience working up there with the guys that you never see, that are up there in the high place where they go up in the morning and they come down in the day at night. And you never see them, but they’re running the arcs. And I learned how to trim and service an arc. And that was an amazing experience.
Steven Pierce: That sounds like an amazing experience, especially to be so young and get thrown into the fire like that and then succeed had to feel great.
Steven Poster: Oh it was. It was wonderful, and so it gave me a lot of opportunity to meet people and to experience the type of production that almost nobody ever gets to experience anymore.
Steven Pierce: Right. Those just massive kind of films.
Steven Poster: Yeah. And it was the first time I worked with Doug Trumbull who was a genius master at visual effects. This is well before digital.
Steven Pierce: What was it like? Was it a similar experience getting on Blade Runner?
Steven Poster: Blade Runner was interesting because I was brought in for one night to do something that Ridley had done that two other DP’s had attempted. And he still wasn’t satisfied with it. And he was fighting with the studio and he said, I need this done differently. And I got there and what it was, was that it was the shot of Deckard’s car, the Spinner, driving through the tunnel with the reflections on the ceiling and the white tile tunnel, which is the Second Street tunnel here in LA downtown. And the studio said, we’ve done this two times before, he didn’t like it. You can’t have any lighting, you can’t do anything. Just get out there with a camera and a water truck because it was very hot and we needed to wet down for reflections.
Steven Poster: He said, get out there and do whatever you can. And I had no idea what had been done before. I was not told anything. I went out, I had a car, I had a tunnel, I had a camera and a water truck. And so without any lights, I didn’t know quite what to do. I took … I had the crew and all the trucks that we had with us go to the other side of the tunnel and put their brights on and shine it into the tunnel to get some kind of value back there. And I put the camera on a sandbag, let the car drive by a few times. Did a couple other shots. And it’s exactly what Ridley wanted.
Steven Poster: I had no idea. What I found out was that the other two guys who had done it were putting the camera up higher and looking down. I’m a short guy. I got down on a sandbag, and on my hands and knees and did it that way. And he liked that. And so he kept me around for the rest of the shows. It was about four weeks. And every day we would come in and do something wild, the visual effects were being done. They would be doing two, three shots a day. And Ridley and I would go off to a stage and do an entire scene. I did the scene in the dressing room with Joanna Cassidy when the snake lady, when she beat up Harrison Ford and then runs out and gets shot and dives through the window.
Steven Poster: And I was constantly doing stuff like that. Daryl Hannah Pris, when she did her flip and put her hand in the boiling water, that was all me. Things like that.
Steven Pierce: So do you approach … What was it like, like the set? Like the instruments I assume you’re using back then are you … You’re shooting all that on stage, right? There wasn’t anything on [inaudible 00:15:58]?
Steven Poster: Oh yeah. Yeah.
Steven Pierce: So I assume that’s a pretty big build and construction. It takes days to assemble these big sets. And you’re using huge tungsten lights, right?
Steven Poster: Huge. Well, were tungsten and arcs, HMI’s didn’t exist at that time. So we were doing … And it was 35 millimeters, so it wasn’t extraordinary. It wasn’t 65 or anything like that. But it’s a different scale. We were … I did another movie with Ridley. I was his director of photography on Someone to Watch Over Me, which was his experiment in lower budget filmmaking. As opposed to $50 million or $100 million, it was $13 million.
Steven Pierce: Nice.
Steven Poster: So it was a little bit different scale.
Steven Pierce: It was a real tiny micro Indie.
Steven Poster: Exactly. And we were on the set over at Warner Brothers and we walked by the area that he had built the street for Blade Runner, and we were walking to one of the stages that we had. And he said, “The entire art department for this movie, Someone To Watch Over Me is less money than it took to just clean up the set after we were done shooting.” So that’s the difference in scale from what we did. But Someone To Watch Over Me is a terrific movie. I’m very proud of it.
Steven Pierce: So whenever you approach, whenever you’re starting to work with a director in the very beginning stages, and you’ve just … Well, let’s say we start before that. What appeals to you as a cinematographer? How do you choose a project to work on?
