The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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David Stump, ASC
David Stump, ASC

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
It was probably House on Haunted Hill, which scared the living crap out of me. I didn’t sleep at all afterward; I was wide-awake all night, imagining what creatures were waiting to come pouring out of my closet the moment I went to sleep.

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
I was always a great admirer of James Wong Howe, ASC. He did so much beautiful black-and-white cinematography with hard light. I have always loved the work of my first mentor, Phil Lathrop, ASC, who shot The Pink Panther, which fueled my interest in comedy, and Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC’s work on The Conformist and The Spider’s Stratagem, which was startlingly different and way ahead of its time.

What sparked your interest in photography?
I’ve been taking pictures since childhood, so it’s always been one of my passions. I’ve always liked anything mechanical or technical: cameras, chemistry sets, old TV sets, record players — anything that was fair game for me to take apart. At age 10, I built my own very, very low-power radio station in my garage, and I went door to door throughout my neighborhood begging the neighbors to listen! When I visited Hollywood as a kid, I realized that it was actually a real place where real people made movies. Suddenly, it seemed possible to become involved in film.

Where did you study and/or train?
My only training in film has come from actually working on films. Until I made my way into the business, I had been studying and working in engineering.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?
I learned a lot from Phil Lathrop. He gave me advice and guidance every time I asked.

What are some of your key artistic influences?
I’ve always been a student of Monet and the Impressionists. The first time I saw the giant Water Lilies in the galleries of Paris, I was awestruck. I have also always been a student of Rembrandt. He was the acknowledged master of light, and anyone who aspires to beautiful lighting begins by studying his work.

How did you get your first break in the business?
I was working with a comedy group that got a pilot deal. Overnight, I went from being out of work to producing a TV show.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
I worked on the visual effects for the TV miniseries The Day After, a very frightening story about a nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia. After the last night of the show, there was a panel show on ABC with Henry Kissinger and others of equal stature discussing the implications of the story. Watching that made me feel the VFX atomic-bomb clouds I had photographed for the miniseries had actually had an effect on the American public, a sobering effect. It was very gratifying to see a TV show I had worked on affect so many people so profoundly.

Have you made any memorable blunders?
When I first became a director of photography, I was setting up a tabletop credit-card shot for a commercial on a beach in Malibu. About an hour into the shoot, as I was setting up an HMI backlight, I didn’t notice the tide was coming in. The tripod was grip-chained to several apple boxes, and when a wave suddenly washed a lot farther up the beach than any previous wave had traveled, the whole camera and tripod began to float away! I grabbed the sticks and held on for dear life until my AC and a grip joined in to help. That taught me to always check the tide charts and weather reports.

What’s the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
The thing that makes you a filmmaker is the act of making a film.

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
I found it amazing that someone could take such an enormous volume of work as The Lord of the Rings trilogy and try to put it on film. Peter Jackson’s trilogy was an ambitious and daunting task that stands as a milestone in filmmaking. As for literature, I’m not surprised at the effect comic books and graphic novels are having on our industry. There is some amazingly creative stuff being published these days that redefines the meaning of the word “literature.” In terms of artwork, I love to spend evenings and weekends looking at photo exhibits in galleries and museums. It’s inspiring to see so many fresh new ideas in photography. Every time The Getty Center changes its photo exhibit, I have to go for a visit!

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
I love shooting comedy, because people are telling stories with the intent of making other people laugh. Making people laugh is a noble pursuit, and if you can entertain and distract an audience for an hour or two and really make them laugh, then you have helped increase the amount of collective joy on the planet.

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
I would probably be an engineer of some kind, or perhaps an art photographer.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Bill Taylor, Bing Sokolsky and Kees Van Oostrum, with help from Steven Poster. Thank you all!

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
I have become much more community-oriented. My work with the Technology Committee’s Camera Subcommittee and Metadata Subcommittee has made me a more social participant in the industry. I now give a lot of my time to the ASC for committee work.


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