The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Let the Right One In
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ASC Close-Up
Don McAlpine, ASC
Donald McAlpine, ASC

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
Family legend has it down as The Wizard of Oz (1939). As a 5-year-old, I was taken from the cinema screaming. Cinema can still have a marked effect on me to this day.

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
I admire the cinematographer who shows me a new approach to lighting or camera manipulation. Too often we try to emulate a visual tradition, but a few take us to a new place.

What sparked your interest in photography?
As a boy, I was fascinated with the process. Our Australian 240-volt domestic supply developed some shocking results as I built my darkroom at the back of the garage. I soon became much more involved in the exploration of photography’s creative possibilities.

Where did you train and/or study?
My tired joke is ‘I am still taking lessons at a cost of $100 million each!’ There was no school of film where and when I needed it. We served an informal apprenticeship — not an entirely recommended method, but in truth, it is what we all still seem to do.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?
A high-school teacher who staged dramas and musical productions showed me the possibility and fun of captivating an audience. That satisfaction endures to this day.

What are some of your key artistic influences?
I find it hard to truthfully answer this question. There is beauty and design in so much.

How did you get your first break in the business?
It was not family connections! When I was a lad, there was no cinema industry in Australia. In the 1930s, Hollywood invested in our local cinema production and then closed it down, as Hollywood does. Luck and evolution led me through a wondrous career path: share farmer, schoolteacher, television cameraman (16mm black-and-white), Chief Cameraman at Film Australia (35mm color), and then director of photography on what was debatably the feature that marked the rebirth of a struggling industry.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
There is a point in every project where you and the director find your relationship and connection. At that time, you realize what the director needs from you and what you can get from him. From that point on, the movie is just hard work, but we love it.

Have you made any memorable blunders?
I will mention only one of many. While on a remote location, I received a truly bad script from a writer/director I had worked with a few times and admired immensely. By phone, I told him my opinion. I quickly realized you cannot tell a mother her child is ugly. After many years, there has been some reconciliation.

What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
The late and wonderful Phil Gersh, my agent for many years, listed the directors one should avoid working with. I’m not going to publish that list. Reports and anecdotes over the years have been an indication of grief avoided.

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
When you are young and all is new, a shoulder, a flower or most anything is an inspiration. I am now most inspired by those I have the gift of working alongside. The talent and genius of the best of the young people is a strong and challenging inspiration.

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
I think I have covered most genres except a true Western. As for favorites, the combination of music and camera is a great concept. But for me, a genre is little more than a frame to contain a story.

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
If financial limitation had not been a consideration, I would have had a medical career. Socially, I meet many doctors who seem to envy my creative life. Green grass?

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Zoli Vidor was my stand-by on Paul Mazursky’s The Tempest (1982), and I treated him with respect and involved him to the limit of the rules. Over a happy, wine-filled dinner, he asked if I wished to be an ASC member. I had forgotten this evening when, three months later, out of the blue came the nomination. Thank you, Zoli, wherever you are.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
As a non-Hollywood cameraperson, this honor gave me added confidence and acceptance into the center of this magical industry. The United States of America has been magnificent and magnanimous in its acceptance of me.


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