Looking back on an article I wrote a few months ago titled Cinematographers (starting to) Turn Obsolete, I now realize that I focused, to a fault, on the technical side of the issue. In that piece, I concluded:
New technology, and the smaller, discrete tech-support-like jobs that come with it, don’t have to shut out cinematographers by default; it can instead empower cinematographers to better protect movies' aesthetics.
I regret using the reductive phrase "protect movies' aesthetics," which implies that collaborators in other departments are out to actively sabotage a production. Rather, I am concerned about the ways filmmakers' responsibilities have shifted throughout the production process, which may push out cinematographers, leaving projects without a "steward of aesthetics."
I asked one of my former professors, Johnny Jensen, ASC, for feedback. His response is constructive, and offers an encompassing perspective on what makes a cinematographer valuable to productions:
I have myself always put more emphasis on the artistic side of cinematography. Finding and using your emotional core to express yourself rather than being concentrating on the technical side (craft) is most important. If you spend too much energy on things which in today's world can be altered or "fixed" in post, you may miss out on what's more important: The emotional impact of your visual language.
"Emotional core." It's a deceivingly simple phrase, and one that can be difficult for a cinematographer to defend as a job description; managers more quickly understand and appreciate tangible, visible elements like camera movements and monitors.
But people in all industries are hired under largely subjective guidelines, which boil down to, Can she do this job and work with others? Jensen is arguing that someone gets hired as a cinematographer for her eyes: What can she bring to the table that will best tell the story visually?
Understanding technology is one tool in a cinematographer's arsenal, but it's a quality that anyone can learn over time. It's this intangible "emotional core," communicated visually, that's unique to each cinematographer— and ultimately makes her an indispensable part of production.