The American Society of Cinematographers

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Rob McLachlan
Rob McLachlan, ASC, CSC

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
The first to really impress me with the imagery had to be Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), which I saw when I was 12 or so. Conrad Hall, ASC’s work on that really opened my eyes to the artistic possibilities of cinematography. Two years later, I saw Walkabout (1971) by Nicolas Roeg, and it just knocked me out. I wanted to be a cinematographer from then on.

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
Past: ASC members Lee Garmes, Jordan Cronenweth, Owen Roizman, James Wong Howe, Connie Hall and Jack Cardiff. Today, I think Seamus McGarvey, BSC; Haskell Wexler, ASC; and John Seale, ASC, ACS are always pitch-perfect. And they make it look easy, which I really respect.

What sparked your interest in photography?
My dad is an artist, avid still photographer and home-moviemaker, and we had a rudimentary darkroom in the house, so I was into all that early on. I was around images and someone who appreciated good ones, and I guess it rubbed off.

Where did you train and/or study?

I went to the University of British Columbia to study arts and fine art for a year, then switched to Simon Fraser University, which at the time was supposed to be the best film school in Canada. It was a non-credit, intensive film workshop taught by ‘working professionals.’

Who were your early teachers or mentors?
Well, both of the people brought into the film school when I was a student had only ever worked at the National Film Board of Canada, so they taught us how to make NFB/John Grierson-style documentaries, but that’s about it. Once I got into the union in 1987 as an operator, a legendary Canadian cameraman, the late Richard Leiterman, CSC, was really patient with me and taught me there was a lot more to being a good cinematographer than being technically accomplished. He was a huge soul.

What are some of your key artistic influences?

In no particular order: Edward Weston, the Coen brothers, Emily Carr, Woody Allen, Bernardo Bertolucci, J.M.W. Turner, Georges de la Tour, Ivan Albright, Francis Bacon, Andrew Wyeth and Gordon Willis, ASC.

How did you get your first break in the business?
I’d been doing environmental documentaries and some commercial work for several years, mostly with a company I started, OmniFilm, and I got hired to do some little dramas and a low-budget feature, which in turn led to an action-adventure series called The Beachcombers. That led to MacGyver. It was a lot of very small steps, really — no big break.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
It’s always when that gestalt happens when you know you’ve nailed the lighting and camera and all and then watch the actors hit all the perfect notes within the environment you’ve created. It’s magic.

Have you made any memorable blunders?
About 20 years ago, I was in Holland shooting a documentary about a boys’ choir on tour. On a non-performance day, I filmed the kids getting a private guided tour of the Maurithaus Museum in Den Haag, where most of the Vermeers hang. Afterwards, I was going around shooting cutaways of the paintings, and as I was about to shoot The Girl With the Pearl Earring, I noticed it was crooked and, without thinking, reached over and straightened it. Talk about alarm bells! The already-high-strung British director was sure his cinematographer was going to get chucked into a Dutch prison. But the curator thought it was funny, and once the racket stopped and the police were diverted, he even wryly thanked me for straightening it.

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

My dad told me it didn’t matter what I did for a living as long as I loved it. Also, much later, Richard Leiterman caught up with me at the CSC Awards, where I’d just gotten my fourth consecutive award for a TV series and was on a bit of a roll. He told me not to ‘get too damn comfortable’ and to ‘get the hell back to the USA while ya can!’ A year later, I was divorced, living in my native California, doing my most satisfying work ever, and shooting a big studio feature. My career and life have only gotten better since then.

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
The Intention Experiment by Lynne McTaggart. Also, they aren’t recent, but the Diego Rivera murals I saw while working in Mexico this spring really moved me.

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
I’ve done my share of horror films and dark TV, and it’s fun going low-key, but the most fun I’ve ever had was shooting a high-key musical, and I’d like to do more. I’ve also loved working on Westerns and fantasies. Right now, I’m ready for a nice period piece. Really, though, all genres can be great if the script and director are good.

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

I gave up a promising cycling career to study film. If I hadn’t done that, I would likely have ridden in a couple of Olympics and would now be a bicycle repairman. That, or an architect.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Bob Primes, Roy Wagner and Michael Watkins.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
It’s mostly about the deep pride and satisfaction of being admitted into such a select group. I mean, I still have my first copy of American Cinematographer, June 1968, the 2001: A Space Odyssey issue. If anyone had said back then I’d be in the ASC someday, I’d have fainted. (Come to think of it, I believe 2001 was the year I got in. Hmmm.)

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