President of the International Cinematographers Guild Local 600 I.A.T.S.E. and Former ASC President Steven Poster, ASC On The Challenges Of Modern Day Filmmaking
Photo: Frank Schaefer
With more than sixty cinematography credits to his name as well as more than four decades surfing the turmoil of union politics, cinematographer Steven Poster, ASC has been instrumental to the industry of filmmaking not only as a world famous DP but also as a key figure in the fight for the rights of cinematographers and imaging professionals. When asked about the name of his website, www.EdgeOfConsciousness.com, he laughs and says, “I’m married to a psychoanalyst!”
He continues: “To me, the “edge of consciousness” is kind of like the edge of a photograph. To me, the edge; what’s almost in the frame, what’s almost out of the frame, what’s crossing the frame line; these are very important design elements. They create an unconscious path for a viewer to roam around a frame and that’s a very important quality that I think of in terms of composition. The unconscious is a very important part of all of our lives. I think about it a lot and deal with it a lot in my work.”
As cinematographer, Poster has a hallmark look; darkly minimal, high contrast scenics that have been lit softly so as to be flattering to the actors. It’s a trademark that lends itself perfectly to the horror genre in which Poster so often finds himself working. Poster recently wrapped filming on the latest chapter in the Amityville horror franchise; Amityville The Awakening. Richard Kelly, who directed Poster on Southland Tales and Donnie Darko, has also been talking with him on shooting yet another project, their fourth film together.
In 1989, it was his vision as DP that helped Madonna to stir up so much controversy during her infamous Like A Prayer video. Poster’s eye is also uniquely suited to dark comedies, including several modern classics that he has helmed camera for like Southland Tales, Big Top Pee Wee and Strange Brew. His impeccable resume even includes 2nd Unit work on absolutely historic films like Big Trouble In Little China, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner. Ridley Scott, who directed Blade Runner, would later bring Poster aboard to work with him again, this time as DP, on the film Someone To Watch Over Me. The film ultimately earned Poster an ASC nomination for best cinematography in 1987, the same year he became a member.
Photo: Lacey Terrell
In fact, from 2002-03, Poster was President of the ASC, only to follow that tenure up a few years later as President of the International Cinematographers Guild Local 600 I.A.T.S.E. After starting in 2006, he still runs the guild today. “We have over eight thousand members now!” he exclaims. Poster first started working in unions all the way back in Chicago in 1970. “As the president, I’m the spokesman for the Board of Governors. I’m also the international representative for the guild and I am involved in identifying new technologies that should be the tools of our members.”
Ever the technocrat, Poster has been involved in evaluating oncoming filmmaking technologies as far back as the early nineties…
Ever the technocrat, Poster has been involved in evaluating oncoming filmmaking technologies as far back as the early nineties, when he tested some of the very first domestic high definition systems from NHK, Sony and Panavision. “That woke me up to the fact that we were rapidly approaching the coming of digital imaging in a way that was going to challenge everything we knew about image making,” he says. “One of the most important things that I did when I was president of the ASC? I reformed the Technology Committee!”
“Later, when I became president of the ICG,” he continues, “I saw that it was right at the very, very start of [digital] file based recording. I think it was Panasonic who came out with the first system, and I realized that we needed to train people how to work with file-based downloading. At that time there were no protocols. So we developed our own and taught probably over seven hundred people across the country the best practices to safely get the images to post production.” He says that even now it’s a very popular program for the ICG, although, ironically, now they also have to teach how to do film loading, because most people coming in to the union have no experience with film.
As a student himself, Poster concentrated in still photography, bouncing between several art schools; the Los Angeles Art Center College of Design, the Pasadena ArtCenter College of Design and the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago. He fell in love with the Bauhaus movement in particular, and especially with the basic underlying dictate of the movement that form follows function. It’s a lesson that has become an integral aspect of his approach to lighting. “I learned how to see light,” he recalls about his salad days in art school, “and how to become a professional there. I had an eclectic education that played very nicely into my professional life.”
Poster works with still photography to this day, and has had openings for his photography in a number of cities across the nation. “My work in still photography has always been with higher speed emulsions where I was shooting film, and I’ve been waiting to come up with cameras that can match what I could do with still photography,” he muses. “With the Canon cameras that I’ve been using, the C500 and the C300 Mark II, I can shoot at ISO 3200 and have a noise-free image that is gorgeous, and it’s changed my ability to light because I can use smaller instruments to achieve the same results.”
While Poster was still in college, it was a job in a photographic studio for an advertising firm that taught him practically how to light. He says that it was there that he first fell in love with diffusion and soft light. “I learned to work with bounce light in ways that were very significant for me,” Poster laughs. For product shots, the photographers at the studio had set up two huge 8’x8’ boxes with roughly 150 photofloods and a huge shower curtain across the front for diffusion.
The open face ad hoc lighting solutions remind him of an early art teacher, who taught him that there were only two types of light; when it’s sunny, with open, very sharp, direct light; and when it’s cloudy, with the very broad diffusion that you will get from an overcast sky. Naturally, as he sees similar qualities in Chimera’s extensive history of light modification tools, Poster fell in love with the equipment the first time he saw the “strange and wonderful” gear coming out from the company in the early eighties. “I was completely enamored,” he says. “The light tools were kind of the way that I ‘saw’… And I bought a bunch of them and worked with them for many, many years. I still will never go out without some Chimera equipment. You absolutely need it.”