Steven Poster: You got something to shoot, I’ll shoot it for you. We’re freelance. We see the scripts and decide if it’s … And meet the people and decide if it’s going to be a compatible situation that I can get some creative chops out of. I’ve got one now, and I did Donnie Darko, okay? And everybody said, why did you do Donnie Darko after the big movies that you had done? And it was because I read the script, and the script was fantastic. And I said, I really want to do this movie. And I met with Richard and Sean the producer, and I said, I really like the script. I think the script’s terrific. I want to do this movie with you. But I will only do it if Richard and I can spend four or five days alone together learning about what it is we want to shoot.
Steven Poster: And they gave me those four days. We did it in four days. And we read the script word for word to each other, and we made each other justify what we wanted to see on the screen. My constant question to any director is, what are you telling the audience with this shot? What is the purpose of this shot narratively? And that’s a question that if they can’t answer, then you’re in trouble. But when you sit down and break down a script on that level where you are going through it word for word, scene by scene, beat for beat, you begin to understand the bones of the script in a way that you are telling the story and then I’m telling a story visually in a way that relates to the script or relates to the page. And also allows the actors the freedom to tell the story because we’re not trying to figure out what we’re shooting. We know every day what we need to shoot to make it a successful day.
Steven Pierce: So whenever you’re approaching that are you … How much classically in your relationships with director have they brought you what they … A very strong, creative, visual plan? And how often have you brought it and they wanted to manage more performance and storytelling?
Steven Poster: It’s different every time. Every director works differently. And the ones that I appreciate the most are the directors that will direct me as though I’m an actor. I want to be directed as a cinematographer. I feel the camera becomes a character in every movie.
Steven Pierce: I’ve been saying that for years. I’m glad to hear you say that.
Steven Poster: Oh yeah.
Steven Pierce: Yeah, I think it absolutely is. I come from a theatrical background. I studied theater in college and I grew up in the middle of nowhere in Missouri. So all we had was theater.
Steven Poster: Where? What school?
Steven Pierce: Poplar Bluff, Missouri. And I went to Webster in Saint Louis.
Steven Poster: Oh okay, because I’ve lectured at Southeastern Missouri.
Steven Pierce: Oh yeah.
Steven Poster: In Cape Girardeau.
Steven Pierce: My sister went to SEMO. Definitely, yeah I went to … Anyway, I went to a theater conservatory in Webster. And the reason I had done that was I think that storytelling was more universal. And I didn’t know much about film at all. But I was like, this medium’s only been around for 100 years maybe at that point. So I was like, I want to go for storytelling and that’s really what I want to focus on. And I always thought that what was really appealing to me as I get older is about filmmaking, is you get to have an influence as a director. And as a cinematographer into the image and the mood and the impact. Whereas, in theater, you’re more building, pushing a stone up a hill, up a mountain. You know what I mean? You’re pushing and pushing and pushing, and by the time you get to the top you should be able to push it and it runs by itself.
Steven Poster: Yeah. Yeah.
Steven Pierce: So I’ve always thought that, that was the whole appeal of the medium.
Steven Poster: No, I think you’re right.
Steven Pierce: So, you’ve had quite a diverse career, starting first you’re doing first … Or sorry, second unit on things like Blade Runner. And then you get into a whole DP career, cinematography career of your own. For instance, here’s kind of an odd one that I pulled just in the scope is Strange Brew from 1983.
Steven Poster: Oh. Loved that movie. I adored that movie.
Steven Pierce: Yeah, so our producer, [inaudible] who produces this, he’s obsessed with that movie.
Steven Poster: Me too.
Steven Pierce: He said he used to go rent it from Blockbuster all the time. What was it like filming that?
Steven Poster: Four months of laughter. It was one of the most delightful productions I’d ever been on. It was so much fun working up there. Bob and Doug, Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas are just so creative and so funny and such a … And it was such a light and free atmosphere. Max von Sydow doing a comedy. Can you imagine? [inaudible 00:23:17], the cast was fun. They were … The two of them, it was like working with six different people or maybe eight different people because you had the two people were the writers, the directors, the producers and the stars. And you never knew quite which one you were talking to at any given point.
Steven Pierce: Well, so Donnie Darko is super moody, very gritty. Loved the look, very … All about shape and shadow. Strange Brew, not the same. It’s a comedy. The construction’s different, the lighting’s different. How do you … Do you approach the genre comedy different than drama, or is film by film? Or is there a difference [inaudible 00:24:08]?
