The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents February 2015 Return to Table of Contents
Presidents Desk
Q and A with Bradford Young
Sundance 2015
ASC Close-Up



While roaming around the electronic wasteland the other night, I paused on Turner Classic Movies and rediscovered a trio of films I hadn’t thought about for quite some time: Scarecrow (shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC), Slither (photographed by Laszlo Kovacs, ASC), and The Last Detail (cinematography by Michael Chapman, ASC). Not having seen any of them since their initial release, I was committed to a nearly six-hour-long marathon that took me way beyond my normal bedtime — and I was happy to do it. Each movie in the group was released in 1973 and serves as a reminder of just what a fantastic period that was for feature filmmaking.

It’s interesting how our memories work. Listen to a song from a distant part of your life and you’re suddenly transported back to the time you connect it with. Long-buried emotions, thoughts and sensations are once again made real; under the right circumstances, the effect can be incredibly moving. I experienced the same reaction here, triggered by the incredibly tasteful and well-realized imagery pouring out before me. I found myself recalling my early teen years, when movies like these were popular across all demographics — a period when going to the single-plex was as much a regular part of life as attending school and playing sports. Though fully cognizant of how much blood has gone under the bridge since then, I reveled in the reminiscence. And instead of simply absorbing them as the entertainment they once represented, I realized that these somewhat forgotten films were part of the fabric of my life.

Every decade across the history of motion pictures has generated a recognizable texture that we associate as that era’s “signature look.” Of course, much of this is a function of the technology that was in use at the time — the particular emulsions, lenses, lab practices and so on. The 1970s stand out in a special way, but the decade’s distinctiveness exceeds the peculiarities of grain structure and a smoother contrast curve (made all the more appealing, by the way, when compared to many of today’s digital presentations).

A new generation of cinematographers, led by such ASC giants as John Alonzo, Bill Butler, William A. Fraker, Conrad Hall, Adam Holender, Victor J. Kemper, Richard Kline, Richard Moore, Owen Roizman, Haskell Wexler and Gordon Willis — as well as Chapman, Kovacs and Zsigmond — rewrote the rules of what was acceptable at the big-league level. Suddenly, in natural and unobtrusive ways, cinematography came to resemble life as people saw it around them: bright when it needed to be bright, and dark when it needed to be dark. But the genius of these artists is most evident in scenes and sequences during which they used their light to underscore dramatic context regardless of what reality might have dictated. The TCM triple play bore this out and once again proved that it’s not the tools, but the human touch that matters most in our work. More than a few times during that delightful evening, I found myself asking the question we all like to hear: “How the hell did he light that?” (Even with the ascendance of video village, we still often hear it.)

A few other structural items at work in these films also contribute to what we perceive as the genius of the 1970s school of cinematography. Compared to what we’re used to now, they employ a minimalist approach that completely surrenders camera-consciousness to story. They also show a preponderance of long takes in which composition and staging help establish a more studied editorial pace. And there is an overwhelming reliance on location shooting, a concept which had never been imagined on such a scale up to that time.

As if all that weren’t enough, what really put things over the top for me was something that appeared every 20 minutes in the upper-right frame of the letterboxed presentation of Scarecrow. In a further kick of nostalgia, these changeover marks told me I was watching a scan of a fourth-generation copy of a 41-year-old story that had been originated on film.

And you know what? It looked fantastic!

 

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