For our February Awards Seasons coverage in ICG Magazine, Bob Fisher profiled the 2010 ASC Award winners, who are all longtime ICG members: Lifetime Achievement Award honoree Caleb Deschanel, ASC, International Achievement Award for feature film cinematography Chris Menges, ASC, BSC, Career Achievement in Television Award honoree John C. Flinn, III, ASC and Presidents Award Winner Sol Negrin, ASC. The interviews, all rich and memorable, could not fit in their entirety in the pages of the magazine, so here for the first time is the full text of those conversations with these four remarkable cinematic craftsmen.
Caleb Deschanel, ASC
ICG: Where were you born and raised?
Caleb Deschanel: I was born in Philadelphia. My family moved to Annapolis when I was 11 years old. We lived there until I went to college.
ICG: What was your first experience with photography?
CD: I got a Brownie Hawkeye as a gift on my 11th birthday. I didn’t ask for a camera and didn’t particularly want one. I enjoyed taking photographs, but I never really thought much about any of the pictures I took until we got a family dog. It was just a puppy. We were using a big cardboard box as a doghouse. I remember taking a picture of the puppy and dog house. When that photo came back, I remember thinking that it was better than the other pictures I had taken. That inspired me to take more photographs and to try to figure out why some were better than others.
ICG: Where did you go to college?
CD: I studied at Johns Hopkins University.
ICG: Were you still a photography hobbyist at that stage of your life?
CD: I took pictures for the college newspaper and yearbook. My brother-in-law knew a photographer in New York. His name was George Pickow. I thought it would be great to get a summer job with him. I called but I was just 17 years old, and I was embarrassed about asking for a job. Finally, he asked me if I wanted a job! He hired me to come to New York to be his assistant but soon I started to take still photographs for everything from catalogs to record album covers.
ICG: Let’s backtrack for a minute. Did you enroll at Johns Hopkins because you were interested in a career in medicine? If so, what was your inspiration?
CD: There were doctors in my mother’s family for generations, including her father. I was good at science and math and loved analytic geometry, calculus, chemistry and physics. When I was a kid I used to build toy rockets and mixed chemicals for fuel. There used to be a 6:30 a.m. television program called Continental Classroom that taught chemistry and physics. My father and I would both get up early to watch that show. I did all the calculations with his help. It was really fascinating, but in college, chemistry was suddenly like studying quantum mechanics.
ICG: What steered you in a different direction than medicine and chemistry?
CD: My friends were mainly creative people who were interested in things like the history of art and writing, including Matt Robbins and Walter Murch who were a year ahead of me at Hopkins.
ICG: We recall hearing a story about how a picture of Stanley Kubrick in the student newspaper influenced your thinking about becoming a filmmaker.
CD: There was a picture of Stanley Kubrick when he was working on Dr. Strangelove. He was holding an Arriflex camera with a zoom lens on his shoulder. I saw it in some publicity that came into the Hopkins newsletter office about the film and I remember thinking that I would like to do whatever he’s doing. And I had no idea what that was. It just looked exciting. But the truth is I had no ambition to make Hollywood movies, because I didn’t particularly like them.
ICG: What put you on that path?
CD: I had a professor Richard Macksey who taught literature and history. He and another teacher helped organized film showings at Hopkins of French New Wave films, Italian Cinema, and Bergman. I remember thinking that maybe I could make that kind of film. Walter Murch and Matt Robbins graduated a year ahead of me and went on to the film studies program at the University of Southern California (USC). They encouraged me to apply to USC, and I did. Because of my background in stills, I started shooting student films right away.
ICG: What did you do after graduating from USC?
CD: I went on to AFI as a cinematography fellow. There were around 15 students in our class, and I was the only cinematographer.
ICG: Who were some of your mentors?
CD: Haskell Wexler (ASC) was sort of an unofficial mentor. Walter met him through Cal Bernstein, who was Haskell’s partner. He introduced me. I have vivid memories of both Haskell and Gordon Willis (ASC) sounding off about us ‘young guys’ not knowing anything about cinematography because we had never shot black-and-white film. I had shot a lot of stills in black and white but never a movie. I got a grant to produce, direct and shoot a short film called Trains in black and white. Haskell loaned me his black-and-white filters. I really learned a lot from doing that film, including the extent to which you have to separate images with contrast rather than just colors. There were shots that I really loved when I was shooting it, such as one with the train leaving the station in the fog. But what made it interesting was the grey of everything in the fog and the red light at the rear. This did not work in black and white. That film made me think about what I wanted to do with my life.
