The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Dean Semler

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946). Forty-odd years later, he asked me to shoot his final epic, Nostromo!

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
Robert Krasker, BSC, for The Third Man. Today, working with image capture up towards 2,000 ISO, I bow down to him for his powerful night cinematography on slow black-and-white film. Conrad Hall, ASC, a master of light, for his brilliant photography from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid right through to Road to Perdition. Guy Green, BSC, for his superb photography on Great Expectations. And Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC, an extraordinary cinematographer with an exceptional style.

What sparked your interest in photography?
I was given a small Coronet still camera when I was 14, and I started taking a few shots, especially landscapes — I lived in a small town on the fringes of the Outback. The film was processed by the local chemist and was quite expensive, so I didn’t get to shoot a lot, but it was a thrill to see the tiny images.

Where did you train and/or study?
I had no formal education in photography, as there were no film schools in southern Australia, but I got a lucky break when I was given a position as a props boy on Rupert Murdoch’s new television channel, NWS9, in Adelaide. Why I got the job, I’ll never know; I was 16 and had no experience in anything at all. After two years of props and studio camera, I joined the news department and operated as a one-man band with my trusty Eyemo and 100' rolls of black-and-white reversal.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?
Two news cameramen became my mentors and taught me how to load a camera, use a Weston light meter and cover a story. Pat McEwan had a very safe and steady style: use a tripod, use filters for enhancing skies, avoid flares in the lens, don’t pan too fast, etc. Trevor Rose, by contrast, was a wild man: handheld, no matte box or filters, ‘Don’t worry about bloody flares, just get in there and get the pictures!’ I am forever indebted to them both.

What are some of your key artistic influences?
My inspiration came and still comes from anywhere: cinematographers, photographers, painters, landscapes, skies, the moods of the ocean, the magical changing light in a giant city or tiny country town, light on a face in a million ways. No matter where I am on the planet, every day there are images that inspire me.

How did you get your first break in the business?
I guess it was being asked to photograph George Miller’s The Road Warrior.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
Ninety percent of my shooting days are satisfying — otherwise, I wouldn’t be doing it — and it’s near impossible to single out one. But if I had to, it might be filming the buffalo stampede in Dances With Wolves. It had never been done before on such a scale, and never with a major star riding amongst the thundering herd. We strategically placed half a dozen or so cameras, taking extra care to protect the crew, and then hoped that the beasts would follow a certain route through the valley — and they did.

Have you made any memorable blunders?
The biggest one was on day one of The Bone Collector. I took a gamble that didn’t pay off: Denzel Washington lying on white sheets in dim, pre-dawn light. I lit more for the pre-dawn look than for our leading man. There was practically no detail on his face at all. I’ve never experienced such a sickening feeling in dailies. I know [director] Phil Noyce prevented me from being fired that day!

What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
From George Miller: ‘Just be bold, Dino! Be as bold as you want!’

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
The book South, the story of Shackleton’s extraordinary expedition in the Antarctic.

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
I love vast stretches of barren land, dark thrillers and musicals. Now if only some writer could combine those in one movie!

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
Probably flogging Christianity to heathen tribes in the highlands of New Guinea.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Jack Cooperman, Harry Wolf and John Alonzo.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
Being a member of the most prestigious cinematographers’ club in the universe immediately raises the bar. The opportunity to share experiences and challenges with the world’s greatest cinematographers is in itself a great privilege.


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