The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Brief interviews with ASC members about their careers and inspirations. This month: Cort Fey

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?

I am firmly of the Star Wars generation. I was 7 years old when we spent half the day standing in a line around the block. Everybody was excited — it was an event! The communal excitement and joy of that experience has always stayed with me.

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?

As a teen, I watched vintage Seventies movies like Klute, The Parallax View, All the President’s Men and The Godfather, all photographed by Gordon Willis [ASC], and I loved the look. I still find his style strikingly modern and so interesting. The cinematographers today that make ‘perfect’ seem so easy — [ASC members] Robert Elswit, Roger Deakins and Emmanuel Lubezki.

What sparked your interest in photography?

I grew up in Seattle, where my father was an editor and cameraman. I’d tag along on his jobs and watch the camera crew in action. Occasionally, I’d score a tiny on-screen role — my first gig was a milk commercial when I was 6. In seventh grade, I started taking photos and loved the combination of technique and creativity.

Where did you train and/or study?

I majored in history at the University of Pennsylvania, where I was photo editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian. After that, I worked alongside my father in Seattle as a production assistant, loader and second camera assistant. A year later, I attended the graduate film program at USC.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?

The Daily Pennsylvanian had a professional and award-winning photo department, and most of the learning involved senior photographers teaching the younger ones how to shoot. At USC, I was a student of Robert Estrin, ACE, and later his teaching assistant. Bob was a fantastic editor who taught me a lot about the musicality of storytelling and how important rhythm is to individual shots as well as whole sequences.

What are some of your key artistic influences?

I love how street photography can create so much drama from the mundane world that swirls around us all day. They create compositions that focus attention or build drama — all in a moment. My favorites: Saul Leiter, Vivian Maier and Robert Frank.

How did you get your first break in the business?

I was given the huge opportunity to step up from action-unit cinematographer to first-unit for two episodes of the Fox/Warner Bros. TV show Fastlane. I credit the show’s regular cinematographer, the immensely talented Nathan Hope, for putting me in that slot.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?

The most satisfying moment is when I look back at the day’s work and feel like we did something new. I am always striving for more of those kinds of moments.

Have you made any memorable blunders?

Each episode of Cold Case on CBS required a new flashback look based on the time-period of the story. One onerous combination was a prison escape through a real cave with flashlights shot on 16mm black-and-white reversal film. I just barely missed the stock’s 3 stops of latitude. All you saw on the screen were white dots floating on a black screen!

What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?

‘Change your shoes at lunch’ — director Fred Toye.

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?

I am inspired by great buildings, and recently I visited the Oslo Opera House. It’s this angular glass and marble shell with a curvy wood core, all sitting right on the water. It’s open and airy, yet solid and very permanent feeling. The amount of work and commitment to create such a unique and beautiful building is humbling.

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

I love action movies. I’ve shot quite a bit of action, but I think it would be great fun to do a big actioner. James Bond!

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?

Perhaps architecture. It’s a career that blends technical thinking with a creative eye, much like cinematography.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?

Michael Watkins, Michael O’Shea and John Bartley. They’re talented and kind artists — and I’ll be forever grateful!

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?

It’s impossible to not be inspired and invigorated when surrounded by these people. It’s an incredible opportunity we have to learn, share and support each other as artists and craftspeople in this difficult and isolating business.


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