ICG: How did you meet Gordon Willis?
CD: I applied for an internship from the AFI. I wanted to do it with Gordon Willis. This was before he shot The Godfather, but I had seen his work and thought it was terrific. The folks at AFI said, ‘No, we don’t know who he is.’ When I persisted, they reneged on the internship, but I was making some money shooting educational films, so I did it on my own. My sister and brother-in-law lived in New Jersey. He was a record producer. He had an apartment in New York that he used when he was in the city that had a Murphy bed in it. That gave me a free place to stay during the time I spent with Gordon.
ICG: What did you learn during your internship?
CD: One of the big things that I learned was that Gordon used light to create separation of images even if it was a color film. If you study his films, you’ll see people who are lit against dark backgrounds. They suddenly go in the shadow when they walk and the background lights up. If you think about it, you realize that he is creating a three-dimensional effect by using contrast and lighting.
ICG: How did you meet Carroll Ballard?
CD: I was living in Venice (in Los Angeles). Carroll lived across the alley from me, and Ron Dexter (ASC) lived next door. Ron had gone to UCLA with Carroll. Ron got me started shooting commercials. Carroll and I were also working for the same educational film producer. Carroll was going to produce a short film called Rodeo. He had heard about me and asked me to come work with Steve Burum (ASC) who was the main DP. I ended up shooting a lot of that film. I guess Carroll liked my eye. I did a couple of other short films with him, and then he asked me to shoot The Black Stallion. That was my first feature film.
ICG: That was in 1979. Share a memory about that experience.
CD: Carroll and I were both convinced we were going to be fired from the beginning, because neither of us had worked on a feature length movie. We started shooting in Toronto where the crews were used to buttoned-down television schedules and not used to the way Carroll worked, which was much looser. I don’t think they thought Carroll was a very good filmmaker. We finished shooting the rest of the film in Italy with a very small crew, mainly with one camera filming the horse and the kid (except for the shipwreck at Cinecitta).
ICG: You followed The Black Stallion with Being There with Hal Ashby directing and a cast that included Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine. You earned your first Oscar nomination for The Right Stuff in 1983. It was a wonderful drama about NASA and the astronauts. Your next project was The Escape Artist, which you directed. Why did you decide to try directing?
CD: I’ve always directed, including student films at USC. I like going back and forth between directing and cinematography because you get to see filmmaking from different perspectives.
ICG: What appeals to you about directing?
CD: First of all I love working with actors. I really like thinking about performances and talking to them. I also like thinking about storytelling from an overall perspective. I like conceptualizing about how we are going to tell the story both visually and in terms of performances and everything else that goes into directing. One of the things that I learned from Gordon is that cinematographers have to be really good at conceptualizing the visual style of a movie, and the director must conceptualize how he’s going to tell the story. The magic happens when a cinematographer develops and executes a visual style that compliments the director’s vision for the story.
ICG: Around 1994, you organized Dark Light Pictures, a commercial production company. By then, you had shot Being There, The Right Stuff and you earned your second Oscar nomination for The Natural, in addition to directing another film and episodes of a television series. What motivated you to start a commercial production company, and what have you learned from that experience?
CD: I stopped shooting features when my kids became too old to take them out of school and take them on location. So I stopped shooting features for eight years. Commercials gave me an opportunity to use a lot of different tools and techniques. We were doing color correction and things like that in telecine suites long before there were DIs on movies. Directing and shooting 30-second commercials also gives you the discipline to concentrate on what’s really important to telling the story. And they only took me away from home for short periods of time.
ICG: We are just going to mention a few of your other films and see what memories they evoke. Can you tell us about Being There?
CD: Being There was my first Hollywood movie. It was a wonderful experience from every point of view. I felt from the beginning that we were making a really special film. Peter Sellers was terrific and funny all the time, Hal Ashby was a wonderful director, and I thought that I had the best crew that there ever was.
ICG: We mentioned that you earned your second consecutive Oscar nomination for The Natural in 1985. Will you share a memory from that film?
CD: It was about baseball, our national sport. It was a wonderful film to work on with a great director, Barry Levinson.
ICG: Was Anna and the King a different experience?
