The So-Cal native was beloved by all and will be missed

Don Peterman, ASC was 79 years old when died on February 5th at his home in the Palos Verdes Estates neighborhood in Los Angeles. He left his wife of 54 years, Sally, his children Diane, Keith, Jay and Brad, 10 grandchildren and indelible memories with countless people whose lives he touched. I interviewed Don many times over the years, beginning with a story about the making of Flashdance in 1983. The following is based on memories he shared during those many interviews.

Peterman first met (visual effects cameraman) Roy Seawright when Don was a kid, growing up in Los Angeles. He was a pal of Seawright’s son, Ron, and because Don’s mother had a day job, he spent time after school at Ron’s house. Don had vivid memories of the day that Seawright took him and Ron to visit the special effects department at Hal Roach Studio, noting that the visit first sparked his interest in still photography. When Don was 14-years old, the elder Seawright gave him a photo enlarger as a birthday gift, and he was hooked. He took black and white pictures and made his own prints. He got his first job in the film industry during a summer break while still in high school, loading film in camera magazines and driving a camera equipment truck for Cascade Pictures, a television commercial production house.

Don had planned to enroll at USC with the intention of becoming a dentist. That goal was put on hold when the draft board summoned him to serve in the army in 1952. A recommendation from Seawright resulted in being assigned to a Signal Corps film production facility, in Astoria, New York, which served as Peterman’s de facto film school. He spent the next two years travelling to army bases in the United States and Greenland as part of a crew that shot for The Big Picture, a documentary that was aired by television stations around the country.

After Don completed his two-year tour of duty, Seawright introduced him to Herb Aller, the executive director of the International Photographers Guild (as it was then called). Aller helped him join the Guild and get a job as a film loader at Hal Roach Studio. Don worked at the studio for about 18 months, mainly on half -hour situation comedies that were produced on black and white film.

His next job was at Cascade Pictures. He initially worked as an animation camera operator on title shots, before moving up to being an optical printer operator.

“I got occasional opportunities to work as a second assistant on film crews for a day or two,” Don recalled. “My big break came when Charles Wheeler, ASC, took me on his crew as a camera operator on a 3D science fiction film called The Bubble [1966].”

Don described Wheeler as, “both a great cameraman and human being.” He worked on Wheeler’s crew on various other projects, including the pilot for the Gunsmoke television series in 1967. Don was also a second operator on the Lassie television series for a year and a half.  The cinematographer was Robert Sparks, ASC.

“We did 30 to 40 set ups a day and half were handheld,” he remembered.

Don stepped up to cinematographer when Cascade hired him to shoot commercials. He described that experience as his “graduate school,” adding that it was an opportunity to create 30-second stories using different equipment and techniques. After spending three years under contract at Cascade, Don decided that it was time to broaden his horizons and became a freelance cinematographer. He carved a niche for himself as a shooter who explored new frontiers, with products ranging from makeup to motorcycles. He told me that he lit and shot commercials as though he was taking fashion photographs.

A chance to explore another new frontier came about in 1974 when Peterman shot the pilot and early episodes of The Night Stalker television series. The fastest color negative available at the time was rated 100 daylight, and Don shot night scenes on Los Angeles city streets that were lit by mercury vapor street lamps.

“I pushed the film two stops and it saw the world the way my eyes did,” he remembered. “For a long time, I wasn’t certain I wanted to shoot features. I was happy shooting commercials and local television series. It allowed me to be home with my family.”

Nevertheless, Peterman earned his first feature credit in 1978 for When a Stranger Calls. He described it as “a down-and-dirty production,” shot in 25 days with a $1.7 million budget. The film grossed more than $40 million at a time when tickets cost $3.

“We shot night scenes in six foot candles of soft light long before there were fast lenses and film,” he recounted. “I like improvising, but you can’t make something out of nothing, so you need everyone on your side. The director, cast and crew becomes your second family… it’s like going to war together.”

When I asked what influenced his choice of motion pictures, he said, “I try to pick scripts that I can believe in. I think about what the meaning of the movie is, and find ways to help the director and actors tell the story. The real thrill comes when I can help tell a story that is so real people temporarily forget they are watching a movie.”

Rich and Famous (1981) was Don’s first opportunity to shoot a big budget feature. “I really wanted to work with George Cukor. He was a legendary director; and I also loved the sets and the chance to film the beautiful women in the cast.  Jacqueline Bisset was in a leading role. I used everything I had ever learned about lighting to shoot a test with her. The AD called me early the next morning and said it looked too dark. I was both disappointed and nervous about what George would think. I did my own investigation and discovered that the projector they used to watch dailies had a weak bulb! We screened the test again, and it was fine.”

