The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Presidents Desk
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Paul Ryan
Paul Ryan

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
When I was about 6, my family would walk to a park where they showed Three Stooges and Charlie Chaplin films outdoors at night. I think the choreography of the action stuck with me.

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire, and why?
Sven Nyqvist, ASC, for his haunting images in The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries; Raoul Coutard, for bringing spontaneity and freedom of movement to the French New Wave; Gordon Willis, ASC, for his vision of New York and the bold darkness of The Godfather; Al Maysles, for his trust in documentary storytelling; Bob Richardson, ASC, for his imaginative cinematic vision and technical brilliance; and many others, including ASC members Caleb Deschanel, Owen Roizman, Ed Lachman, Connie Hall, Matthew Libatique, Roger Deakins and Vittorio Storaro, and Anthony Dod Mantle, BSC, DFF.

What sparked your interest in photography?
As a child, I spent a lot of time just looking at things and life around me. I never thought much about photography until I embarked on a cross-country road trip after college; I thought there would be images worth keeping. I wish I’d started earlier.

Where did you train and/or study?
I ended up in San Francisco in the 1960s. I studied photography with Minor White, Eugene Smith, John Collier and Ansel Adams. My interest in photography morphed into an obsession with cinema, and I enrolled in graduate film school at San Francisco State University.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?
Lawrence Halprin, a brilliant architect; Bob Primes, ASC, who taught me about lighting with electricity; and Al Maysles, who indoctrinated me in “Direct Cinema” aesthetics and sold me my first sync camera. Al had inscribed his name on the lens, a 9.5-95mm Angenieux, and it was like having a baseball bat autographed by Willie Mays. I learned a lot shooting second unit for Néstor Almendros, ASC on Days of Heaven and for Philippe Rousselot, ASC, AFC on A River Runs Through It.

What are some of your key artistic influences?
I’m fascinated by unusual composition and framing. I love the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Ryan McGinley, Francis Bacon, Pablo Picasso, Edvard Munch, Egon Schiele and Eric Fischl. I also love wandering through unusual places and finding existing structures and light. These stay in my mind.

How did you get your first break in the business?
When I moved to Los Angeles, I was fortunate to meet Terry Malick when he was getting ready to make Days of Heaven. He was looking for somebody to do second unit; he said a lot of the film would be images of the world surrounding the characters. Over lunch, we went through the whole script and he articulated descriptions that made it come alive. I took a small crew to Montana and spent seven weeks shooting wheat fields in the wind, people floating down the river, fires at night, grasshoppers and curious-looking birds. Much later, after editing, Terry still needed to film the opening steel-mill scene — Haskell Wexler, ASC had started shooting it and then had to leave because of a scheduling conflict. Terry asked me to complete those scenes. He said, ‘We don’t have any money, but I can give you a couple of points in the film.’ I would have been happy to do it without the points. I finished up the steel mill and then shot another week with Terry and the actors, with Ojai and Piru doubling for Texas. The points never made me any money, but shooting just a part of that film was a big boost to my career.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
When I’ve taken a really big risk and it turned out well.

Have you made any memorable blunders?
Early in my career, while making a film on ski racing, I shot a huge amount of 360-fps footage. The film gate was partially open, and the skiers were radically out of focus — they were just colored forms moving. I was horrified. But in the end, the abstract images made a great sequence.

What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
Michael Chapman, ASC said, ‘You have to give the impression you know what you’re doing even when you’re totally confused.’

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
The photography magazine Aperture. I also get a lot of lighting inspiration from theatrical productions.

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
I would like to play more with what I call ‘Cubist Cinema.’ I’m curious about how far you can push the limits of conventional screen direction and line crossing. I like the idea of a disorientation that makes the viewer reconstruct what’s happening in his own mind. It’s an extension of David Hockney’s idea of photography from multiple points of view integrated into a unified image.

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
An architect or a bush pilot.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Bob Primes, Connie Hall and Robbie Greenberg.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
The ASC has provided a venue for exploring ideas about cinema (and pretty much anything else) with other cinematographers, and it has been a catalyst for friendships I would not have discovered otherwise.

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