The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Public Enemies
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
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ASC Close-Up
Mark Irwin, ASC, CSC
Mark Irwin, ASC, CSC

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
Lord Jim (1965), shot by Freddie Young, BSC; The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), shot by Jack Hildyard, BSC; and The Cranes Are Flying (1957), shot by Sergei Urusevsky. But the films of the National Film Board of Canada, especially those by Donald Brittain and Arthur Lipsett, were the ones that drew me in the most.

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
Ozzie Morris, BSC; Arthur Ornitz; Billy Williams, BSC; Gordon Willis, ASC; Owen Roizman, ASC; Michel Brault; Jean Claude Labreque; Conrad Hall, ASC; Richard Leiterman, CSC; Thierry Arbogast, AFC; Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC; Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC — the list goes on and on!

What sparked your interest in photography?
I started taking pictures at around age 10, but I began my ‘career’ in film as a projectionist, first at age 5 with a filmstrip projector in my Sunday School class, and then progressing to full-fledged AV geek status, which lasted way past high school.

Where did you train and/or study?
I studied political science at the University of Waterloo, where I projected all the films in my ‘The Medium is the Message’ class, and then studied film at York University in Toronto, graduating in 1973.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?
Terrence McCartney-Filgate was an early pioneer of direct cinema and taught the Maysles brothers and D.A. Pennebaker the vérité style a generation before he taught me. My biggest mentor was David Cronenberg, who began his career as a director/cameraman on Stereo and Crimes of the Future.

What are some of your key artistic influences?
I started playing guitar at the same time I became interested in photography, in 1956, and I find there are parallels between music and performance, especially jazz, and working with a crew to light and compose a cinematic story for an audience. The mechanical aspects of both visual and musical expression satisfy me very much, particularly the ‘invisible’ control of the cinematographer.

How did you get your first break in the business?
My first paying gig was in the porno-film world, loading mags with short ends for an ancient BNC and a very impatient director. I managed to talk my way into operating the B camera, but my big break came a year later, when the same director fired his cinematographer and called me to take over — at 10 o’clock on a Sunday night. I was on set by 10:30 and finished that film, prophetically titled Point of No Return, and then shot two more for the same director — after hiring the fired cinematographer as my gaffer!

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
I was lucky enough to shoot a Jackie Chan film, The Protector, in Hong Kong in 1984. By then I had 11 years in the business. Golden Harvest and Raymond Chow produced it, and Jim Glickenhaus directed. We had five cameras every day for 66 days, and only two crewmembers spoke English, my A-camera focus puller and the gaffer. Of course, we had very elaborate fight scenes as well as car chases and explosions, and I wasn’t sure how the language and/or experience gap would affect things. But everything went perfectly from Day One. It taught me I was part of the global family of cinematic storytellers.

Have you made any memorable blunders?
I’d taken 12 years to trade up from an Eclair NPR to a CP reflex to an Arri SR-1 package (with a Zeiss T2 10-100mm and my favorite Angenieux 9.5-57mm) when the business slowed down so much that I had to sell all my gear, a real disadvantage in the freelance world. The business picked up later, and I ended up shooting a 10-week miniseries with my own cameras — rented from the camera-supply house I’d sold them to!

What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
When director Gil Cates chose me to shoot a love story starring Bea Arthur and Richard Kiley, he said he liked what I’d done on The Fly. I reminded him that Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis were in a horror film, not a love story. He said, ‘No, they were in love, and that’s what the audience saw. Sometimes you have to ignore the words and let the pictures tell the story.’

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
My visual inspiration has always come from the works of David Blackwood, Christopher Pratt and Alex Colville, my favorites of the Magic Realism school. For music: Larry Carlton, Stan Getz, Toots Thielemans, Jaco Pastorius, Diana Krall and Oscar Peterson.

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
I began shooting horror films, and that led inexplicably to comedies, but I have always wanted to do more period films, particularly Westerns, Depression-era pictures or Elizabethan dramas.

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
Playing guitar and taking pictures, and traveling around the world while doing it.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Jack Priestley and Gerald Perry Finnerman.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
Being an ASC member is an invaluable link to everyone in the film community, from labs to camera manufacturers and beyond. There is usually only one director of photography on a set, so being able to connect with people in a similarly lonely position gives us an opportunity to share, compare and learn. My biggest thrills are attending meetings and serving on committees with my true, living heroes and being able to give back what I received as a film student in 1970.

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