CD: It was a totally different experience shooting a period movie set in Siam during the 1860s. The original version was shot in CinemaScope format by Leon Shamroy (ASC) during the 1950s. We were going to shoot in Thailand, where some of the original locations still existed, but Thailand still had a king, and didn’t like a story that treats him as human. We went to Malaysia instead — right next door, so similar scenery, different culture — where they designed and built sets recreating Siam in the 1860s. Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat were absolutely great in the roles of Anna and the king. They made you care about and empathize with their characters. You felt like you knew them by the end of the picture. Isn’t that what filmmaking is about?
ICG: You shot the Oscar nominated The Patriot a year later, right?
CD: I loved working on The Patriot. I loved helping to tell a story that took place when the Revolutionary War was being fought. I enjoyed collaborating with (director) Roland Emmerich and Mel Gibson was terrific in the leading role. We didn’t want to glamorize the war. We wanted audiences to feel and understand what it was like to be there in 1776. Every minute of each scene had a purpose.
ICG: You earned your fifth Oscar nomination for The Passion of the Christ, which was directed by Mel Gibson. Can you share a memory?
CD: I studied a lot of art history in college. I love the way Caravaggio used light in his paintings. Mel produced the film in Aramaic and Latin so it freed him to cast great actors from Romania, Poland, Italy, France, North Africa and other places who you would never cast in an English language film. Every actor had to learn a dead language in order to be in the movie. I thought it was a brilliant idea. It created a feeling of reality that would not have been the same in an English language film.
ICG: This is a different topic. Have you heard or read the Academy’s Digital Dilemma report which sums up a two-year study comparing film and digital archiving?
CD: I have, and one of the things that strikes me is that negatives from films that the Lumière brothers produced in France during the 1890s are still around, but people who took digital photographs of their kids five years ago can sometimes no longer recover them. Digital technology has been a quantum leap forward in film restoration technology, but I wonder if today’s digital movies will be around for tomorrow’s audiences.
ICG: We are changing the topic again. What role do you think movies play? Are they just entertainment or something more than that?
CD: I didn’t get involved in filmmaking just because it is entertainment. I think that movies at their best can inspire us to be better human beings.
ICG: This isn’t an easy ICG, but we will ask it anyhow. If you could go back in time and pick out a deceased or older director to work with who would it be?
CD: You are right. That isn’t an easy ICG. I would have loved to work with (French director) Jean Renoir. He had a great understanding of the foibles of humanity and a wonderful sense of humor about the failings of mankind.
ICG: How do you respond when aspiring cinematographers ask you for advice?
CD: I tell them to look at visual images as much as they can, whether it’s paintings, photographs or movies, and shoot as much as they can. I am still learning every time I shoot a frame of film. When I’m not learning, I will know that it’s time to quit.
Chris Menges, ASC, BSC
ICG: Where were you born and raised?
Chris Menges: My grandfather was a violin player who was born and raised in Germany. He moved to England in 1890 to teach students to play the fiddle. I was born on a farm in Herefordshire, England. My family moved to London when I was 3 years old when my father became music director at The Old Vic Theatre.
ICG: You obviously didn’t follow in your father’s footsteps, but do you see a connection between creating music and cinematography?
CM: There is definitely a connection. Both music and cinematography are arts that require mastering a complex craft. I learned to trust my instincts, and above all, I learned that tone is more important than perfect technique.
ICG: When and how did you decide you were going to be a filmmaker?
CM: cameras and photography always fascinated me. When I was 17 years old, I went to work for our neighbor Allan Forbes. He was an American filmmaker who made documentary films for the cinema. Allan shot documentaries all over Italy, France and Britain. I was his assistant. I also recorded sound and helped him in the cutting room. Allan was a huge inspiration for me.
ICG: How did you get started as a cinematographer?
CM: I began shooting films for World in Action, a weekly current affairs documentary series, when I was 21 years old. I draw on those experiences every time I work on a new project.
ICG: You were 22 years old when Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for leading an armed struggle and the African National Congress was made illegal in South Africa. You roamed the streets of Johannesburg dressed like a tourist shooting 16 mm film with a Bolex camera. You shot other documentaries in war zones all over the world, including The Opium War Lords in the jungles of Burma. Tell us about that experience.
