Five Cinematographers Who Shaped Me

16 09 2011

It’s getting later on a Thursday night and for some reason I’m feeling kind of sentimental, so I’ve decided to write a fairly personal post for you guys.  For of those you who don’t know, my passion and calling in the world of film production is cinematography.  I have lensed a variety of commercials, award-winning shorts, promotional videos, weddings (video and 8mm film, believe it or not), industrial films and live music acts.  In short, you name it, I’ve probably shot it at some point.  In the commercial world, there are times of true creative ingenuity, but for the most part, you are limited by what the client or employer desires.  For that reason, this post definitely relates more to my shaping as a cinematographer narratively.  Who are the five most influential cinematographers to me personally?  It’s going to be hard to narrow it down and I won’t be so daring as to try to put them in any order, but here are five true artists who helped change the way I looked at motion pictures.

1. Gianni di Venanzo (1920 – 1966)

Di Venanzo with camera; Francesco Rosi in foreground

Many cinematographers will tell you that one of the primary goals in perfecting the look of an image is finding the perfect balance between light and dark.  Perhaps no other cinematographer achieved this more exquisitely than di Venanzo.  The man who shot Antonionni’s La Notte and Fellini’s 8 1/2 had amazing control over the contrast of black and white negative.  The darkness of the blacks and blazing white highlights, coupled with his distinctive mood influenced lighting style, give all of his films a certified dream-like quality.  In looking through the nearly two dozen features he shot over the last 20 years of his life, you can see his personal stamp as an artist and technician indelibly printed.  Though the bulk of his work was with black and white negative, di Venanzo proved himself equally as awe-inspiring and versatile in his color work on Fellini’s epic Juliet of the Spirits.  Di Venanzo’s work has had such a hold on me that, when filming my directorial debut last fall (which was filmed black and white), his notable style was the only cinematographer’s body of work that I mentioned to our DP in helping define the mood and style of the film.  Di Venanzon died in a car accident in Rome while shooting a picture in 1966; it’s a wonder what other wonderful images he could have provided us with had his life not been cut so short.

2. Robert Surtees (1906 – 1985)

Robert L. Surtees

Whereas di Venanzo’s work brightly illuminated his personal flourish, Surtees was that of a chameleon.  Whether black and white, color, a bright musical or dark drama, Surtees could handle it all.  Many say that the best shot movies are the ones where the images don’t stand out; meaning, the visual beauty is not so much that it distracts from the story.  If this could be said of any cinematographer, I think Surtees is a fine example.  He was versatile and talented, giving each one of his narratives their own distinct feel.  A three-time Oscar winner and fourteen time nominee, Surtees’ work spanned over four decades and included Ben-Hur, The Last Pictures Show, Oklahoma!, King Soloman’s Mines, The Bad and the Beautiful, The Sting and The Graduate.  As testament to his versatility in an ever changing industry, when he shot The Graduate in 1967, critics and fans alike heralded it as new, innovative and cutting edge in its look and lighting design; Surtees was 60 years old when he shot this film.  A brilliant, brilliant cameraman, I will go out on a limb and say that if I could aspire to any style of another artist, I would like to be as good and versatile as Surtees behind the camera.

3. Jack Cardiff (1914 – 2009)

Jack Cardiff

Another artisan whose work stands out with his personal touch stamped on each and every frame.  I have elaborated fondly on the work of Cardiff on this blog in two other posts: Directors who Started as Cinematographers and in my review of the film Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff.  To save those loyal readers the pain of my continued adoration of this wonderful cinematographer, I will keep his segment brief.  Working his way up from clapper boy in the 1920s, Cardiff became one of the most skilled, if not the most skilled, Technicolor lighting cameraman in the business.  His work with the Archers demonstrates some of the most brilliantly colorful palettes of filmmaking in existence.  When I think of the correalation between a great painter like Vermeer or Caravaggio in the film business, I think of Cardiff.

