The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents January 2011 Return to Table of Contents
Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC
Short Takes
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Jack Couffer
Jack Couffer, ASC

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
Wow! I’m 85 years old and you’re asking for childhood memories? I don’t recall any film experiences from my early years.

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire, and why?
It’s almost cliché to say Conrad Hall, ASC and Haskell Wexler, ASC because they are so often mentioned as inspirational, but they hardly qualify as gurus in my case because we were good friends and grew up together in the business. Both of them were truly fine influences on my life both personally and creatively. We know all the famous names, but there are a lot of folks out there with equal talent who just haven’t garnered the praise. I’ve admired the work of so many excellent cameramen that it’s a bit unsettling to single out any individual.

What sparked your interest in photography?
I have a built-in fascination with animals. I was given my first still camera at the age of 11, and I stalked birds, squirrels and rabbits in the hills and felt great if I got close enough with my wide-angle lens to see that I’d captured a recognizable creature. I’ve felt the same urge ever since. Thank God for the Arriflex.

Where did you train and/or study?
I went to the University of Southern California on the GI Bill intending a serious study of biology. I found myself next to a student named Conrad Hall in a make-up English class. The idea of a career in the movie business wasn’t even a spark in my head, nor in Conrad’s. He hoped to walk in the footsteps of his father, a well-known writer. Just for kicks, Con suggested that we audit a class in the new Department of Cinema Arts. We sat in on one lecture by Slavko Vorkapich and were seriously hooked.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?
Aside from Vorkapich, for mentors I’ve got to go way back in time to Floyd Crosby, ASC. He was the next most important person in the work that would become my lifetime world. And I was an assistant for Karl Freund, ASC, a great gentleman from whom I learned a lot. How 
couldn’t I?

What are some of your key artistic influences?
I looked to the representational painters of the so-called California School, watercolorists of the 1930s and early 1950s — Rex Brandt, Tom Craig, Vernon Nye and Emil Kosa. I loved their use of color and composition. In those days, when mist-shrouded scenes, focused subjects seen through fuzzy foregrounds, and sun flares all went automatically into the trash, I learned from New York cameraman Larry Madison about the inherent value of these often stunning ‘mistakes.’

How did you get your first break in the business?
I was living aboard my boat while attending USC, and Conrad Hall and another student and I decided we’d put the ideas we’d learned in class into a film. We bought a used Bolex and some outdated film from Bob Gottschalk, who ran a hole-in-the-wall camera store, and then we set sail for Catalina during the summer break to make a film we’d call Sea Theme — no dialogue or color, just a beautiful schooner, sails and seas and a score of classical music. It won an American Cinematographer Award (in 1951) and was sold to TV, and the buyer financed a series. We thought we had the world by the tail, formed a company, Canyon Films, and became entrepreneurs while still in film school.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
Falling in love with the actress. You can read all about it in my new memoir, The Lion and the Giraffe.

Have you made any memorable blunders?
Too many, too embarrassing and too costly to mention.

What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
From editor Irving Lerner: ‘Cut out all the comin’s and goin’s.’

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
Winged Migration made me jealous — all the new technology I’ve missed out on!

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
The niche I have happily occupied has been predominantly films with humans interacting with animals. Well-trained animals are very good at hitting their marks.

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
I would have been a stuffy biology teacher in some second-rate high school in an out-of-the-way place. Thank you, Slavko Vorkapich.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Conrad Hall and Haskell Wexler.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
I am proud to be a member of such a respected group, and at the same time sad not to have contributed more. My only excuse is that I’ve been based outside the country, hiding under a mossy stone, for most of my career.
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