CM: I spent two years in Burma on two different trips in 1963 and 1972 during a very brutal civil war between different ethnic groups who were pushed into the Union of Burma by the British. Those types of documentaries expose you to a different world. You learn about composition, and how it affects the story, and about natural lighting. You experience those things by observing. You also learn to fit into the environment with the indigenous people and that there is no one right way to tell a story. The experience of being a fly-on-the-wall while shooting documentaries helps you develop as a filmmaker. I think everybody who wants to be a filmmaker can benefit from shooting documentaries with a handheld camera.
ICG: That’s just a snapshot of your documentary endeavors, which also took you to places ranging from the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the war in Vietnam to the streets of Harlem. You mentioned Allan Forbes. Were there other films and cinematographers who influenced you during that early stage of your career?
CM: I recall seeing The 400 Blows which was directed by Francois Truffaut and shot by Henri Decaë, A Blonde In Love directed by Milos Forman and shot by Miroslav Ondricek, (ASC, ACK), and Medium Cool directed and shot by Haskell Wexler (ASC). They were awe-inspiring films with cogent stories that went into great depth. For a couple of years, I worked as (cinematographer) Brian Probyn’s assistant. He was another important mentor. I was his camera operator when he shot Poor Cow, an independent film directed by Ken Loach in 1967.
ICG: You shot Kes, your first narrative film, in 1969, with Ken Loach at the helm.
CM: The joy of Kes was in the writing, the brilliant performances and skillful storytelling. Brilliant! It was a special film and the kind of experience we dream about.
ICG: Kes was not a bad way to start your career as a narrative film cinematographer. That film won two BAFTA Awards and four other nominations. You followed Kes with a number of real- life dramas, including After a Lifetime, which focused on a family living in Liverpool, and Bloody Kids, a film about kids living on the south end of London. Were there other pivotal experiences during that period?
CM: In 1980, I shot a remarkable television movie called Made In Britain entirely with a Steadicam. Alan Clarke was the director. I also spent five months as the second unit cinematographer on Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. It was a great learning experience, working on a big budget film under the delightful team of (director) Irvin Kershner and (cinematographer) Peter Suschitzky (ASC).
ICG: You came onto the international scene when you earned your first Oscar in 1985 for The Killing Fields. Share some insights about that film.
CM: Again, I was fortunate to work with an incredibly talented director. Roland Joffe had a clear vision for the story he wanted to tell. It’s a story about what happened in Cambodia during the Pol Pot regime when more than 2 million people were murdered. Roland wanted the film to tell the story of a dirty war and a time of pain and darkness for the people of Cambodia. I was thrilled at having that opportunity to work with Roland because he has such a strong visual sensibility. Many talented people worked on The Killing Fields, including production designer Roy Walker, and the best camera operator, Mike Roberts. That helped make the experience of working on this film very special for me.
ICG: You earned your second Oscar for The Mission in 1987, which was also directed by Roland Joffe. That film took place in the jungles of Brazil during the 18th century. Spain and Portugal had established colonies and had made the native people who were living in the jungle slaves. Jesuit priests from Spain built a number of missions above a waterfall with the goal of converting native people to their religion. The story takes a dramatic twist when an emissary from the pope said the native people have to leave the missions and return to the jungle. Please share some memories.
CM: It began with discussions with Roland and David Puttnam, who produced the film. I drew on memories of a television documentary called The Tribe That Hides From Man that was directed by Adrian Cowell. We shot that documentary in the Amazon jungle in South America in 1968. The air around the mission was thick with a white, steamy mist created by the waterfall. We recreated that look by using several water pumps to generate a fine spray of vaporized water, which reflected the beams of sunshine that came through the trees and created light and shadows on the ground.
ICG: The ASC Outstanding Achievement Awards began in 1987, and Feature Films was the only category. You were nominated for The Mission. The other nominees were Jordan Cronenweth, ASC for Peggy Sue Got Married, Don Peterman, ASC for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Jimmy Crabe, ASC for The Karate Kid: Part II and Tony Pierce-Roberts, BSC for A Room with a View. There was an awards dinner at the ASC’s Hollywood clubhouse hosted by legendary actor Gregory Peck. What do you remember about that night?
CM: It’s hard finding the right words to describe my feelings about that evening. I remember the sense of history that I felt being at the clubhouse, and the camaraderie that filled the air. I had been reading about the ASC and its members since I was an assistant cameraman when I was 18 years old. Now, I was meeting and talking with its members.