4. Gordon Willis (1931 –   )  

Willis behind the camera

People call Willis the “Prince of Darkness” due to his insatiable desire to push the bottom end latitude to the hilt in exposing his image.  His repertoire during the 1970s is almost unmatched with films like both Godfather movies, All the President’s Men, Annie Hall, Klute, The Paper Chase and Manhattan.  His style is evident in each and every one, a gritty, dark and moody negative that puts the viewer directly in the story, but still holding a visually stunning image.  His style remains very unobtrusive, yet retains a certain classic beauty that leaves viewers pondering the visual panache of the film long after viewing it.  Though you may not recognize him by name, his images have all been a strong part of our cinematic histories.

5. Sven Nykvist (1922 – 2006)  

Sven Nykvist

The second and longest collaborating Director of Photography with famed Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, Nykvist is best known for his muted colors and soft lighting approach.  His work with Bergman alone is enough to solidify him in the annals of the best cinematographers of all-time with films like Persona, Cries and Whispers, Fanny and Alexander and Scenes From a Marriage.  But then, he came to work for American and English directors and provided us with further visual gems in films like Chaplin, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Sacrifice and Celebrity.  The muted, autumn-esque color palette and diffused, yet controlled lighting style that Nykvist incorporated create some of the richest and satisfying, yet subtle images ever put to screen.  His work is not necessarily flashy and he was a large proponent of natural lighting, but this minimalist nature, under his control, produced images that are in my opinion works of art.

Of course, there are many more DPs that I love and admire including, but not limited to, Roger Deakins, Robert Richardson, Freddie Francis, Guiseppe Rotunno, Nestor Almendros, Charles Lang, Vittoro Storaro, Gregg Toland, Lazlo Kovacs, John Alonzo and on and on.  However, if I have to narrow my influences due to personal taste and whose work most comes to mind when I think of shaping my own images, then these are the gentleman that come first.


Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (2010) Review

17 08 2011

Copyright 2010 Modus Operandi Films

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Ever since hearing about this film several years ago, I have been extremely anxious to see it.  Upon noticing it’s appearance on Netflix’s Instant Queue, I immediately added it.  Maddie has been gone this week for orientation for a new job, and I knew that this film would not appeal to her at all.  In fact, she made it pretty clear she had no interest in seeing this one.  So, since I had the house to myself this week (along with a couple of cats and a dog), I was able to sit back, relax and enjoy this wonderful ode to one of cinema’s finest technical artists.

For those of you who don’t know, Jack Cardiff was a leading British cameraman who began as a child actor in the industry in the late 1910s.  In his teens, he began moving up the ladder in the camera department from camera assistant to camera operator and, ultimately, to a full fledged cinematographer.  His work with the Archers, Pressburger and Powell, is renowned and his contributions to the field of cinematography, specifically color cinematography, are legendary.  My first personal encounter with Cardiff’s work was in my early teens.  One of the VHS movies I had recently purchased contained a preview for a re-release of the 1948 film Black Narcissus.  I was shocked at the imagery I saw during the preview!  The colors were so real, so palpable and brilliant that it made any of the current films that were in theaters at the time look dull in comparison.   I knew I had to see this film, but it would be many years later before I got my Blu-ray copy of Black Narcissus in hand.  Needless to say, the HD presentation of that film is amazing.

Cardiff would win an Oscar for Black Narcissus and go on to receive two more nominations for King Vidor’s War and Peace and Joshua Logan’s Fanny.  A further nomination would be for directing the film Sons and Lovers, making Cardiff one of the few cinematographers to achieve great success in directing.  In 2001, Cardiff was the first and, to my knowledge, only cinematographer to date to receive an Honorary Oscar for his contribution to motion pictures.

This film is an ode to his life and to his work.  It celebrates and recounts his vast history in the film industry, and includes many candid interviews with Cardiff that were filmed before he passed in 2009 at the age of 94.  I thought this was a wonderful documentary and a great tip-of-the-hat to a brilliant cinematographer.  I could understand how some people might not find this film appealing or entertaining, just out of lack of interest in the subject matter.  However, if you are a lover of motion pictures or a working filmmaker, I feel this is a must see.  Cardiff’s ability to manipulate light still brings wonder and delight to any viewer of his work.  If I can be half the artist and cameraman this gentleman was, I will feel like I achieved my goals in the field of cinematography.

