The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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The Borgias
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up

Among my friends, I’m known for having an almost encyclopedic knowledge of movies. I have terrible short-term memory, but if I bump into an actor, I can recall him from a two-minute scene in a movie made 20 years ago. Friends are always calling me with a question about some movie, be it a Western that starred Kelly LeBrock and Matt McCoy (Hard Bounty) or a 1950s sci-fi flick about a fungus creature that lives in a cave and kills people (The Unknown Terror). I once encountered actress Kathryn Witt on the street and amazed her by recounting almost everything she’d appeared in, from Demon of Paradise to Flying High. She probably thought I was a stalker.

I love movies — at times, even bad ones. You can see the filmmakers were trying so hard to make a good movie, but that they just didn’t have the talent or resources to pull it off. Take, for example, They Saved Hitler’s Brain, which has the distinction of being photographed by Stanley Cortez, ASC. Made in the 1950s as The Madmen of Mandoras, the film features the talking head of Hitler in a jar. When it was sold for TV broadcast in the 1960s, the movie was lengthened to better fit a two-hour time slot: new scenes were shot with entirely different actors playing characters who all die in the first half hour. Watching the jarring juxtaposition of elegantly photographed images with sloppily shot handheld filler — which alternates between day and night in the same scene — is truly a hypnotic experience.

My love of movies accelerated when I was 10, when I was diagnosed with some form of progressive blindness. The doctor said I would be completely blind by the age of 30. I subsequently spent every moment that I wasn’t in school watching movies at the Parkway Theater in Chicago. For 50 cents, I could see three double features a week of any films they could buy for $50. I watched Italian Neorealist films, documentaries, horror movies, Don Knotts comedies — anything. I wanted to have the entire visual vocabulary of world cinema in my mind before I lost my sight. That mental library of images became my inspiration and my passion as I matured and entered the industry.

For those of us who make the creation of visual stories our profession, having a comprehensive knowledge of past movies is a valuable source of emotional inspiration. The combined efforts of the cinematographer, art director, actor, sound mixer, wardrobe and makeup artists, screenwriter and director, producers, electricians and grips, props and locations, music and post processes all come together to create an emotional moment. That moment is planned yet spontaneous, something arrived at by accident and endeavor.

In the documentary Winged Migration, that moment came for me when the camera flew next to the birds for the first time. It transported me to where they were and made me feel like I could fly with them. In the Japanese animated film Spirited Away, that moment came when two characters talk on a balcony at dusk as the house lights are turned off and the moon grows in brightness, outlining a train skimming along a track covered by shallow water below. In the original Godzilla, it came when I saw the titular creature appear for the first time behind the mountain with hundreds of villagers running in terror. In L’avventura, it came when Monica Vitti opened the window of the island shack to reveal a cold sunrise. When I recently saw Bela Tarr’s masterful film The Turin Horse, the magical moment arrived with the very first shot, a stunning, eight-minute view of a world-weary horse pulling a ragged cart across windswept plains.

Those moments and many more form the core reason I wanted to be a cinematographer. I didn’t end up losing my sight, but the happiness those images give me, even in my dreams when I close my eyes, makes my imagination soar.


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