ICG: You took a bit of a hiatus from cinematography in order to try your hand at the helm as a director. A World Apart was the first film you directed in 1988. You won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, The New York Film Critics Award as best director, and various other awards and nominations. You directed several other films after that.
CM: I was immensely proud of A World Apart, but the next three films I directed were rather depressing experiences.
ICG: You returned to cinematography when you collaborated with writer/director Neil Jordan on Michael Collins, a film about an Irish revolutionary. You earned your third Oscar nomination for that endeavor in 1997.
CM: Neil had shown me an early draft of the script in 1982 when I shot a movie called Angel with him. Michael Collins took place during the turn of the 20th century. Neil wanted to re-create the grimy, sooty look that was common in Dublin during that time in history. The streets were lit with carbon arc lamps, and there was smoke in the air from coal burning fires. I used smoke, cyan filters and the ENR process at Technicolor to help create a nearly monochrome look.
ICG: You followed Michael Collins with a number of interesting films, including The Boxer, The Pledge, Dirty Pretty Things and The Yellow Handkerchief. You earned your fourth Oscar nomination in 2009, which you shared with Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC for The Reader. Roger began shooting the film, but he had to leave because he had another commitment. Tell us about that ambitious endeavor.
CM: That was an unusual situation. Redmond Morris, the line producer called and told me what the story was about. I had read the book written by Bernhard Schlink that the movie is based on. The story is set in post World War II Germany. It involves a man’s relationship with an older woman who was accused of a war crime. I wanted to know more about what happened during that period. My grandfather was a German who migrated to England. I wondered if he would have gotten caught up in that insane and barbaric time in European history if he had stayed in Germany. I met with (director) Stephen Daldry and also watched the film that Roger had shot. I thought it was wonderful. I felt comfortable finishing the film because Roger and I think alike about using light and shadows to create a natural feeling. There is one thing I will never forget. We filmed a scene in the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland. It was a heartbreaking experience. It was impossible to be there without crying your heart out.
ICG: In general, what are your thoughts about the collaborative process between cinematographers and directors?
CM: I don’t know a cinematographer, certainly not myself, who has won an award or contributed to a meaningful movie who wasn’t collaborating with a highly visual director. Part of it is luck, getting to work with the right director and script, and then it takes an incredible amount of hard work. The inspiration comes from the words, and from inside the characters. All you have to do is bring your soul and great energy.
ICG: One of the unique things about filmmaking is that it is a collaborative form of artistic expression. What are your feelings about that collaborative relationship?
CM: It goes beyond collaborating with directors. You are working with production and costume designers, makeup artists, gaffers, and of course everyone on your crew to get composition, camera movement and focus that delivers.
ICG: Tell us about the film which you just completed shooting.
CM: Route Irish is a story about a private security contactor in Iraq who rejects the official explanation of a friend’s death and tries to find out more about what happened to him. It’s the 12th collaboration between Ken Loach and me. We filmed the Iraq scenes in Jordan and other scenes in Liverpool, England. I think it’s an important and interesting story.
John C. Flinn, III, ASC
ICG: Your family has been in the industry for generations. What do you recall about their careers?
John Flinn: My grandfather, John C. Flinn, Sr., was at Pathe Studios in New York for a while very early in the industry. Later, he became a producer and vice president of Cecil B. DeMille Productions, the forerunner of Paramount Pictures in Hollywood. My father, John C. Flinn, Jr., started his career as a publicist at Warner Bros. He moved on to Allied Artists and Columbia Pictures, where he was director of advertising and publicity. My dad received a Special Award of Merit from the Publicists Guild in 1984. In 1985, he received the Les Mason Award from the Guild, which is their highest recognition. I was so proud of my dad when he got that recognition.
ICG: Looking back, what did growing up in the industry teach you?
JF: I always knew that I wanted to work in the industry. It was part of my life while I was growing up. Producers and directors would come to our house to talk with my father. I’d be quiet and listen. I remember people dressed in tuxedoes coming to pick up my parents up on their way to the Academy Awards. My dad was working six days a week. He would go off to locations, and come home with stories.
ICG: Where did you live?
JF: We lived in the San Fernando Valley. A lot of the kids whom I grew up with ended up in the business. I had an 8 mm camera. I made little movies with my friends. I also had a 16 mm sound projector. My dad would get me prints of films and I would show them to my buddies.
ICG: Did you always know that you wanted to be a cinematographer?
