The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Tom Del Ruth
Thomas A. Del Ruth

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
Gone With the Wind (1939), The Wizard of Oz (1939) and The Boy With the Green Hair (1948).

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire, and why?
James Wong Howe, ASC, for contrast in black-and-white and compositional use of wide-angle lenses in Seconds. Jordan Cronenweth, ASC, for his original work of mixing hard and soft light in Zandy’s Bride. Conrad Hall, ASC, for his ability to suit the image to the narrative in every film he shot.

What sparked your interest in photography?
My father was a director and my mother was an actress, so I was exposed to the industry at an early age and spent countless hours on sets. I was always amazed at the craft of cinematography — how the director and cinematographer collaborated, and, ultimately, how the cinematographer would realize the vision through composition and lighting and by skillfully using the crew to achieve that end. I was hooked! I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

Where did you train and/or study?

After my discharge from the Army, I enrolled in Valley State College (Northridge). I later transferred to the University of Southern California and took cinema classes while working as a messenger at Walt Disney Studios.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?
Cinematographers Leon Shamroy, ASC; Jordan Cronenweth, ASC; Conrad Hall, ASC; and Bruce Surtees.

What are some of your key artistic influences?
In addition to the art I discuss a bit later in this questionnaire, it would be the work of other cinematographers, namely Caleb Deschanel, ASC, and Janusz Kaminski, whose work I find magical.

How did you get your first break in the business?
I was a print model and commercial actor who always had a desire to be behind the camera, so I used my agent and my own commercial contacts to obtain an interview with Sol Halprin, ASC, who was the head of the camera department at 20th Century Fox. Fortunately for me, the meeting went well, and I was hired as a second assistant cameraman.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
Back in the late 1980s, I was shooting a Schwarzenegger movie, The Running Man, and we had several weeks of night shooting at the abandoned Fontana Steel Mill, which spread out about a half-mile in every direction. The mill was essentially constructed of black steel, and it had matching set dressing. My dilemma was how to get it to read on film. I eventually came up with the idea of having a crop duster spray the entire area with glycerin while employing six Muscos as backlight and back/crosslight. Wow! It worked beautifully. The set shimmered and glowed.

Have you made any memorable blunders?
Oh, yes! I was shooting reversal stock on a feature and set the wrong ASA on my meter. As a result, the scene was so underexposed it was unusable. Lesson learned: pay attention!

What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
From Jordan Cronenweth: ‘Minimize compromise, be prepared for rejection, and save your money.’

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
I have always had a penchant for abstraction and romanticism. I tend to view the world through diffusion as an attempt to soften its sometimes-harsh reality. I gravitate to Impressionists such as Monet, Pissarro and Morisot, and Romantics such as J.M.W. Turner.

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
By far my favorite is period pieces, but I would love to shoot Westerns and noir.

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
I’d be a film editor.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Howard Schwartz, Conrad Hall and Jordan Cronenweth.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
Being invited to join the ASC was certainly one of the high points of my career. The honor and prestige that those initials bring to a cinematographer are immeasurable, a form of validation for your professional existence. My only regret is that I can’t attend most ASC meetings and functions — living a thousand miles away has its price.

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