R.I.P. Gunnar Fischer (1910 – 2011)

12 06 2011

Gunnar Fischer (1910 - 2011)

Legendary Swedish cinematographer Gunnar Fischer passed away yesterday at the age of 100.  Fischer’s lighting and camera techniques brought to life some of Ingmar Bergman’s most iconic films from the director’s early period.  Though not as well known as future collaborator Sven Nykvist, Fischer’s style and visual eye has dazzled cinema-goers for nearly 60 years, though his general recognition remains mostly silent.

Born in Ljungby Vasternorrlands Lan, Sweden, on November 18, 1910, Fischer originally studied painting at Otte Sköld.  Following his education, he enlisted as a chef with the Swedish Navy, before turning to a career in cinema at Svensk Filmindustri. His first film credit was as assistant camera on Smålänningar in 1935, and his first feature as a director of photography came in 1942.  He worked with several international directors including Danish master Carl Theodor Dreyer and British director Anthony Asquith.  However, his most endearing and remembered artistic partnership was with Bergman from 1948 to 1960.

The fruits of Bergman and Fischer’s collaborations include such films as Harbor City, Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Magician and their final collaboration, The Devil’s Eye.  Like many fellow Swedish cinematographers of the era, Fischer was a master of practical lighting and operated his own camera on all his films.  Such classic images as Max von Sydow playing chess with Death or the wide dancing chain on the hill side from The Seventh Seal still move and touch viewers of all generations.

Bergman and Fischer went their separate ways after The Devil’s Eye in 1960.  Bergman went on to form another strong artistic partnership with cinematographer Sven Nykvist which lasted through almost the rest of the director’s professional career.  Fischer continued shooting feature films until 1979 when he retired.  In retirement, he continued to be close to his craft by serving as an instructor of cinematography at several prestigious Scandinavian universities.

An interesting article and interview regarding Fisher’s time working with Bergman from the Washington Post in 2008 can be found here:

Directors who Started in Other Departments – PART II

25 03 2011

As we move into the second part of this series, we will focus on directors who originally started as cinematographers.  The focus again will be prominent directors who were prominent cinematographers, which excludes one-timers like Christopher Nolan on Following or Gordon Willis’s one foray into directing with 1980’s Windows. Being a cinematographer first and foremost and having recently directed a short of my own, this entry in the series will be the closest to home for me.  As one of the more well known cinematographer-turn-directors, Nicholas Roeg, quoted about directing, “And later I thought, I can’t think how anyone can become a director without learning the craft of cinematography.”

The Cinematographers:

Nicholas Roeg (1928- ) – Roeg began his career in the early 1950s as a clapper-boy, quickly moving up to camera operator by the end of the decade.  In the early 1960s, he continued to work as a camera operator and also had the opportunity to shoot 2nd unit photography on David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia under head DP Freddie Young.  He moved into the role of cinematographer during the 1960s as well, shooting such stark classics as The Masque of the Red Death and Farenheit 451, as well as lighter material such as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. His first film as a director came in 1971 with his breakthrough debut Walkabout, a film he also took a cinematography credit on.  His directing career would continue with my personal favorite of his Don’t Look Now, the eerily surreal Man Who Fell to Earth with David Bowie and Insignificance. After the mid-1980s, his output became more sporadic though he has continued to make films as a director, his latest being in 2007.

Andrzej Bartkowiak (1950 – ) – Bartkowiak trained at the esteemed Polish Film School in Lodz, Poland where many well-known Polish and international directors and cinematographers train.  He immigrated to the United States in 1972 and began working in commercials before working on his first feature as a cinematographer, Deadly Hero. His real recognition, however, came in a series of films he shot with one of my favorite directors, Sidney Lumet.  Bartkowiak’s first film with Lumet was the dark cop tale Prince of the City, and followed this with Deathtrap, The Verdict and Daniel with Lumet.  Other notable films as a cinematographer include Oscar winner Terms of Endearment, Prizzi’s Honor, Twins and The Devil’s Advocate. Bartkowiak moved into directing with Romeo Must Die; his following films as director have all been in the action film genre.  He spent the entire decade of the 2000s directing, though it looks like he is moving back into the cinematographer’s seat for the upcoming Joel Schumacher film Trespass.