JF: I thought I wanted to be an actor, but once I got onto sets, I knew I wanted to be part of the camera department. I’d watch the actors rehearse and realized that someone was bringing it to life with lighting and how they used the camera. Bill Widmayer was head of the camera department at Columbia Pictures. I told him I wanted to be a cameraman when I was 20 years old, but I lied about my age.
ICG: What happened next?
JF: A few days later, I got a call from Carolyn in the camera department. She told me to go to Columbia Ranch and report to Fred Jackman (ASC), who was shooting the TV series, The Wackiest Ship in the Army. That was my first day on a camera crew. My job as a second assistant was keeping the slate and marking the actors, carrying cameras, and doing the paperwork. It was tough getting started, because all the cinematographers had regular crews, but I worked with some great cameramen, including Conrad Hall (ASC), Bill Fraker (ASC), Bob Surtees (ASC), Harry Stradling (ASC), Richard Rawlings (ASC), Monroe Askins, (ASC), Matt Leonetti, ASC, Chuck Wheeler (ASC), Robert Morrison, and Richard Kline (ASC).
ICG: What were those experiences like?
JF: It was like a dream come true. I was working with great cinematographers on sets with Cary Grant, William Holden, Marlon Brando and other legendary actors and actresses. I’d wake up every day feeling that I had the best job anyone could have. You have got to love what you’re doing to do what I do for as long as I have. I have fun every day. I also got jobs as an actor.
ICG: How did that happen?
JF: I was observing Conrad Hall (ASC) shoot a scene for In Cold Blood, and it led to an opportunity to get my first bit part as an actor. I got my SAG card and eventually got roles in Get Smart, Gunsmoke, Babylon 5, and other TV series.
ICG: What other memories do you have to share?
JF: I was working as a second assistant on a TV show called The Hero. They sent me over to the next stage to see if I could borrow some film. Bobby Wyckoff was shooting the Get Smart TV series. I had worked with him on Bewitched. Bobby said, ‘Hey kid. My second assistant is leaving. Can you start on Monday?’ I was on Get Smart for two and a half years. In addition to working on the crew, I did some stunt work and had occasional speaking parts as a Chaos agent.
ICG: How long did you work on camera crews?
JF: I spent seven years as an assistant cameraman and eight as a camera operator.
I paid my dues, but felt I was the luckiest guy in the world. I had opportunities to work with some great people and learned a lot from them. I was one of, if not, the youngest assistants when I started and the youngest guy to become a Hollywood cinematographer.
ICG: What was your first film as a cinematographer?
JF: It was a 1979 television movie called The Flame is Love that we shot in Ireland. I’ll never forget it. It was a period picture with horses and carriages. It was beautiful in Ireland – the sky, the wind, the natural light and colors. I think there were 1,000 shades of green that were constantly changing. I don’t think you can describe that in a script.
ICG: What happened next?
JF: I got a phone call asking me to fly to Hawaii to shoot the last 12 episodes of Hawaii Five-0.
ICG: You started a run of hit television series, beginning with Hill Street Blues in 1981. How did that opportunity happen to come your way?
JF: Bill Cronjager (ASC) shot the first season. He created a very original look. When he moved on to another project, I was asked to come onboard. We had a great ensemble cast, including Veronica Hamel, who could talk with her eyes. All the actors were easy to communicate with, and Steven Bochco is a terrific writer and producer.
ICG: How do you decide what’s the visual grammar for a show?
JF: I can’t speak for anyone else, but I try to put myself into the story. I read the script and imagine myself acting and directing. Hill Street Blues was a lot of fun, but it was a hard show with eight or nine main characters in incredible areas to light and shoot, including Skid Row in Los Angeles. I took a lot of chances. There were times when I thought, ‘This could be my last day, but I have got to try it!’ We were shooting with a 200-speed film, and many times, I was rating it for 800. I lit for the words and the mood.
ICG: We’re not going to ask about all of your experiences shooting different films and TV series, because it’s a long list. But can you share a memory or two about Magnum P.I.?
JF: Magnum P.I. was a joy to shoot. It was on the air for a couple of years before I came onboard, but it was a drama, so they gave me the freedom to try different looks. I used some diffusion, because we were shooting in Hawaii and wanted to show the beauty of the islands. I had a four-and-a-half year run on that show. Tom Selleck was a terrific leading man. He was also executive producer during the last couple of seasons. Tom had me direct a couple of episodes. That was an interesting new experience dealing with budgets and schedules as well as developing a vision and collaborating with the cast, crew and various other people. I basically applied my experience as a cinematographer.
