The New Generation of Cinematographers: An interview with Steven Lighthill, ASC

by Bob Fisher | Published November 26, 2012

Photo by Douglas Kirkland.

Stephen Lighthill, ASC began his career as a freelance news film cinematographer for “60 Minutes” and the CBS-TV Charles Kuralt “On The Road” television series during the mid 1970s. He was a co-founder of Cine-Manifest, a San Francisco-based collective of independent filmmakers who produced movies and documentaries during the 1970s and ‘80s. 

Lighthill earned his first narrative film cinematography credit for Under-Over, Sideways-Down in 1977. The movie launched the American Playhouse movie series on PBS. Since then, he has earned more 40 narrative film and documentary credits, and his peers in the American Society of Cinematographers recently elected him president of their organization. Founded in 1921 with the goal of advancing the art and craft of telling stories with moving images, the ASC is one of the oldest surviving institutions in the motion picture industry.

For most of the last decade, Lighthill has served as the Senior Cinematographer in Residence at the American Film Institute Conservatory in Los Angeles. AFI is a non-profit graduate school founded in Los Angeles in 1969 with the aid of a grant from the National Foundation for the Arts. The grant described the AFI mission as “preserving the legacy of the American film heritage and educating the next generation of filmmakers.”

Bob Fisher, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Let’s begin with a brief description of the cinematography program at AFI.

Steven Lighthill (SL): The cinematography curriculum focuses on production. Our fellows shoot three films during their first year and a thesis project in their second year. Our fellows work in a collaborative environment with producers, directors, actors, screenwriters, production designers and editors to tell their own stories. They learn to use composition, camera movement, light and darkness and other visual grammar.

MM: Where do your current cinematography students come from?

SL: We have a very diverse class. Our 28 students come from virtually every continent but Antarctica. About a third are from foreign countries. The other two thirds come from all over the United States. They are also diverse racially and by gender. Eleven members of our current class are females. That’s a record. It has more typically been closer to a quarter of the class.

MM: Is the outreach to students from around the world unusual?

SL: The MFA program at AFI has appealed to future filmmakers from around the world for as long as I have been involved. That’s important, because it gives our cinematography students experience collaborating with a diverse group of filmmakers from around the world.

MM: Were there cinematographers who were role models for your students when you started teaching at AFI?

SL: A short list of role models when I began teaching at AFI included Gordon Willis (ASC), Owen Roizman (ASC) and Victor Kemper (ASC). Today, the list includes Robert Elswit (ASC), Wally Pfister (ASC), and Janusz Kaminski—who are all AFI alumni.

MM: Are there women alumni who are role models for your students?

SL: Uta Brieswitz is on the campus mentoring students a lot. She came to the United States from Germany to attend AFI. Uta is a talented role model for women. She is having a successful career as a cinematographer and also directs commercials. Her recent cinematography credits include the television series “Wired” and “Hung” and the feature film Arthur.

MM: AFI has an impressive archive of films. Graduates have told me how much they have learned and been inspired by watching classic movies produced decades ago. Does the AFI curriculum include teaching students about the archiving issues that were covered in the two Digital Dilemma reports issued by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences?

SL: I believe there is a rising level of consciousness about the limitations of digital archiving. There has been relatively little progress in finding a solution. It should be a call to arms for everyone in the industry. Today’s films are a legacy for future generations and our methods of archiving are universally inadequate.

MM: What advice do you have for independent film producers and directors about finding the right cinematographers to collaborate with them?

SL: It’s important for producers and directors who are hiring cinematographers to remember that they’re going to spend a lot of time together. They should talk and get to know each other. I also suggest looking at films and photography books together to develop a shared vocabulary about visuals. Telling stories with motion picture images is an art. Watching films together and discussing what works and what doesn’t work will help build an aesthetic that will create images with the right look for the times, places and emotional flow of their stories.

MM: This is probably an unfair question, but in the 90-plus year history of the American Society of Cinematographers, there have only been 11 women members. Why?

SL: This is an important industry issue. ASC membership is by invitation based on the cinematographer’s body of work. Comparatively few women were given opportunities to work as cinematographers during most of the history of the industry. The DGA and the International Cinematographers Guild now have diversity committees and outreach programs in efforts to attract more female members. More female cinematographers are graduating from AFI and succeeding in the industry today than ever before. We are making progress, but some producers still ask female cinematographers why they think they can lead male crews.

MM: How can independent film producers and directors ask for recommendations for AFI graduates who are potentially good fits for upcoming projects?

SL: I suggest that they visit the AFI website. They can arrange to send queries asking for recommendations. We can arrange to show them reels of our graduates’ films and introduce them to alumni who might be the right collaborators for their films.

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