Nelson Cragg and Woody Omens, ASC, take a visit to the “dark side” in our February Web Conversation

Nelson Cragg made history this year when he became the first former ASC student award winner to earn a nomination in a competitive category of the organization’s annual Outstanding Achievement Awards. Cragg received the 2004 Conrad L. Hall Heritage Award for a film that he shot for a fellow graduate student at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. This year, Cragg is a nominee in the television competition for an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, titled “For Gedda.”

Cragg grew up in the Washington, D.C., area and majored in English literature at James Madison University in Virginia. He first fell under the spell of Woody Omens, ASC, while serving as Omens’ teaching assistant in an undergraduate cinematography class at USC.

Born and raised in Chicago, Sherwood “Woody” Omens studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. When an exhibitor requested still pictures to promote a display of his paintings, Omens purchased a Pentax 35 mm camera and began experimenting with still photography. Shortly thereafter Omens took his father’s 16 mm camera out of storage and began exploring moving images.

In 1962, he moved with his wife and child to Los Angeles, where he enrolled in the USC graduate filmmaking program. Omens shot documentaries and TV commercials for about a dozen years before lensing his first television movie. The skilled shooter later went on to win Emmys for An Early Frost (1985), Heart of the City (1986) and I Saw What You Did (1988), as well as nominations for a two-hour Magnum, P.I. (1980), a half-hour Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1985) and the miniseries Evergreen (1985). In 1986, Omens and his boyhood friend, fellow cinematographer Michael Margulies, ASC, collaborated on organizing the first annual ASC Outstanding Achievement Awards competition with the goal of recognizing and inspiring artful cinematography.

ICG Magazine asked BOB FISHER to sit in on a conversation between Omens and Cragg, as mentor and student talked about the common inspirations that have shaped their cinematic paths through life.

OMENS: What got you interested in filmmaking?
CRAGG: I was a fan and always wanted to come to Hollywood and work in movies. I worked for my father’s architecture firm during the summers when I was in high school. Architecture is about space and light, but I didn’t put that together with cinematography until I went to film school at USC.

OMENS: Why did you go to USC?
CRAGG: My parents didn’t want me to go to film school as an undergraduate. They wanted me to get a degree, so I could get a job. Afterwards, they said I could go to whatever school I wanted. I applied to several film schools and was accepted at USC.

OMENS: I remember looking around for a teaching assistant and Judy Irola (ASC), one of your teachers, recommended you to me.
CRAGG: I was fortunate to get on your radar. I couldn’t take your classes because I was a graduate student but being your T.A. was enlightening. I think the best lesson was the day when you used 25 candles to light faces. You didn’t use a light meter. We shot slides of the candlelit faces and projected the results for the class. That was the basis for my understanding of how light works on faces. … You said there were no rules.

OMENS: Cinematography is derivative of still photography, in which you may use key and fill lights, perhaps a backlight and eyelight, and learn to trust your eyes. But in cinematography, if you think about lighting this way, it becomes very limiting.
CRAGG: I’ll also never forget what you taught us about lighting spaces after deciding how you wanted them to look and feel, and how you then build upon that. You taught us about subtracting as well as adding light, and that every shadow tells a story.

OMENS: How did you get your first job after graduating from USC?
CRAGG: It was an independent movie called Confession with a $500,000 budget. I shot it right out of film school. The producer knew me when he was a student at USC. That led to another independent feature called Special, which was also produced by a couple of USC graduates in 2005.

OMENS: How did you get called to work on CSI?
CRAGG: One of the producers had seen something I had shot, even though I had never shot a TV show before. The first thing they told me was to talk to the actors so they would feel comfortable with a young cinematographer. The truth is that they didn’t start to feel comfortable with me until they saw a couple close-ups. How did you deal with first-time directors?

OMENS: It was different every time. When I worked with Eddie Murphy on Harlem Nights he was looking for guidance. It’s a big advantage when the director wants your ideas, and I think I was ready because I had paid attention when Allen Daviau (ASC), John Bailey (ASC) and other cinematographers spoke about their experiences with new directors.
CRAGG: What was it like when you transitioned into shooting narrative films?

OMENS: Bob Edwards was the head of the camera department when I did my first television series at Universal Studios. I came from commercials, where we had time to stylize looks. He took a liking to me and said I would do well [at Universal] if I followed two simple principals: Stay on schedule and get a good image!
CRAGG: I got great advice to absorb and build upon from the cinematographers who worked on CSI before me.

OMENS: I’ve been watching the show and love how you use shadows as well as light.
CRAGG: One of the things that we try to do is use darkness to slowly reveal things, so there is a sense of mystery when that’s what is needed.

OMENS: Do you have to sell that to the directors?
CRAGG: No! They push me to go darker every time.