ICG: You also worked on Jake and the Fatman. What do you remember from that experience?
JF: They brought me onboard when the show was moved from Los Angeles to Hawaii. After a while, the show moved back to Los Angeles. They were moodier stories in Los Angeles. It was about the relationship between two detectives who solved crimes. A lot of the drama was in the dialogue, in their eyes and in the subtle expressions that visually punctuates their wisecracking dialogue. I also directed four episodes.
ICG: How about Babylon 5 – that had to be a different experience?
JF: Babylon 5 was a pure science-fiction series. Part of the fun was that there are no rules in outer space. Nobody knows what it looks like, so I had the freedom to play with colors and looks. I spent five years on that show. We had interesting conversations about what characters and environments on different planets looked like, and then I did my best to transport audiences to those remote places, so it felt believable. In addition to cinematography, I directed 10 episodes.
ICG: A few years after Babylon 5 you shot The Gilmore Girls. Tell us a little about that series.
JF: It was a bright, cheery series that we shot on stages at Warner Bros. We shot it in Super 16 format. I thought the film held up great on HDTV screens.
ICG: You are working on Saving Grace, another interesting episodic series about an angel who helps an interesting character, played by Holly Hunter, solve crimes.
JF: I shot the last three episodes of the second season, the entire third season, and will shoot the upcoming episodes for the fourth season. Nancy Miller created the show and was a main scriptwriter. She and her writing staff give every word a meaning. Holly Hunter plays Grace, and is also an executive producer. After we wrap 12 or 13 hours of shooting, she is in the editing room. One of the things that I love is that it is an obviously improbable theme, but it’s believable. It is a great experience.
ICG: Have you figured out how much television you have shot?
JF: I have shot close to 500 hours of primetime television.
ICG: That’s the equivalent of shooting more than 250 movies for cinema screens, and you are still going strong.
JF: I am going to be disappointed if I’m not shooting film 15 years from now.
Sol Negrin, ASC
ICG: When did you realize you wanted to be a cinematographer?
Sol Negrin: My father was in the garment business, which I detested. I was going to a New York public school that was a prep high school because I wanted to be a naval architect. I used to build boats and design my own things at home. I wanted to get into the Naval Academy or Webb Institute because those were the two schools that taught naval engineering or architecture. As it turned out, my math skills weren’t good enough. I had a grade advisor who asked whether I had an avocation. I told him that I liked photography, and he suggested I pursue that. It was good advice. I took the exam for the High School of Industrial Arts and passed. I showed some of my artwork, and I got in. It was the only school that taught still photography and motion picture filmmaking as well, and I gravitated to the film work. I shot short films for the school, which had a lot of Army surplus equipment, including 16 mm Cine Special cameras.
ICG: How did your professional career begin?
SN: I got a job while I was still in high school, but it was darkroom work and I didn’t like it. I stayed there part time for two months, and then started knocking on doors, including Hartley Productions, a company who produced industrial films and commercials for Pan Am Airways, Irish linens, and about a dozen other businesses. Hartley also had produced many training films for the government during the war. They gave me a part-time job. I started off at $5 a week sweeping the floor and doing anything to learn about film production. This was my internship. I gradually moved up, and after a year and a half I was an assistant cameraman. After I graduated high school, I started working full time at Hartley Productions. I got a ground floor, hands-on experience about everything related to 16 mm and 35 mm filmmaking. I worked on commercials, documentaries, industrial film and, eventually, feature films and television.
ICG: As an assistant, you worked with some of the most renowned ASC cinematographers, some of them from the silent and early sound eras, including Lee Garmes, Charles Lang, Jr. and Hans Koenekamp, to name a few. What did you learn?
SN: The best part about being an assistant is that you get to observe. From Lee Garmes, I learned simplicity. He had an eye for composition and good taste. He knew his diffusion. He was a master in every respect. I worked with Hans Koenekamp on some visual effects shots for Damn Yankees. He really knew his effects, and was a master lighting cameraman as well. With Charles Lang, Jr., we were doing a shoot where Joan Crawford spoke to stockholders of the Pepsi-Cola Company, which she had taken over from her late husband. In this informational film, Charlie photographed her as if it were a feature film using all the diffusion nets and glass as needed. She was always concerned about her neck, and he had a finger net over the key light that cut across her neck so it wasn’t so pronounced. Working with Charles Lang, Jr., was an education. Boris Kaufman was from a different generation; he was a master of hard light. Like Harry Stradling, Sr., he knew how to use one large source and make that lamp do the work of many. He had a European sense of composition and depth. Some of what Boris did in On the Waterfront reminds me of Gregg Toland’s work on Long Voyage Home.
