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AMERICAN CINEMATOGRAPHERS SUPERIOR ARTISTS

By Ernst Lubitsch


"Noted director praises initiative of American camera geniuses"


It has been my privilege to have been associated with two of the finest cinematographers during my first year in Hollywood: Charles Rosher, who photographed "Rosita," my production for Mary Pickford, and Charles Van Enger, who has just completed "The Marriage Circle," my first production for Warner Brothers. The work these splendid cinematographers did in those two pictures has confirmed the idea which I and many other foreign directors had formed of American Cinematography.

RANK OF AMERICAN CINEMATOGRAPHERS

In Berlin it had almost become a slogan: American photography -- everybody knew what it stood for -- it meant brilliance in technique, subtlety in workmanship, feeling and atmosphere in lighting. We, in Berlin, had the idea that to be a cinematographer in America meant to be an inventor -- a man who is always on the lookout for novel discoveries.

EXPECTATIONS CONFIRMED

I found everything confirmed when I came to California. Generally speaking, the conditions in the American motion picture industry are very similar to those in the German motion picture industry, even the smallest detail I found duplicated in this country. You haven't any less trouble here than they have in Germany. The selection of a good cast is just as difficult here as it is in Berlin, and good stories are scarce everywhere; studio is studio after all -- and film is film, whether on this or the other side of the ocean.

IN CLASS BY THEMSELVES

But the American cinematographers are in a class by themselves. I do not want to appear ungrateful to my former German co-workers. My photographers over there were just as conscientious and neat in their work as the American cinematographers. But their whole position in the industry is quite different from the one of their colleagues here.

CINEMATOGRAPHER DECISIVE POWER

In this country, the cinematographer time and again speaks the decisive word. The architect my propose the most beautiful scene -- unless the cinematographer is certain that he can light the set according to his wishes, the architect's splendid project collapses. The final question is always, "what does the cinematographer say to this?" and his answer settles the matter.

SPLENDID ARTISTS

And what splendid artists there are among the American cinematographers. It seems to me that they take care and train their camera as a dog fancier would his pets. Every cinematographer has his particular technique -- his peculiar tricks, and these are secrets he guards carefully. One has a peculiar iris which darkens the picture in a mysterious manner -- one has a certain way of his own to silhouette his pictures -- the third one is a master of peculiar photographic tricks, etc. This desire to be able to do something that no one else can do, is significant of the whole profession.

INITIATIVE

When the day's shooting is done, the cinematographer goes to the laboratory and experiments -- he tries out what he can do with his camera -- he, himself, will invent some technical novelty -- he will tell the director the next day: "See, what I can do with my camera," or: "Do you want that certain effect? I can give it to you, my camera can do it!" This most sportsmanlike ambition of the cinematographer is the main spring of his progress and success.

ACHIEVES INCREDIBLE

The devotion to this art is not confined to his camera. The whole studio with its lighting equipment serves as a playground for the cinematographer's inventive imagination. Light is the color with which he paints his picture. He wants to have some sure command over it just as the painter has over the color on his palette, and he has learned to achieve the almost incredible. He plays with the light -- he takes away it's harshness -- he breaks it of its bad habits -- he forces the light to exclude rays that he cannot use for his emulsion -- he's a real artist.

AMERICAN LIGHTING DIFFERENT

The American technique of lighting is different from the system used abroad. It is far more elaborate and thanks to the superiority of American technical equipment, surpasses anything I have seen before. I don't yet know how many different lights the American cinematographer has at his disposal. We in Berlin were very proud of our few spot lights and had no idea of the variety of spots you Americans have, from the "baby spots" for small surfaces to those large, powerful fountains of light, the giant spots. There is something for each contingency and each imaginable situation.

As a result of the constant endeavor on the part of the cinematographer to improve upon his technique and to develop his art, cinematography in America is getting into the habit of having fashions of its own. Just as some day the whole world wars pointed shoes, and tomorrow discards them, thus suddenly it becomes fashionable for cinematography to be quite delicate and soft to such a degree that there are hardly any contrasts, and then, a few weeks later, quite the opposite might be the fashion. Today it is fashionable to dissolve one picture into another -- tomorrow this is considered inartistic.

The American cinematographer is able to get the best possible results from his photography and to suit his every whim, because the chemical process that follows the photographing is under his immediate supervision. He watches each phase, strengthening here and weakening there, to get the exact results he had in mind when he photographed the scene.

WAR YEARS CAUSE GAP

Are the German cinematographers in the same class as the Americans? I shall answer: "Yes, as far as their ability goes -- but they haven't had the time nor technical equipment to develop their art to so high a degree." The years of the war were an entire loss to German cinematography, and even during the years following the war there was the handicap of money stringency and economic stress.

AMERICAN ACHIEVEMENTS ADMIRED

Fortunately there is no hostility in the film industry. German cinematographers without envy acknowledge the high achievements of their American colleagues, and, if I may judge from my own personal experience, America welcomes us from across the sea with open arms and a rare cordiality, a spirit muchly conducive to the high development of the cinematographic art, which with its universal appeal to the peoples of all the countries of the world, is the most international of all the arts.

American Cinematographer
December 1923
(Public Domain Article)

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