Jack Cardiff (1914-2009) – Cardiff is, in my opinion, one of the best cinematographers who has ever lived.  His work in early Technicolor is astounding and his ability to manipulate hues to fit the perfect mood for the story is astounding.  Cardiff began his career as a clapper-boy (in the camera department at least, he originally began as a child actor) and moved into being a camera operator a few years later.  His work as operator on Pressburger and Powell’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, led to a relationship with the two directors that would later allow him to be the cinematographer on two of their best known films, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. He won an Academy Award for the former.  Following Oscar nominations included War and Peace in 1956 and Fanny in 1961.  His first feature as a director was Intent to Kill in 1958; his most well known feature, however, was Sons and Lovers in 1960.  Sons and Lovers was nominated for seven Academy Awards including a nomination for Cardiff as director.  Coincidentally enough, fellow cinematographer-turned-director Freddie Francis shot Sons and Lovers and received his first of two Academy Awards for it.   Cardiff continued to direct intermittently into the 1970s, but it seems his true passion was his first love of cinematography; this he continued to do into his 90s with shorts and documentary subjects.

Ernest Dickerson (1951- ) – Dickerson began his career shooting music videos and, as a cinematographer, is probably best known for his collaborations with Spike Lee on such films as She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues and Malcolm X. The same year he shot Malcolm X, he began his career as a director with the film Juice. After several features in the 1990s, Dickerson as has gone on to become a prolific television director.  His television directing credits include episodes of E.R., Heroes, The Wire, Weeds, Burn Notice, Dexter and The Walking Dead, among many others.

Freddie Francis (1917-2007) – Francis spent a short time as a camera assistant in the 1940s before becoming a camera operator and operating through the mid-1950s.  At this point, he began his career as a cinematographer and would go on to win an Oscar for Jack Cardiff’s Sons and Lovers in 1960 for Best Black-and-White Cinematography.  Following his win, he only shot a few more films before moving into directing with 1960’s Two and Two Make Six. Though most of his directing career was limited to horror and low-budget features, Francis said in an interview, “I got a lot of fun out of being a cameraman, but obviously directing is more interesting. One thing wrong with being a cameraman in Britain is that from the financial point of view you have to keep working all the time and you often have to work with people whose work, frankly, doesn’t excite you. When I got the opportunity to direct I decided to try it and if I wasn’t excited with what I did, well, that would be my own problem and no one else’s. But basically I love making films. If someone asked me now to photograph a film I still would.” (1976).  Interestingly enough, he did return to cinematography in 1980 with the popular film The Elephant Man. This return to cinematography must have revitalized his interest greatly as he continued to shoot films from then until his final feature Straight Story in 1999.  In his second wave as a DP, he would win another Academy Award almost 30 years after his first for the 1989 film Glory.

Ronald Neame (1911-2010) – Neame’s credits as a cinematographer were fairly extensive through the 1930s with Happy until the mid-1940s with David Lean’s Blithe Spirit. His directorial career began in 1947 with Take My Life. He continued his varied career as a director until the short The Magic Balloon in 1990.  His most known films as a director include 1960s Tunes of Glory (his personal favorite film of his own), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Scrooge and The Poseidon Adventure. Over his career he received three Oscar nominations which, oddly enough, were not for cinematography or direction; they were two for writing and one for special effects.

Barry Sonnenfeld (1953- ) – Sonnenfeld is probably best known, in cinematography at least, as being the Coen Brothers’ first regular DP before their longtime collaboration with British Cinematographer Roger Deakins.  His credits with the Coens included their debut Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing; other notable credits as a cinematographer are When Harry Met Sally…, Misery and Big. He moved into directing in the early 1990s with the first Addams Family movie and continued with the sequel, Get Shorty and both Men in Black films, among others.  He also dabbled in television with the creation and an Emmy award for the television show Pushing Daisies.