ICG: You were working at MPO and Filmex when the television commercial as we know it today was being invented. What are your memories of that time?
SN: MPO was the MGM of commercials. I was an assistant. There was a lot to learn, and the work was steady and paid well. I learned a lot, but it could be exasperating work. I traveled a great deal. Later, after I had become a director of photography, I was on staff for three years at Filmex. Often, I flew to California on Monday and took the red eye home on Friday to be with my family on the weekends.
ICG: You have a close friendship with Torben Johnke. How did that come about?
SN: I worked with him as an assistant when he first arrived in this country from Denmark, and later I worked for him as a director of photography when he became a producer and director. He was one of my mentors. It was nice that he remembered and hired me. He had his own techniques, and he taught me a lot. We’re still friends, and I see him whenever I get to Toronto. I worked with Torben on one of the last Technicolor monopack films. It was at the old Fox Studios on 53rd Street. We had the Bell Telephone Orchestra with about 70 musicians. The film was actually Kodakchrome reversal. When it was processed, they made three strips out of it. It was the forerunner to Eastman color negative monopack film. The exposure index was 10 or 12. There were so many arc lamps that they had to bring in projectionists to operate them because there weren’t enough electricians who knew arc lamps! We needed 1,200 footcandles just to get a T2.8 exposure. We were photographing the well-known violinist, Zino Franciscotti. It was a dolly shot into a close-up of the bow and strings of his violin, and because of the heat of the lights, we thought the violin might be damaged. It was a very difficult shot. We had to wait for the dailies because the film had to be sent to California to be processed. We were biting our fingernails, hoping it was in focus. We had been promised a new BNC camera checked out by Technicolor to be sure it met their specs, but the delivery was late, so we had to use an older Mitchell Standard, which had to be put in a blimp that made it very cumbersome. But, we did the picture with it, and I was proud that it went smoothly, with no problems.
ICG: During the 1970s, you were photographing Kojak, one of the most popular television shows of that era. Your work on that show led to three of your five Emmy® nominations. What are some of your memories?
SN: While shooting Kojak in New York, I worked with many different directors and often received their praise for a job well done. Part of our task was to capture the flavor of New York City. While working with these directors, I absorbed many of their techniques in order to produce the best visual images. I enjoyed collaborating closely in order to achieve a mutual understanding about the lighting and composition in order to make each story as interesting and exciting as possible. The Emmy nominations were very gratifying, but my greatest satisfaction came from knowing I had done my best.
ICG: By the 1980s, you were shooting with modern, fast film stocks and other improved technology. What’s your take on the relationship between technology and creativity?
SN: The changes have been dramatic, but I don’t envy the new people coming into the industry. They have to learn and absorb so much new technical knowledge to make things work in order to capture the vision they are trying to achieve. I find film more user-friendly. With digital, each camera is different, and before you realize it, the camera may become obsolete. There’s a different workflow for every project. Film has its own distinctive look and is still a different palette. It’s more organic. There is a different feel and look to the image itself. Creativity will always be intertwined with any new technology.
ICG: What has membership in the ASC meant to you and your career?
SN: In 1942, I read my first issue of American Cinematographer, which featured many well-known cinematographers of the time. I knew at that moment that I wanted to be an ASC member, and that became my aspiration. The day that I was accepted as a member was one of the most memorable times of my life. The camaraderie of being in the company of such talented individuals is something I never expected. To receive this award from such a distinguished society means so much to me. I’m honored and very happy.
ICG: You spend a lot of time and energy teaching tomorrow’s filmmakers. What is your advice to them?
SN: Learn all you can. Every day is an education. You have to keep up. Absorb it all. It’s a very competitive profession. Some of my students are still very much into the film process, and that delights me. We teach both worlds – film and digital. There is always something new on the horizon, and you have to learn to adapt. That’s the way it’s always been, from the silent era to the sound era, from black and white to color. What remains the same is that it continues to be all about the visual image of storytelling.