Steven Poster: No, it’s really film by film and director by director and actor by actor. No two are the same ever. In fact, I’ve done three movies with Richard Kelly. All three are completely different experiences. And they were all fun. They were all lots of fun and lots of hard work because Richard is very demanding and he always wants to do more than his budget can afford. I’d like to say his eyes are bigger than his stomach. Did you mother ever say that to you?
Steven Pierce: Oh yes, definitely.
Steven Poster: Yeah, yeah. So but each one is different. I tell you with Strange Brew, they gave me so much freedom because they were just so … They had never done this before. And they really collaborated with me in every possible way. And it was to this day it’s a classic. I watched it not so long ago. And of course, you realize that the two astronauts that just flew the SpaceX rocket were Bob and Doug.
Steven Pierce: Yeah, I recognize the name. I thought of that as soon as you said the name, or mentioned them.
Steven Poster: I know. I know.
Steven Pierce: So are there any … Oh, go ahead.
Steven Poster: Go ahead. It’s just you … Every film has what I want to call a gestalt. A kind of sphere. And within that sphere there are different spheres that all interact with each other. And something up here can have one action, that it’ll affect something down here. Everything is connected within a production. And you begin to understand what the structure is that you’re working within, and what this particular gestalt of humans and interacting with other humans. And each one’s different. There’s no two that have ever been alike.
Steven Pierce: On a typical Indie film that you’ve done, how much prep are you doing? And how do you dissect your prep?
Steven Poster: Well, it depends. I’ve done as little as four days on a movie, which is not enough.
Steven Pierce: And that you found successful? Do you think it was success …
Steven Poster: Yes.
Steven Pierce: Wow.
Steven Poster: Yes, yes, yes. And I’ve done as much as 10 weeks prep.
Steven Pierce: Wow.
Steven Poster: With Richard Kelly, Richard and I do a lot of work in prep. And I like to be around to help him hire the right crew and people that he wants to work with. Shape the production as much as possible because it’s a family affair with Richard. And you really want to have a certain amount of watchful control over everything. So I do a lot of prep with Richard. And that’s the way he likes it. Some movies you come on late … There was a movie that I got taking out the garbage, how about that? I was living up here in Laurel Canyon and I had just gotten back from Strange Brew. And I was taking out my garbage and I saw my neighbor and I said … I knew he was a producer. And I said, “Hi, what are you doing?”
Steven Poster: And he said, “What are you doing?” I said, “Well, I just got back from Canada shooting this very funny movie.” And he said, “Well, I’m doing this little antinuclear film.” I said, “Really? Oh, I’d love to read the script.” He said, “Well we already have a DP.” I said, “No, no, I just want to see what you’re doing. It sounds great.” And he gave me a script and I read it and gave it back to him the next day. And I said, “Jonathan, this is fabulous. Whatever I can help with, this is an important movie. And whatever I can help with I would be glad to help.” And he said, “Well, we already have a cameraman.” Two days later he said, “Our cameraman quit and we’re starting to shoot in four days.”
Steven Poster: And I said, “I’ll dot it.” And he said, “Well, I don’t have a lot of money.” I said, “I’ll do it for free.” Because it was 21 days of my life. And it was a fantastic … To this day it’s one of the most chilling movies I’ve ever seen on an antinuclear subject. It’s called Testament. You should see it. It’s about a town that doesn’t suffer any of the blast damage in a nuclear war. But it gets the radiation. And people start dying. And the town starts dying. It’s just … Jane Alexander stars in it and she’s amazing. Lynne Littman was the director and it’s a classic. And it’s an important movie. It’s probably one of the most beautiful and important movies I’ve ever done in 21 days.
Steven Poster: And with a $700000 budget. So it’s not the amount of money you have, it’s not the amount of time you have. It’s the amount of heart you put into a project. And that’s … It’s your heart and your soul. If you’re telling that story that’s that important, that’s the focus.
Steven Pierce: That’s amazing. And it’s so inspiring to hear … To talk about different scopes of projects that you can do something very quickly that still can be very impactful. But the story really does come down to being the key part. Not the technical elements, it’s the story.
