The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents February 2008 Return to Table of Contents
I Am Legend
ASC Close-Up
Torben Johnke, ASC
Post Focus
DVD Playback
Torben Johnke, ASC

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
Wings (shot by Harry Perry, ASC) and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (shot by Charles B. Lang Jr., ASC).

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
Of the many excellent cinematographers, two stand out as having influenced my work over the years: Jack Cardiff, BSC and Gregg Toland, ASC. They both created new ways of shooting motion pictures, Cardiff with the incredible Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes (both photographed in the original Technicolor process), and Toland with Citizen Kane, which was ahead of its time and broke many rules of traditional cinematography.

What sparked your interest in photography?
I inherited an old camera from my brother and started to experiment. Soon thereafter, I took courses in photo processing and built my own enlarger and darkroom.

Where did you train and/or study?
When Germany invaded Denmark in the spring of 1940, I was studying photography and film at a professional school in Copenhagen. Having completed my apprenticeship, I decided to open a studio with a colleague. After a while, we began producing theatrical commercials and musical shorts. As there was no film stock available, we would rent facilities at one or two major studios in Copenhagen, each of which was allocated a small amount of film stock by the German manufacturer. We also produced animated cartoons, and after the war, I contacted Technicolor in London to rent a successive-frame Technicolor camera. They were unable to provide one, but they sent me blueprints for the construction of one. In an antique store, I managed to find a camera built by Pathé in 1905. Using it as a basis, I built a successive-frame camera, photographed a cartoon and sent the negative to London, where it was processed and returned with comments about the excellent quality of the negative.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?
Hans Robertson, who taught photography and film at his own school. He was a top German photographer who had left Germany to escape the Hitler years.

What are some of your key artistic influences?
Rembrandt and Degas.

How did you get your first break in the business?
In 1947, having lived under occupation for five years, I had the urge to get out and see the world. I arrived in New York in the spring of 1948 and planned to go straight to Hollywood, but friends convinced me to stay. At that time, very few features were produced in New York, but there was work on independent productions of many kinds. Fortunately, I had a 35mm sample reel that gave me an entry to New York production houses. I was soon working on industrials, documentaries, independent features, and a variety of TV projects. Then came TV commercials, which have dominated a great deal of my career. I’ve shot at least 2,000 commercials over the years.

In 1960, along with two colleagues, I helped build a new studio in New York at 57th Street and Fifth Avenue. We produced commercials that I shot and directed for the leading advertising agencies. Together with Reeves Studios, we installed the first color TV cameras in our studio and began shooting commercials on videotape. I also subcontracted and photographed parts of several features for MGM, including The Yellow Rolls-Royce (shot by Jack Hilyard).

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
To the North Pole With Lowell Thomas, a two-hour ABC special I shot at locations in Alaska, northern Canada, the North Pole and northern Greenland. I shot it many years ago, but it was an adventure I’ll never forget.

Have you made any memorable blunders?
Buying a VistaVision camera.

What’s the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
I once worked with Irving Penn, who told me a simple rule: less is often better. He used a single soft light for most of his shots. We shot a number of Pepsi commercials that way, and those spots won several Clios.

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
Das Boot (shot by Jost Vacano, ASC, BVK), Blade Runner (shot by Jordan Cronenweth, ASC) and Tango (shot by Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC).

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
I’m no longer working as a cinematographer. Recently, I’ve been involved in feature filmmaking as a producer and teaching at Ryerson University’s School of Image Arts in Toronto, Canada.

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
Sailing the high seas.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Ray Fernstrom.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
Membership in the ASC gives one more prestige than any other membership in the industry. Spending time in the wonderful Clubhouse with members of all ages at the many meetings and dinners has been a great joy. Also, American Cinematographer has kept me abreast of news in the industry for 70 years, which might be some kind of record!


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