There are certainly other cinematographers who moved into direction from shooting, but none so with the success of these listed.  An honorable mention for this category can be Steven Soderbergh who shoots many of his own films under the pseudonym “Peter Andrews”.  However, I have never been a huge fan of Soderbergh’s personally shot movies and being that he didn’t actually begin as a cinematographer, I can’t add him to the main list.  Another honorable (much more so than Soderbergh) mention is Stanley Kubrick who began as a stills photographer for such magazines as Look! in the 1950s and shot his first film Fear and Desire.  Rumor has it Kubrick was also largely responsible for shooting Spartacus after not agreeing with Director of Photography Russell Metty on the look of the film.  As an interesting side note, Metty won an Oscar for Best Cinematography for Spartacus.

A Trend that Needs to Break

14 03 2011

Is cinematography a dying craft?  No, not yet.  However, I am greatly concerned by certain trends that seem to be taking place in the current market and, no, I don’t think it is solely due to the evolution of digital cinematography (though this plays a hand).  It is no new development that making motion pictures is a business and, like all businesses, to be successful one must make a profit.  In days past, a production generally had one of two options in regards to the camera department: a 35mm motion picture film camera or a 16mm motion picture film camera.  Yes, there are lots of shapes and sizes from a fully outfitted Panavision Platinum all the way down to a modded Bolex H-16; the quality, however, between one 35mm to another and one 16mm to another with proper lenses is not drastic.  It was almost always generally assumed that the camera itself, whatever the make and model, would be rented as most Directors of Photography didn’t own a package and the Director of Photography himself would be chosen because of his technical and creative ability in forming an image, not in what gear he could bring to the production to help lower rental costs.

Today’s market, with the prominence of digital cameras in the production of motion pictures, makes things decidedly different.  Hi-Definition and Digital Cinema cameras come in an array of shapes and sizes as well, but also a plethora of sensor sizes, recording codecs and image capturing capabilities.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s always nice to have many options available for all sizes of budgets.  However, the problem arises in the fact that producers don’t really know that much about cameras.  Their main concern is the bottom line in the budget and to them, “We’ll shoot digital” means that any of the above cameras are fine, right?  Canon 7d is just as good as the ARRI Alexa, isn’t it?  I mean the one is just a little more flashy, but the image quality can’t make a $1,000 a day difference, can it?  Well, yeah it can.  Furthermore, there seems to be a growing trend that producers don’t want to actually rent a camera package anymore; they want a DP with a package (and lots of times one with lights and grip equipment as well).

So, what does this mean for cinematographers?  Well, it means that the best person is no longer getting picked for jobs.  The Director of Photography who is hired is the one who has the nicest camera package and the cheapest day rate.  This leads to many subpar cameramen being the busiest and making the best livings, while excellent DPs are struggling to keep food on the table.  Of course, not everyone who owns a package is not “the best” person for the job; many people with great packages are excellent.  The decision of who shall or shall not shoot the film, however, should not be dictated by package.  Believe me, in the end, your film will have a much better chance at being profitable by hiring a proficient DP and supplying said DP with the equipment needed to capture the essence of the story visually.  In short, quality into a production usually means quality out of a production.

I’m not sure how prominent this phenomenon is on larger productions, but I have a feeling many cinematographers on lower budget productions will agree that this is a common occurrence and, obviously, not everyone has $40,000-70,000 to invest in camera and lighting gear.  Even if they do, most lower budget productions aren’t union and the day rate is not enough to keep up the package, insurance and provide for yourself or a family.

Where do most of the DPs on larger budget productions come?  They come from these lower budget productions that do well at festivals.  Sure, if some of these DPs who own great packages aren’t great to begin with, they may evolve just from constant practice and opportunity to work.  Yet, what becomes of the guys who don’t own large packages who have great eyes and can make beautiful, fitting images?  It’s no longer a common (or necessarily viable) alternative to start as a 2nd AC and work your way up to being a Director of Photography, at least if you would like to be shooting or operating films before you are 40.  Most of these cinematographers either end up working on below par projects just to make a living, leaving the field entirely for something more profitable or struggling from job to job trying to get the productions they can on their merit alone.

I think it’s a terrible trend in the industry and producers need to realize that the camera/lighting department is not the best department to try to save money on.  This is the department that produces your image on screen and what’s the first thing that everyone will comment on after seeing a film?  Whether it looked good or not.


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