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
Page 2
Just Not That Into You
Short Takes
Post Focus
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Well-traveled Australian cinematographer Donald McAlpine, ASC, ACS earns the Society’s International Award.

Donald McAlpine, ASC, ACS, who will accept the ASC International Award this month, is truly an international cinematographer, having shot some of the films that raised Australia’s movie industry to worldwide prominence in the 1970s and, since then, more than two dozen films for Hollywood studios. Two of McAlpine’s feature credits, Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (1979) and Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant (1980), were among the well-received films that showcased the power and beauty coming out of the Australian industry of the time. Since working on his first American picture, Paul Mazursky’s Tempest (1982), the cinematographer has kept busy on a variety of popular Hollywood projects, including John McTiernan’s Predator (1987; AC Aug. ’87); Phillip Noyce’s Patriot Games (1992; AC June ’92) and Clear and Present Danger (1994); Baz Luhrmann’s frenetic Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge (2001; AC June ’01); and Gavin Hood’s Wolverine, the upcoming X-Men spinoff.  

McAlpine credits his upbringing in various parts of rural New South Wales, Australia, with helping him develop “an early sense of open space and country.” When his father contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a sanatorium, young Donald began earning money at the age of 12, doing farm work during the harvest. The experience could have led to an occupation as a sharecropper, a common path at the time, but a life of farming did not appeal to him. Instead, he used some of the money he made to take a four-week boat tour of Europe after he finished high school. That turned into a full year of working odd jobs in England, France and Belgium. “I found the way to meet people and really learn about a country is through work,” he recalls.  

After returning home, McAlpine enrolled in college as a physical-education and science major. Several of his teachers were coaches for Australian teams that were preparing to compete in the 1956 Olympics, and McAlpine helped them by shooting 16mm and 8mm film loops of the athletes’ performances; such films were a popular teaching tool at the time. Upon graduating, McAlpine began teaching phys-ed in a high school in rural Parkes, and he had been teaching for several years when a field trip to Sydney sent his life on another course.  

McAlpine took a group of students to visit the headquarters of the Australian Broadcasting Channel, the country’s relatively new network. Fascinated by what he saw, he inquired about a job. He recalls, “I had the 16mm camera I’d used to create the film loops, and I said, ‘If I capture the end of the world on film, would you guys buy it?’ They gave me four 100-foot rolls of black-and-white and a sheet explaining what [images] they needed to put together a news story. I shot one about Parkes, a rail town that was in the process of transferring from steam to diesel, and I got a lot of visually graphic material of locomotives on turntables.”  

ABC used his footage and asked for more, so McAlpine created a visual essay about the wheat harvest, chartering a plane to make it as impressive as possible. “The station loved it because they were trying to be a national network, but they were always short of rural-based material,” he recalls. “I made more money for one of those essays than I did for one week of teaching, but it wasn’t just about the money; it was a great ego boost. The headmaster eventually told me the work I was doing for ABC was interfering with my teaching, and he told me to cease and desist. When I called the station to tell them, they offered me a full-time job. That was all I needed to hear! I became an assistant cameraman and then a cameraman.”  

That opportunity led to a job with Film Australia, a government-supported company that created educational films and cinema shorts on 35mm. “We got to travel all over the world,” he recalls. “It was very exciting.” McAlpine was happy working at Film Australia, and although the thought of shooting a feature occasionally crossed his mind, there was very little feature production in Australia in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Eventually, however, he heard that a young director named Bruce Beresford was seeking a cinematographer to shoot an outrageous comedy, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972). “Bruce’s production manager was looking at the core of people shooting 35mm neg,” says McAlpine. “I’d shot shorts and some commercials, and the production manager asked me for names of people I thought could shoot a feature. I gave him three names, and he came back and said, ‘Bruce watched their work, but he also saw a little film you did, and he’s very interested in having you be his cinematographer if you’re willing to leave your job at Film Australia.’ I said, ‘Be careful if you’re standing in the doorway!’ Within weeks, I was in London preparing my first feature.”  

He notes that the era marked the “rebirth” of the Australian film industry, part of a public-relations effort by the government to address the perception that Australia had an image problem. “People thought of us as a big farm with no industry and no culture,” says McAlpine. “The country did have a thriving [film] industry in the 1920s; they made wonderful films and kept up with the change to sound, and in the 1930s, it was going great guns. Then the Hollywood studios moved in and said they wanted to be a part of it. Everyone thought that was great, but the studios bought up most of the Australian production facilities and closed them down to prevent competition. Then World War II happened, and the industry really stopped until 1969.”  

After shooting two comedies with Beresford, McAlpine began shooting four films a year in Australia. A small group of filmmakers was starting to do serious work, often focusing on Australia’s history. When McAlpine shot the drama The Getting of Wisdom for Beresford, he felt he was taking a step in his own artistic development. “It was the life story of an Australian author, sort of a mini My Brilliant Career, and it was the first time I had a chance to shoot beauty instead of just story.”  

My Brilliant Career came next, and McAlpine’s camerawork on the lush historical drama brought him a lot of attention. “I think we were trying to find an identity,” he says of his fellow filmmakers Down Under. “A lot of the films we were doing were about our own history, similar to America’s Westerns. It was really us trying to tell ourselves as much as anybody else that we Australians have an identity of our own. Everyone [in the Australian industry] was sort of thrilled on a whole different level than happens today; we had small crews, and everybody was working outrageous hours and giving their all. A cinematographer never got more than two answer prints, but we had remarkable people in the lab and got the very best out of those two prints. We may have been ignorant about some techniques and not that efficient, but we were certainly working hard.”  

Breaker Morant, set during the Boer War, was a big production for the country at the time, and the reaction it received internationally was also significant. “It was my first eight-week shoot — so lavish!” McAlpine recalls with a chuckle. “I hadn’t done anything on that scale before. There’s a scene where the Boers attack the fort and the soldiers defend the door with a machine gun, and I remember Bruce [Beresford] saying, ‘We’ve got to shoot this with seven cameras.’ And I said, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ I was ignorant about shooting that kind of action. So we got in all the extra cameras for a day, and everybody had one! We shot the finale over two dawns, and then we’d continue on to about 10 or 11 a.m. Of course, Bruce was right about bringing in all the extra cameras!”  

When Mazursky began prepping Tempest, a fantasy very loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, it so happened that The Getting of Wisdom, My Brilliant Career and Breaker Morant opened simultaneously in New York. Mazursky was impressed by the looks of all three films, and he contacted McAlpine about Tempest. In short order, the cinematographer found himself working with bigger crews and more gear than he’d ever had before. “It’s amazing how accepting I was of all of that,” he recalls. “I got used to it very quickly. I took it and ran with it!” He eventually shot three more films for Mazursky: Moscow on the Hudson (1984), Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986) and Moon Over Parador (1988). 

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