The American Society of Cinematographers

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Thomas Ackerman
Thomas Ackerman

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), which I saw when I was 5 at the Times Theater in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. All the adults in the audience were laughing their heads off, but to me, it was absolutely horrifying. My tastes were rather indiscriminate. I even loved the Francis the Talking Mule series with Donald O’Connor.

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
It’s a long list, but to name a few: Hal Mohr, ASC; Oswald Morris, BSC; Gabriel Figueroa; Gordon Willis, ASC; Caleb Deschanel, ASC; Harris Savides, ASC; and Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC.

What sparked your interest in photography?
It certainly had something to do with all the movies I saw growing up; those images presented a world that was truly magical. I was drawn to the way they looked. At the same time, I would hang out at Hardendorf’s Camera Shop, drooling over the Rollei in the display case. I had to settle for a Kodak Pony 135, which I found under the Christmas tree, along with a single roll of Kodachrome, when I was in the seventh grade. I rationed those 36 exposures over the two-week holiday, and when they finally came back from the lab, it was an out-of-body experience. Even now, in dailies, I get that same vibe.

Where did you train and/or study?
In a medium-sized midwestern town, there was no opportunity to learn cinematography except the occasional 8mm backyard epic. Formal training came at the University of Iowa. The cinema program was not very production-oriented, although a student could subvert the system and make a lot of movies, which I did. My first experience came after graduation, when I was commissioned as a motion-picture officer in the U.S. Air Force.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?
There were many. A pillar of strength at the University of Iowa was Gene Jones, a former chemistry teacher who ran the 16mm lab on campus. He could be a terror; thin negative meant a trip to his cramped little Quonset hut for a lecture on densitometry. Charles Guggenheim was a great mentor. I went to work for him just after he won his second Oscar, for Robert Kennedy Remembered. He was a rigorous taskmaster who taught me how to tell a story on film. In the early 1980s, Vittorio Storaro asked me to operate on One From the Heart, and to this day, he is a source of inspiration and moral support.

What are some of your key artistic influences?
Almost everything, with fine arts heading the list. Iowa was Grant Wood country; a lot of his work was in private collections dating from his days as a teacher at the local high school. Those paintings, along with those of the great Missourian Thomas Hart Benton, were enormously influential. Rural landscapes became a celebration of form and color. For a teenager itching to see bright lights and the big city, it was a lesson in how art can change the perception of the world around us.

How did you get your first break in the business?

When Marshall Lovrien, manager of the University of Iowa Motion Picture Unit, hired me to shoot Hawkeye football games and training films for the School of Dentistry, he gave me a break long before I had any rational idea of how I would make it to Hollywood.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
There have been countless times when I've felt like the luckiest person alive to be doing this job. But the ultimate satisfaction is sitting with a real audience enjoying the movie. There’s nothing like it.

Have you made any memorable blunders?
The university production unit did a big documentary on the Iowa legislature. My camera, a blimped Arri 16mm, had a vital close-up while two others shot reverse angles. Each operator did double duty as his own assistant. The next morning, downloading the magazine, I found that the loop had never actually been threaded through the gate. Not an inch of film was exposed! I glumly presented this fact to Marsh Lovrien, and after what seemed like a half-hour of dead silence, he outlined his plan for a reshoot. So as it turns out, Marsh provided both my first and second breaks in the business!

What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
Legendary gaffer George ‘Popeye’ Dahlquist used to tell his lamp operators, ‘Boys, if you’re not 10 minutes early, you’re 10 minutes late.’ Readiness is a big part of what we do.

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
The book American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
It’s a fair question, but I think cinematographers shoot films, not genres. I’m up for the projects with great visual opportunities.

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
Teaching, if it wouldn’t mean scrubbing my day job.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
John McPherson, Roy Wagner and Vittorio Storaro.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
I can’t imagine a greater honor. To join the cinematographers, present and past, who have so influenced the way films are made is an enormous privilege. It has a profound impact on one’s life and career. There’s a lot to live up to.


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