The success of Rich and Famous led to working with Gary Marshall, who wrote and directed a low budget film called Young Doctors in Love, starring Sally Fields, James Caan and Jeff Bridges. That was in 1982, and Don’s career was shifting into high gear. In 1983, he earned his first Oscar nomination for Flashdance.

“(Director) Adrian (Lyne) showed me fashion photographs of beautiful women, and said that was the look he wanted,” Don recalled. “It wasn’t a big budget film.”

Jennifer Beals was cast in the leading role as a welder during the daytime and an exotic dancer at night. Her dream was to become a ballet dancer.

“During preproduction, Adrian and I watched about 20 music videos. That gave us ideas for creating looks for the five big dance numbers that were the heart and soul of the story. The message was anything goes.”

He and Lyne watched The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris. Both films were directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and shot by Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC.
“Adrian called (Bertolucci) a few times and asked how he would handle difficult situations,” Don said. “Bertolucci told him to go for it. So we never played it safe.”

Consequently, Peterman shot a makeup test with Beals, who was seated, and looking at her face in a mirror that was circled with small light bulbs.

“Jennifer had a cigarette in her hand and smoke was filtering through the air between her and the mirror,” he remembered. “Sunshine coming through a window provided natural cross-light. She looked great in that soft light, so I pushed a 250-speed color film to EI 800 and shot with no artificial light.”

Flashdance’s opening takes place an abandoned railroad tunnel, where the welder was working. Don said that the plan was to film a long shot of her in the dark tunnel with glaring sunlight in the background. Lyne had pipes installed high on each side of the tunnel that sprayed water on the walls, and Peterman bounced soft light off the walls.

During our conversation, Don also spoke about lighting a chicken coop. I initially took him literally until he explained that a “chicken coop” was his name for a technique that he invented. He’d hang a sheet of bleached muslin on the outer edge of a set and bounce soft light off of it.  “I wanted the light soft enough to give Miss Piggy a shot at doing shampoo commercials,” he said with a smile.

Don went on to describe “a gritty documentary look” for a daylight exterior scene from the film. They created dust that hung in the air and he put heavy filtration on the lens. When I asked where that idea came from, Don shrugged and pointed to his heart.

He also shared an anecdote about shooting a scene with six actors playing judges at an ice skating rink. Don said he noticed light was bouncing off papers on the desk and onto their faces. He pushed the 400-speed color film a stop and set the lens at T1.4, noting that he wanted to “draw attention to the expressions on their faces.”

Peterman’s fond memories of Flashdance included the opportunity to work with his son Keith, who was a 1st AC on his crew.  The film’s runaway success inspired a phone call from The Walt Disney Company, informing Don that Touchstone Pictures was going to produce its first film. It was going to be directed by a young actor, who wanted to meet Don. The director was Ron Howard and the film was Splash. It was a story about a man (Tom Hanks) who was saved from drowning by a mermaid (Daryl Hannah) when he was a boy. The man meets her again many years later, and she becomes the love of his life.

“You couldn’t meet Ron (Howard) and not like him,” Don recalled. “We went to Puerto Rico to shoot the opening scene. The rest of the film was produced in New York and at Disney Studios. It was a great experience.”

In 1984, Don shot Mass Appeal, and he described a confessional scene inside a church where he lit the edge of the priest’s face and left the rest of it masked in shadows. When I asked why, he shrugged and said it felt right. Hardly words anyone would find in a textbook for aspiring filmmakers!

Don earned another Oscar nomination for StarTrek IV: The Voyage Home in 1986. He was also one of the five finalists in the first annual ASC Outstanding Achievement Awards completion. Leonard Nimoy directed the film, along with his usual acting role as Spock. The story begins with The Enterprise crew returning to Earth in a captured alien spaceship. Don said that Nimoy wanted a different look than earlier StarTrek films. After talking with Don, Nimoy asked the production designer to paint the interior of the alien spaceship a dull olive brown tone. The set was dimly lit and dirty. Don said that he hid small lights behind the control panel, which was made of quarter-inch thick milk glass. He also used tracing paper to diffuse the light on the control panel display.

In 1998, Don was shooting Mighty Joe Young when an accident on the set almost took his life.  He was standing on a platform held by a crane 18 feet above a set. The crane broke sending the platform crashing to the ground. Don had a broken leg and rib and head injuries. It put his career on an indefinite hold.

My last conversation with Don was in 1999, about a year after the accident, and he shared his memories, thoughts and feelings about his life’s work. Don shot one more film, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, in 2000 with Ron Howard at the helm. His other memorable credits include Cocoon, American Flyers, Trains and Automobiles, Addams Family Values, Get Shorty and Men in Black. Don Peterman made a lasting impression on both the art and craft of filmmaking, and on the many people whose lives he touched. He will be sorely missed.

By Bob Fisher

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