The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents January 2007 Return to Table of Contents
Pan's Labyrinth
Allen Daviau, ASC
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Little Children
DVD Playback
Production Slate
Post Focus
Short Takes
ASC Close-Up

Allen Davaiu, ASC one of cinematography’s most ethusiastic and accomplished ambassadors, reflects on his career after earning the Lifetime Achievement Award.

“I remember the first time I ever heard about the American Society of Cinematographers,” Allen Daviau, ASC said recently, addressing peers and friends at the Society’s Hollywood headquarters. He recalled a childhood of ardent moviegoing, during which he at one point noted the initials “ASC” after a particular cinematographer’s screen credit. At his mother’s suggestion, he did some detective work and called the Motion Picture Academy, which referred him to the ASC. He found a few answers that day, but his interest in cinematography was just beginning..  

In the five decades since, Daviau has built an inspiring career, photographing such features as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Twilight Zone: The Movie, The Falcon and the Snowman, The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Avalon, Bugsy, Fearless and Van Helsing. Among other honors, Daviau has earned five Academy Award nominations and two ASC Awards. In recognition of his expertise in establishing period and mood, he has also been honored with the Art Directors Guild’s Distinguished Career Award.  Next month, the cinematographer will receive the ASC Lifetime Achievement Award. “I’m certain that some of Allen’s most important work is still ahead of him, but he has already made an indelible impression on the art of filmmaking,” says ASC President Daryn Okada. “His determination to pursue a seemingly impossible dream is a source of inspiration for filmmakers everywhere in the world.”  Born in New Orleans, Daviau was raised in the Los Angeles area. “Seeing color television for the first time at age 12 started my fascination with the technology of light and photography,” Daviau recently told an interviewer, noting that he was later employed at camera stores and film labs, where he gained experience and information. “These studies were enriched by meeting a remarkable guy named Bob Epstein, who was attending the University of Southern California Cinema Department during the late Fifties and early Sixties. He introduced us to De Sica, Fellini, Bergman, Bresson, Ozu and Kurosawa, and I soon realized what a phenomenal international art form this marvelous technology could deliver.  “At about the same time, I was gate-crashing the set of One-Eyed Jacks, which Marlon Brando was directing and Charles B. Lang [ASC] was shooting. Lang was lighting this enormous interior, shooting VistaVision on what was probably 50-ASA color negative. He seemed to be everywhere at once, fine-tuning the frame with the operator, adjusting the positions of the background players, tweaking the light from dozens of Babies. As he led a beautiful actress to her mark and subtly adjusted the shadow on her forehead, I thought to myself, ‘This man has the very best job in the history of the world.’” Daviau was hooked.  After graduating from high school in 1960, Daviau bought a 16mm Beaulieu R16E camera and three Angenieux prime lenses. He started shooting student projects, a music series for local station KHJ-TV, and proto-music videos for acts such as The Who, The Animals and Jimi Hendrix. He also worked as a still photographer on the TV series The Monkees. “Sometimes things get done because you’re too dumb to know they can’t be done,” he later told American Cinematographer, describing how his unusual images gained him work shooting national commercials. “Commercials are the mainstay of keeping busy. You always have good equipment and crews, plenty of location work, lots of real interiors as well as studio sets, and an ever-changing variety of subject matter.”  In 1967, Daviau was introduced to young filmmaker Steven Spielberg, with whom he collaborated on the short film Amblin’. “Steven had seen some of my 16mm work,” he recalls. “He and I shared a great love of movies and tried to show that in this little film.” Spielberg later told AC: “I wanted to break into the film business, and my 8mm and 16mm films weren’t doing the trick. When I was about 18, I’d worked with Allen on a short film that was never finished called Slipstream; it was shot by Serge Haignere, but Allen operated the B camera, and Allen and I became good friends. Amblin’ was a pretty big break for both of us. I don’t know how crazy we are today about our individual work in that film, but I always think of Allen as a terrifically versatile cinematographer.”  Like many of his peers at the time, Daviau was not allowed entrance into the camera guild for many years and had to seek credits on non-union productions. As he explained to one interviewer, “After Amblin’, Steven tried to bring me along with him, and Universal even tried to sign me some sort of deal, but the union said, ‘Forget it.’ Back then, the union was nepotistic, and if you didn’t have a close personal contact [in the guild], you just did not get in. It took Andy Davis, me, and a handful of other cinematographers, including [later ASC members] Caleb Deschanel and Tak Fujimoto, a decade to gain entrance into the International Photographers Guild, and we finally had to file suit to do it. But before that, I shot thousands of commercials, as well as documentaries, industrials and educationals — anything to keep myself working and expanding my knowledge of film. It was very difficult.”  This era included serving as a creator of psychedelic special-effects lighting on Roger Corman’s The Trip, and photographing the comedy Mooch Goes to Hollywood, the Oscar-nominated environment documentary Say Goodbye and the absurdist feature Everything You Know Is Wrong. After finally earning his IATSE designation, Daviau landed his first union job on the telefilm The Boy Who Drank Too Much. “[Director] Jerry Freedman gave me my first break on that project. It was filmed on a 19-day schedule and I tried for as much of a theatrical quality as possible. I think any cinematographer should try to do that if he’s lucky enough to work with production people who will let him go after as dramatic a look as possible. When time and money are limited, it’s best to concentrate your best efforts on the scenes that will do the most good and do the rest more simply.”  Daviau used the same approach on his next two telefilms, The Streets of L.A. and Rage! Soon his tactics paid off in a big way. Shortly after shooting the feature Harry Tracy, Desperado, directed by Billy Graham, he received a momentous phone call. “Someone from Spielberg’s office called my agent to get another cameraman’s reel, and my agent asked them to look at my work as well,” recalls Daviau. “[Producer] Kathleen Kennedy said, ‘Sure, we’d love to.’ Well, I was doing a lawnmower commercial in Arizona at the time, and my agent immediately called me up to see what I could show Steven. Harry Tracy was still in post, so I decided to send him The Boy Who Drank Too Much; it had a lot of mood, and it’s about kids, so I knew Steven would watch it!” But at the time, no print or tape of the film was available in Los Angeles, so an air print was sprung from the CBS vault, mounted on reels and delivered to the director. That night, “I did something I rarely do,” Spielberg later told AC. “I didn’t think twice; I picked up the phone and asked Allen if he would photograph my next feature.’” Daviau recalls, “Steven said, ‘I’m on reel three and this is exactly how I want my next movie to look.’ The next day I read the script for E.T. I had no idea how it was going to be done, but it was the greatest opportunity anyone could ever wish for.”  Seen through the eyes of a shy young boy, E.T. (see ACApril ’83) details the youth’s befriending of a wayward alien stranded on Earth. This character-inspired perspective proved to be an overriding creative inspiration, with Daviau’s camera usually mounted low on a dolly. When the boy looks up at his older brother or mother, the camera also sees the upper walls and ceilings. Other shots represent E.T.’s perspective, an eye level that was not quite 3' off the floor.


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