Steven Poster: It really is. Hey listen, I prepped a Mel Brooks movie in four days.
Steven Pierce: No way. All right, so let’s hear about that. I feel like Steven, every time you open your mouth I’m about to ask another question. And then you just casually drop, like one time I prepped a Mel Brooks movie in four days.
Steven Poster: Yeah. Well, it was … What happened was a friend of mine worked for him as one of his writers. And I got home on a Sunday from a location, a commercial location. And I got a call from my friend Steven who said, “Would you like to shoot a Mel Brooks movie?” And I said, “All my life, Mel Brooks since I was 12 years old, since The 2000 Year Old Man came out, I’ve been a Mel Brooks fan. I’ve always wanted to work for him. And in fact, when I came out to Art Center to go to school, I found out Mel Brook’s address and I went to his house. And I put an envelope with a letter in his mailbox saying, I will sweep the floors, I will do anything.
Steven Poster: I was a huge Mel Brooks fan. And I actually did get a letter back thanking me and saying, no, there was nothing at the moment. But here was my opportunity. And I said, “Yeah, I want to shoot a” … And he said, “Well, we’re starting to shoot next week. And we want you to read the script.” So they dropped the script off at the house Sunday night. I read it. Monday morning I called my friend and I said, “Yes, I’m ready. I want to meet with Mel.” And that afternoon I came in to the office and Mel was there with his producer and the two writers. And we had a discussion. And I had just gotten off of shortly before that, Rocky Five, which was a horrendous, horrible experience for me.
Steven Poster: And was not going to work that summer. I was going to take the summer off. But here was Mel Brooks, and I said to him, I said, “Mel, I really want to do this movie with you. I really want to work with you. But you got to make a deal.” And he said, “What’s that?” And I said, “I know from all my cameramen friends that have worked for you, that you yell and scream at cameramen.” He said, “Yeah, I do. I do.” I said, “You’re allowed to yell and scream at me, but you got to be nice.” And he turned to his guys and says, “I could do that. I could do that.” And we finished the conversation and he said, “I’ll call you later.” So I got home, about 6:00 in the evening he called me up. And he said, “We want you to come in tomorrow and spend the day with us scouting because we want to check out to see if you’re a prima donna or not.”
Steven Poster: And I screamed into the phone, “I’m not a prima donna.” And he turned to whoever was in the room and says, “He says he’s not a prima donna.” And I came in, we scouted and that was it. It was love. It was absolute love. And I just …
Steven Pierce: That’s Life Stinks, right? The movie.
Steven Poster: Life Stinks. Every single day he would come in, in the morning and get in my face and start screaming at me, “You don’t know anything about comedy. You’re costing me millions of dollars.” And I would stand there and laugh. It was a 2000 year old man yelling at me. How can I take it seriously? And halfway through the movie he came to me and said, “Steven, you’re doing a good job. I want you to know that. But I come in and I yell at your every morning. But I want you to know, I’m not yelling at you. I’m yelling at them. But you can take it, they can’t.”
Steven Pierce: That’s fantastic. That had to be a bright spot from sending an envelope and being like, “I’ll sweep your floors.” To being like, “You’re the guy I’m going to yell at.” You basically ended up doing it.
Steven Poster: To this day I see him socially and he’s just wonderful. Just wonderful.
Steven Pierce: So how was that transition from film to digital for you? And do you think that it opened any doors for you?
Steven Poster: [crosstalk 00:34:28]. I’m going to say this publicly. Don’t tell anybody. But I’m one of the few cameraman that is not nostalgic about film. I really feel that we have been given the tools and the opportunity to do things visually that we never were able to do before. And I think that’s an important concept because if you just stay … It was so much better on film, you’re missing out on a whole world of opportunity. So yeah, I love film. If somebody paid me to shoot film again, I’d do it …
Steven Pierce: I think we lost your mic there again for a second. Would you just … Oh, hang on, I might’ve lost you. You still there Steven?
Steven Poster: Yeah. Can you hear me? Yeah.
Steven Pierce: Yeah, now I can hear you. So pick it up right there from if somebody would pay me to shoot film, I’d do it.
