The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents January 2016 Return to Table of Contents
ASC Theatrical Nominees
ASC Close-Up
Peter Levy

Peter Levy, ASC

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

When I was 4 or 5, I saw 16mm prints of Battleship Potemkin and Ivan the Terrible projected onto my uncle’s living-room wall. I had no idea what I was watching, but I’ll never forget the power of those images and how the wall in that room became a portal to another reality.

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

Above all others is Gordon Willis, ASC, for his elegance, simplicity, bravery, precision and style. To this day, when in doubt, my mantra is: ‘What would Gordy do?’ I think Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, continues Gordy’s legacy today. Robert Yeoman, ASC, and Bruno Delbonnel, ASC, AFC, consistently do interesting work. And who hasn’t been influenced by the two great Hungarians, Laszlo [Kovacs, ASC,] and Vilmos [Zsigmond, ASC]?

What sparked your interest in photography?

I was fortunate to grow up in a household where the arts and literature were both respected and present, and I was encouraged to pursue creative outlets. I didn’t pick up a stills camera until I was 17, but then I found that putting a frame around the real world was a way of expressing myself. It very quickly became too expensive for a hobby, so I had to learn how to make it pay for itself.

Where did you train and/or study?

After I dropped out of high school, I freelanced as an assistant cameraman until I got a job at the Australian Commonwealth Film Unit — now known as Film Australia — where I was one of two assistants serving seven cameramen. Don McAlpine, ASC, ACS, was chief cameraman, and Dean Semler, ASC, ACS, was a staff cameraman. Five years later I left there to shoot a documentary series in Africa — and I’ve been attending the School of Hard Knocks ever since.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?

Michael Edols, ACS, taught me all he could about documentary and handheld shooting while we were at the Commonwealth Film Unit, but since then I’ve had to learn from my own mistakes and glean what I could from the advice of others.

What are some of your key artistic influences?

J.M.W. Turner, for making light liquid; Caravaggio, for defining light by its shadow; Matisse, for being fearless with color; and Andy Goldsworthy, for showing us that beauty is ephemeral.

How did you get your first break in the business?

In 1983 a French director, Henri Safran, plucked me from the world of documentaries and music videos to shoot a very big-budget miniseries about the Gallipoli Campaign and a young man’s life leading up to it. Over the next eight months he trained me in the skills required for shooting long-form drama and patiently tolerated my naïveté.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?

When shooting Cutthroat Island in Malta, my Italian camera crew suddenly all quit after one of them was sacked. On a Tuesday, I put in two desperate SOS phone calls to the U.S. and, by Thursday, 14 of Hollywood’s finest camerapeople turned up at the location, ready to help me finish the film. I got a little teary at the airport when I saw them all arrive.

Have you made any memorable blunders?

More with my mouth than with my photography.

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

'Don’t get attached to anything. Be prepared to turn on a dime at any time.'

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?

Watching my bonsais grow, some of the brave new work being done on television, and the way light falls in the natural world. I’m currently reading about the chemistry of cooking.

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

I’d like to shoot something bleak, noir-ish and existential. And a Western, of course!

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

Maybe a landscape architect. I like the idea of sculpting a piece of land and creating some beauty that lives and grows. I could have been a yacht jockey, too.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?

John Alonzo, Russell Carpenter and Peter James.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?

Being a member is my proudest professional accomplishment. Walking through the doors of the Clubhouse always fills me with an equal sense of pride and humility. I’m aware of the great cinematographers and my heroes who have preceded me through those same doors, and I am reminded of the dignity of the artistic pursuits of our profession. It recharges my batteries.


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