The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents April 2012 Return to Table of Contents
The Borgias
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Alar Kivilo

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
I played for hours in a sand pile, pretending it was the Sahara, after seeing Lawrence of Arabia (1962). That masterpiece has never lost its hold on me.

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
At the top of my list are Gordon Willis, ASC and Conrad Hall, ASC. Willis taught me the importance of having a specific point of view when telling a story, and how crucial it is to distill ideas and emotions into simple, iconic images. When he shot an empty chair, it was not just a chair; it was a story. Hall taught me the art of presiding over ‘happy accidents,’ the importance of trusting your visual instincts and letting those guide your work.
What sparked your interest in photography?
I was given a still camera at age 16.

Where did you train and/or study?
York University.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?
Most of my teachers taught me indirectly through the pages of this magazine. I would read an article, see the movie, and then try the techniques whenever I had a chance to roll film through a camera. Nicholas Allen-Wolfe, CSC was my first mentor. He let me visit his sets, and I would sit in the corner and observe. He kept a very detailed record of his lighting plots, and I studied them diligently.

What are some of your key artistic influences?
Keith Carter, Vivian Maier, Sebastiao Salgado, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Arvo Pärt, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Sebastian Bach, Edward Hopper, Rembrandt van Rijn, Glenn Gould, Sergei Urusevsky, Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, John Fante, Raymond Carver and John Cheever.

How did you get your first break in the business?
After being recommended by Mark Irwin, ASC, CSC, I spent four weeks on a seismic research ship traveling from Newfoundland to Greenland. My assignment was to capture a storm at sea. The weather turned out to be the calmest in 200 years, but with that project I was officially a cinematographer.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
Jessica Lange discovering Tom Wilkinson about to shoot himself in Jane Anderson’s Normal. Quinton Aaron being told that his father is dead in John Lee Hancock’s The Blind Side. Zac Efron being told he survived a rocket attack because of a picture of a woman in Scott Hicks’ The Lucky One. In all three of these scenes, the director and I found a poetic way of shooting that told the story in one simple shot and put the audience right into the character’s emotions. Also, the standing ovation for Taking Chance at Sundance was amazing.

Have you made any memorable blunders?

I used a star filter on a wide-angle lens that was stopped down to T22. ‘Screen-door filter’ would have been a more apt description.

What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
Don’t try to be someone you are not.

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?

Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop; Art in the Streets at MOCA; Rivers and Tides, featuring the nature sculptures of Andy Goldsworthy; a retrospective of Paterson Ewen and David Blackwood; all the TED talks; An Audience of Chairs by Joan Clark; The History of Love by Nicole Krauss; and the Fogo Island artist studios designed by Todd Saunders.

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
As long as the story is strongly tied into the human condition, I’d love a crack at them all.

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?

I would be a musician.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Steven Poster, Mark Irwin and Rob McLachlan.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
The pages of this magazine, which have provided me with valuable lessons, have now come to life in the form of my fellow members. ASC membership is an endless and readily accessible source of information and support. To be chosen as a peer by those whose work I have most admired fills me with a great sense of accomplishment. It gives me the confidence and the responsibility to go forth and do my best work.

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