The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents February 2009 Return to Table of Contents
International Awardee
Just Not That Into You
Short Takes
Post Focus
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Peter Suschitzky, ASC

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
When I was 6 or 7, my father asked a colleague if he would bring his 9mm film projector to show a few films for my birthday party. He brought a few Chaplin shorts, The Rink (1916) and The Immigrant (1917) among them. For most of us, this was the first time we had seen moving images, so the effect was very powerful. I have never forgotten the joy and laughter and sense of magic I experienced along with my friends as we watched the images projected onto a sheet hastily pinned to the wall. When I reached the age of 14 or 15, I was already a movie addict impatient to see the latest Kurosawa or Bergman movie.

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
There are many colleagues working in different parts of the world whose beautiful work I love. Also, ever since I went to film school, I’ve admired the best cinematographers of the silent period, which for me culminated with Sunrise (1927), and I have gone on admiring the best of all periods. I would only add that despite one’s efforts, if the movie is not good, then the cinematographer’s work has little meaning.

What sparked your interest in photography?
My father, Wolfgang Suschitzky, was a photographer and cinematographer (Get Carter), so naturally, as a child, I was curious to understand what he did in that darkroom and on those locations.

Where did you train and/or study?
Institute des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques in Paris.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?
At film school, the cinematographer-in-residence, Jean Pierre Mundviller, had started work as a newsreel cameraman and then became a movie cinematographer in pre-revolution Russia. He’d been one of the cinematographers on Napoleon (1927). He took me to the roof of the school building, where he’d had a hand-cranked camera installed. My first lesson on it consisted of him singing the marching song that French cameramen sang to keep a steady 18 fps. He then proceeded to teach me how to make a fade in the camera and how to do a dissolve. To a very young student in the middle of the French New Wave, all that seemed to be a waste of time. However, those are the most treasured memories I have of the school, and the early lesson that I tended to dismiss as not being of any practical use made me think, years later, of our early, pioneering colleagues; because all effects were in-camera, they had to make decisions we are never obliged to make, such as choosing to stop a scene on a good take, winding the film back for a dissolve, and then taking the camera to the next location and going for the first take! It filled me with respect for the achievements of the silent era. Mundviller died only a few years after I studied with him, but contact with him made me feel I had touched the hand of someone who was present at the birth of the movies.

What are some of your key artistic influences?
My artistic influences are music, which I have always loved above all other arts; the best photographers of my childhood and youth, including Eugene Smith and Bill Brandt; and the movies of Kurosawa, Bergman, Antonioni and Fellini. After that comes painting, particularly Bruegel, Goya, Velsquez, Titian and the German Expressionists.

How did you get your first break in the business?
My first break came when I got a job as a second camera assistant on commercials and then documentaries. I was then lucky enough to get the chance to shoot my first movie when I was 22.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
I think the most satisfying moments have been those when I’ve felt I was able to contribute to a good movie, proposing something the director might not have thought of and having it all happily received. Other significant moments have involved taking my children to a set on which I was working.

Have you made any memorable blunders?
If our careers last long enough, we all make blunders. I am no exception, but as some of mine involve other colleagues, I won’t mention them here!

What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
I was once invited to a dinner where Billy Wilder was one of the guests. He asked me what I was doing, to which I replied, ‘Oh, a small movie.’ He said, ‘There’s no such thing, just good ones and bad ones.’ For the rest, I listened to an inner voice that said, ‘Develop as many interests as you can, as you will need them to fill the long gaps between movies and enrich life in general.’

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
Last week, I re-read My Last Breath, Luis Buñuel’s autobiography, which inspired me and made me laugh a lot.

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?

My favorite genre as a spectator is probably comedy. However, the profession thinks of me as someone suitable for the darker side of life!

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
I would love to have been a musician, but I was certainly not good enough, and I would like to have been a collector and dealer of paintings, but I wasn’t rich enough!

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
John Bailey and Allen Daviau.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
The ASC makes me feel I am in touch with my peers, even if I can’t attend the meetings.

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