The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Sam Nicholson

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?  
Mysterious Island (1961). What could be better than giant crabs, bees and Jules Verne living under the ocean in his private submarine?

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?  
Caleb Deschanel, ASC, for his body of work. I think that The Patriot, The Black Stallion and The Right Stuff contain some of the most memorable images in contemporary films.

What sparked your interest in photography?
My father had me shooting 8mm home movies from the age of 8, but my first real passion was still photography. Sitting in the supersaturated red light in my bathroom-turned-darkroom and watching black-and-white images magically appear on blank paper got me hooked on making and manipulating images.  

Where did you train and/or study?
I earned undergraduate and graduate degrees at UCLA’s School of Fine Arts.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?
My most influential teachers at UCLA were my graduate professors John Whitney Sr., who later became known as the father of computer animation, and John Neuhart, who was part of the Charles Eames group.  In different ways they both blended film, design and computers into new artistic expressions.   

What are some of your key artistic influences?

I spent about three years blowing glass at UCLA, and then began manipulating and shooting the abstract light effects that eventually became my thesis in abstract visual design and light sculpture.

How did you get your first break in the business?
I got an interview at Paramount to work on Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and was hired by Bob Weiss to create the Matter-Antimatter engine of the starship Enterprise. The effect was based on my lighting designs, and I eventually took on the on-set visual-effects lighting for the entire film.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
I recently screened my short film for Canon’s new C300 camera, XXIT, at Paramount. It’s a very ambitious virtual-reality project that made me reflect on how far we’ve come in the past 30 years.  

Have you made any memorable blunders?

I’ve made plenty, and I learned from them all. They were generally related to pyro or practical effects when we were shooting lots of miniatures. It was nothing that a few insurance claims and an on-set medic couldn’t fix!

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

The film business is like a prizefight: It’s not how many times you get knocked down that counts, it’s how many times you get up and go again.

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?

I generally read science fiction and fantasy: George R.R. Martin, Robin Hobb and Michael Sullivan. I thought Inception was the greatest high-concept film to be released in years; it set a new standard that will last for a long time, somewhat like Blade Runner did in the 1980s.

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?

I’m hooked on futuristic, high-concept fantasy and historical period pieces. Creating something that simply does not exist in today’s world is tremendously challenging and satisfying. For me, it brings the magic back into the process of making movies.

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
I enjoy directing and producing as well as shooting. Essentially, I enjoy collaborating with other very talented cinematographers and a creative team to tell stories. If I worked outside film and television, I would most likely be a fine-art still photographer.  

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?

Richard Kline, Francis Kenny, Richard Crudo and Victor J. Kemper.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?

It’s a lifelong dream realized. It’s also very humbling and gratifying to be included in this remarkably talented and amazingly dedicated group of people.

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