The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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David Nowell
David B. Nowell, ASC

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
The big, epic films of the mid- to late ’50s, like The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, had me spellbound. It was a special treat to go to the original Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood and see those films when they were released.

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
Where do I start? I think of [ASC members] Gregg Toland, James Wong Howe and Conrad Hall. But there is some brilliant work being done by young men and women out there now.

What sparked your interest in photography?
I was a late bloomer; it really didn’t start until my college years. I was lucky enough to be friends with Harold Lloyd during the last four years of his life. Because of his contacts, my friends and I had access to a private theater and 35mm prints of films. When I saw an original print of Black Narcissus, shot by Jack Cardiff, BSC, I was stunned at what color photography could look like.

Where did you train and/or study?
I went to Loyola University, which is now Loyola Marymount University. Back then, Loyola didn't have a film school yet, so I took courses in a film and video department called Communication Arts.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?
Rexford Metz, ASC and David Butler. They were the leading aerial cinematographers during my era as an assistant cameraman, and both were key to me learning what it was going to take to become an aerial cinematographer myself.

What are some of your key artistic influences?
Ansel Adams and his day-exterior photography of nature. Let’s face it: almost everything I do is based on using time of day, sun angles, weather and nature to create the best cinematography I can. I don’t always have the use of a lighting package to help me create a look. I have to rely on a GPS and a compass to help me determine where to be for that perfect shot.

How did you get your first break in the business?
When I was two years away from graduating from college and wondering whether I’d ever get a job, my friend, Charlie Correll, ASC, who was a 1st AC at the time, got me on a show as his 2nd AC.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
The most fun was when Ron Howard asked me to serve as director of photography for the zero-gravity work on Apollo 13. I had the chance to light the sets and then shoot 565 23-second takes in zero gravity to get all the sequences done. That was a very special shoot.

Have you made any memorable blunders?
Nothing that spectacular. Sometimes in the heat of battle, I’ll have to change rapidly between different frame rates for any given shot. Occasionally, I’ll neglect to adjust the stop to compensate, so thank goodness for the latitude of today’s film stock.

What’s the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
Always view your dailies. This may sound silly, but a lot of times, especially today, you never get the chance to see how a shot will look up on the big screen.

What recent books, films, or artworks have inspired you?
The recent Chinese film Hero is absolutely stunning in its grandeur and use of color.

Do you have any favorite genres, or genre, that you would like to try?
Not really a genre, but I would love to incorporate the use of color and scale as used in Hero, with sweeping, dramatic, aerial vistas and the occasional interesting aircraft added in here and there.

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
At my current age, I’d probably be owning and running a racecar team. In my younger days, I would have become a professional driver.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Lloyd Ahern II, Tony Askins, Peter Collister, Charles Correll, Stephen Goldblatt, John Schwartzman and Dean Semler.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
Besides the honor of being part of this elite group, it’s been the amazing giving by all the members. Whether it’s to solve a problem of a particular shot or helping with a charity event, they’re there for you. 

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