Steven Poster: If somebody would pay me to shoot film, I’d love to do it again. It’s fun, it’s a different medium. But I got very involved in the transition to digital from around 1990 on. I was brought in to shoot an experimental program for Sony and HK and Panavision on how to see that if their camera that they put together could be used to do narrative work. And from that point on, I became very involved in the transition to digital to that point at which when I was president of the ASC, I started the technology committee because I knew that we needed to be involved on a different level at the ASC in this transition or we would lose it.
Steven Poster: And it’s now called the My Tech Committee, motion imaging and the technology committee and council. And but it’s gone on all these years that it’s this little committee that I started to do very, very important things.
Steven Pierce: So what is it like, your induction into the ASC? I’ll admit, I actually don’t know a lot about the ASC. I just know that those letters mean a lot. So what was your experience with it? And then obviously I’d love to know your overall thoughts about it as an entity, as a former president.
Steven Poster: The ASC is a wonderful organization. It’s a fraternal organization. It is progress loyalty and artistry embodied in the group of members becoming more diverse. I have to tell you, we are definitely becoming more diverse. For a long time it was an old white boy’s club. But over the last 10 years, things have changed there. And it’s an organization of about 300 members, 300 active members, 300, 350, somewhere around there. Around the world we have members from China and Australia and New Zealand and Tibet and all over the world. But it’s a group of now very enthusiastic members who want to get involved to make our art and our craft better.
Steven Poster: It’s no longer just a drinking club. But when I got in, in the old days, I think I got in in 1984 just before Someone To Watch Over Me came out. And it was … My meeting to get in was three of the older DP’s taking me to lunch. And these are the guys that smoke cigars that were about that big. And talking about cinematography. And that was my entrance into the ASC. Once they approved of me, I became a member. And got deeply involved with them and became president at one point. And now on the board still. I’m back on the board because I left the board because I was president of the Cinematographer’s Guild. And it was just too much to be on that one as well. But I’m back on the board now and we’ve got a terrific board and a fantastic president. And it’s a group … I see more action, more involvement of members. And the younger members especially in the ASC that want to do the best they can for the art and craft of cinematography.
Steven Poster: So I’m very proud of the ASC right now. It’s a wonderful group and very active group of members who want to give back.
Steven Pierce: I’m going to ask you now kind of moving over to a couple other logistical side of Indie film if you don’t mind. What you usually, whenever you approach an independent film, I know it depends upon the budget. But what are you looking for in a crew size? What makes you … What do you feel like is the minimum you can do your job effectively?
Steven Poster: It depends on the film. It’s hard to say. The thing that I’m good at doing is scaling to the production. If it’s a tiny, tiny film, which are some great films now. It’s not like you need a huge budget to tell a good story. You scale to the size of the budget. And you scale the work to the size of the budget. A writer writes … The old joke is, an eighth of a page, the Romans take the city. So you can write in a few words a humongous scene. But if it’s a script that’s well-thought out for the level of production that it is, then you can manage with a smaller crew.
Steven Poster: And one of the great advantages, great advantage is the ability to shoot in higher ISO’s. It’s faster, more sensitive sensors. I’m a big fan right now of the Canon cameras for a couple of reasons. The chips that they use are different in the sense that … Two ways that they’re different than any other company. When you change the ISO, when you increase the ISO, they increase the voltage to the chip. So it’s actually like getting a new chip. So what you have when you … I shoot all of my night interiors and exteriors at 3200 ISO. That’s unheard of.
Steven Pierce: Right, yeah that’s usually very noisy and very … Yeah.
Steven Poster: Not on this camera because the other thing that they do, is they fire all of their photo sites randomly so that nothing looks like a fixed pattern. Nothing looks like fixed noise. It looks like grain, film grain. And at 3200 you hardly see any. It’s very clean. So when I can take a strip of six light gear bulbs, tape them up to a wall and put a 12 volt battery on it, and have a key light …
Steven Pierce: LED lights are … I think that over the last five years even, they’ve … Really with the introduction of light mat, light gear, and sky panels, there are many, many, many companies making good stuff. But those are just top notch.
Steven Poster: Top notch. Top notch.
Steven Pierce: And also the [inaudible] you have to throw in there also.
Steven Poster: Keynote Flow as well. Keynote Flow has some fabulous stuff.