OMENS: One difference is that today you are working with faster films. I remember shooting commercials with film that had a 25-speed rating. Earlier generations of cinematographers shot gorgeous black-and-white movies that looked totally natural with shadow detail and a velvety range of values. I used to think you needed fast film to get those looks, but they were shooting on films much slower than anything available today.
CRAGG: How did faster films impact your cinematography?

OMENS: When I got a faster film in the 400-speed range, I was in hog heaven because I could shoot scenes in three to six foot-candles of light and get an image with just a few little touches added. I saw that as an advantage over cinematographers who were one and two generations before me. They had to do it from scratch, but everything looked like it was ‘found’ lighting. It was magical.
CRAGG: Today’s films have so much latitude that we can bounce a bit of light off a wall and have keylight for a scene. We also know it’s going to be scanned to a digital high definition master for television. That gives us so much freedom on tight schedules.

OMENS: I know you aren’t saying you can be sloppy upfront and fix it in post, right?
CRAGG: [Laughs.] You are correct. It begins with the right lighting. I can re-touch colors and refine looks, but I never count on fixing images in post. It’s also about speed. We are generally shooting six to eight pages a day without compromising. We’ll block a scene and everybody goes away for 15 or 20 minutes to take care of hair and makeup, rehearse their lines, and maybe talk with the director about tweaking lines or something else while we are lighting.

OMENS: Do you think the actors respond to environments like candlelight?
CRAGG: Absolutely. Part of our job is to provide an atmosphere, but you have to give credit to the production designer who creates the environment.

OMENS: Getting back to the DI for a moment, I think it’s a mistake for cinematographers not to make it clear that you can’t fix everything in post. DI can be a useful tool if the cinematographer is doing the timing but it isn’t a replacement for designing sets, lighting and shooting it the right way. Tell me more about CSI.
CRAGG: I shot 12 hour-long shows this year. I had a close relationship with the production designer because there wasn’t a lot of preproduction time with the directors. Great cinematographers, like Roy Wagner (ASC), Michael Barrett (ASC), Michael Slovis, and others preceded me. I hope they forgive me for not mentioning all their names. We shot as many as 50 to 60 setups a day and protected our main cast members, especially the actresses in close-up because the audience has expectations. CSI is a very stylized program. The way it’s lit and shot is part of a concept that includes how characters dress and talk, as well as their unique mannerisms. We also have a terrific crew. Gary Muller was first AC for Conrad Hall (ASC) and Owen Roizman (ASC). I’m learning from him. When I first came on the show, he told me what filter combinations worked for the lead actress. He showed me classic Mitchell and Tiffen filters that I had never seen before.

OMENS: What other lessons did you learn during the first season?
CRAGG: You have to set the tone. You can never say that’s not my problem.

OMENS: That hasn’t changed from the earliest days of the industry. The cinematographer has to set the tone on the set. It’s not just about creating an ambiance with lighting. There is an ambiance in how people speak to one another.
CRAGG: That’s one of the lessons I learned as your T.A.

OMENS: I’ve observed another lesson you learned when I watch CSI. Remember the experiment we did mixing light from 25 candles and daylight with different intensities and color temperatures? I see that in the colors and subtle lighting you do.
CRAGG: We did a shot at USC with a student opening a door and letting a beam of daylight fall on a candlelit actor. That was a great lesson about mixing color temperatures to set the tone and mood.

OMENS: Cinematography is all about taking chances and trusting the film to handle intensities of light, darkness and colors. I’ve always wanted those I taught to take bigger chances than myself. I presume you are working with different directors in various episodes. How do you communicate to keep consistent looks? Are they with you or in a video village?
CRAGG: Our video village is on a little cart with wireless monitors. I believe the producers did that on purpose because they want the directors and first ACs to be close to the cameras and actors. Some people think that is an old school way of making movies, but we just use the monitors as a reference for framing, so we can talk and share ideas.

OMENS: A lot of things have changed since I was shooting, but the importance of collaborating with your crew is still at the top of the list. I spent a lot of time choosing crews. When I spoke with other cinematographers, I always asked questions about assistants, operators and others on their crews. I always made it clear that we were going to work as collaborators solving problems together, and that we would leave our egos at the door. We were there to serve the story, the director and actors. My crew was like my family, whether they were pulling focus, operating a camera or loading magazines. The more they worked together, the better it got.
CRAGG: Yes, that’s another important lesson I’ve always remembered.

By Bob Fisher

POSTSCRIPT: This story has a happy ending. In an overflow Hyatt Regency ballroom the evening of February 15th, members of the American Society of Cinematographers bestowed their 2009 Outstanding Achievement Award for Episodic Television on Nelson Cragg. The presentation was made by Simon Baker who portrays the leading character in The Mentalist.After the actor opened the envelope and summoned Cragg to the podium, he observed that creating artful cinematography under the pressures of an episodic television schedule is pure magic. Cragg looked stunned as he made his way from the audience to the podium. The modesty and emotions that the award-winning DP displayed made it obvious that he may have been the most surprised person in the room.