The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents January 2010 Return to Table of Contents
Caleb Deschanel
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Billy Dickson
Billy Dickson

When you were a child, what films made the strongest impression on you?
I can recall two, both very dramatic pieces: Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Wait Until Dark (1967).

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire, and why?
There are so many great cinematographers it’s hard to say, but probably ASC members Caleb Deschanel and Jordan Cronenweth, because when I was a young cinematographer, producers were always asking me to make our movies look like the films shot by those gentlemen. I loved to study their work.

What sparked your interest in photography?
My uncle was a great amateur photographer. He’d take Kodachrome slides and come over to the house and set up his projector, and we’d all sit around the living room watching his slide shows. I was mesmerized by the crispness and color of the photographs.

Where did you train and/or study?
I attended Pasadena City College for two years, but I am mostly self-taught. I worked a graveyard shift at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and on slow nights, which were many, I read everything about filmmaking that I could get my hands on. At that job, I earned enough money to rent cameras, buy 16mm film and pay for processing so I could make short films. I ruined a lot of film.

Who were your teachers or mentors?
I was fortunate to meet a cinematographer named Henning Schellerup, who was a great teacher. He was shooting movies for a company called Sunn Classics, and he asked me to work as his second camera assistant. Working at Sunn Classics was like filmmaker boot camp; I learned so much. As an AC, I’d load film, pull focus, set up cameras, and sometimes go off and shoot second unit. It gave me the training no school could have given me at the time.

What are some of your key artistic influences?
I like to watch a lot of movies and television. I get the most from seeing other cinematographers’ work. Good or bad, I learn a lot.

How did you get your first break in the business?
I was officially moved up to director of photography on a TV movie by producer Andrew Mirisch and director E.W. Swakhamer. I had been operating on movies of the week and met both men while we were shooting a series of Westerns, Desperado, for NBC. They liked my operating, looked at a demo I put together, and decided I would be a good choice to shoot the next two Desperado movies for them.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
Once, when things were pretty tough and I thought my work wasn’t very good on a series I was shooting, I came home to find a message on my machine from Woody Omens, ASC, telling me I’d been nominated for an ASC Award. I celebrated all night. It validated the work I was struggling with. I kept that message on my machine for the longest time and played it back whenever I doubted myself.

Have you made any memorable blunders?
Conveniently, I don’t remember most of them! On the first TV movie I shot, I underexposed the night work on the first day. Feeling pressure from the producer, I rushed to get the scene done on time — I wasn’t ready but shot anyway. The next day, I got the lab report, and my stomach sank. That’s the worst feeling a cinematographer can have. They forgave me — ‘first day’ and all — but I have not underexposed film since then.

What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
Stay true to yourself. When everything is crazy around you and you feel like you’re being forced into making all the compromises, do what is right for you and make the compromises you can live with. In the end, what people see on the screen is what they remember you by.

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
I’m a little weird in that trade magazines and tech books inspire me. Magazines like American Cinematographer and Popular Science stretch my imagination and get me thinking.

Do you have any favorite genres, or are there genres you would like to try?
I would love to do another Western. I also love period pieces and sci-fi. I’d like to create my own vision of something with no real boundaries or rules to adhere to.

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you being doing instead?
I always wanted to be an astronaut, but since NASA isn’t likely to accept my application, I’d probably work in visual effects. I like doing CGI.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?

George Spiro Dibie, Richard Rawlings Jr. and Sy Hoffberg.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?

It has validated the 30 years I’ve been in this business. Being a member of an elite group of people is an honor in any field. Being invited to join the ASC is by far the best recognition I’ve ever received. Having ‘ASC’ after my name is an honor and a privilege.

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