Steven Pierce: Keynote Flow? They were a little late to get to the LED game, but whenever they did get there, they made it all the way I think. There are so many great brands. They’re all very expensive, but it does … Light tile, the fact that you can take paper thin things and tape it to a wall …
Steven Poster: To the wall, yeah.
Steven Pierce: And run it off of a battery is … And it is a great light. It is a great quality of light.
Steven Poster: Yes.
Steven Pierce: It’s insane.
Steven Poster: I have complete control over it with DMX and the ability to sit there at a board and completely relight your set is fabulous. I’m working with … I’m on another board of a for-profit company actually out of Baylor University. One of the problems with exhibition, with digital now is that the way the three primaries are spiked, somebody can look at a color standing next to somebody else looking at the same color and they’ll see two different colors. It’s called metamerism. And that’s a problem that exists in physics. It’s not something that can be controlled. Except that this company called 6P is … We have had the systems to fix that. So and it’s completely backwards compatible with everything.
Steven Poster: So it fits within aces, it fits within 2020. It fits within any of the color systems that exist today. And it’s a way to solve that problem. So we’re probably going to introduce it at either the virtual [inaudible] or Hollywood Post-Alliance retreat in the spring. But that’s pretty exciting because we’re fixing a problem that exists primarily because of three spiky primaries. We have six. We have six and they’re bigger.
Steven Pierce: That’s amazing. I could sit here and talk and tell stories and do all kinds of things. I have two more things I want to talk about because we’re running a little bit long. But first of all, where do you fall on the lens choice debate? Do you think that it is all about picking the vintage lens and that, or the lens is the character that the cinematographer gets? Or do you think that clean lenses are … Lenses are basically so the same now that it doesn’t matter?
Steven Poster: Everything’s different. Every piece of glass is different. Now, I believe that you take a good set of lenses, the characteristic of which you’ve tested and you understand, and you take a diffusion filter and put it in front of that lens and create a look based on the story that you’re telling. I’m a big believer in diffusion. I don’t think I have ever shot anything without some diffusion on it, film or digital. And in fact, I helped develop a filter called the Pearlescent filters from Tiffen.
Steven Poster: I’ve got a new line of filters that I’m developing now, which will also help with the fact that we’re probably not going to be allowed to use smoke or atmosphere on a set. And these filters will help it. I believe in bending the light rays before they hit the glass. So you can say, well we can do that in post. No you can’t. I think it’s a different quality. Once you affect the light rays hitting the glass, hitting the sensor, then that’s what’s important. And you can take a beautiful set of cooks, you can take the Panavision primo, so the Panavision or the large format lenses. You can take the [inaudible 00:47:51], you can take the [inaudible] master primes. And they’re wonderful, and just every company has some wonderful lenses.
Steven Poster: But I was talking to Russell Carpenter, who’s just starting to work on Avatar at the moment. And he said that they found a set of cheap lenses, cheap lenses. He didn’t give me the name of them, but I want to get those names. And he said they’re very bit as good as a lens that costs 40000 bucks. And so, but what you need is a matched set. Once you have a matched set that will give you the same visual, emotional quality to an image, then you are on the way of creating a style for that production.
Steven Pierce: Lastly, what advice would you give to young cinematographers now? People that are just starting out or just maybe getting to their first feature now, what would you tell them?
Steven Poster: It’s the importance of being the set leader. Is almost as important as the quality of work you produce. It’s so easy to get into a contentious set and have a miserable time. It’s just as easy for the director of photography to be the cheerleader on the set, and be the person running the set in a benevolent and safe way. As opposed to being a miserable bastard. It runs … I don’t care you are, how uptight you are or whatever. If you’re not considerate of the people around you, and if you’re not enthusiastic about the work, you’re not going to get as good a product, period.
Steven Pierce: Great. I think that’s fantastic advice. Well Steven, I could talk to you for hours. So thank you very much for taking the time and I look forward to the next time we get to chat.
Steven Poster: This will be … This is a real pleasure. You guys are great, and I appreciate it. And I’ll be talking to you soon.
IFG is created by Framework Productions. This episode was directed by James Allerdyce, produced by Matt Mundy, edited by Audrey Rae McHale, and hosted by Steven Pierce. The music is by Glass Boy. Find his music on freemusicarchive.org.