The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Star Trek Into Darkness
Presidents Desk
ASC Close-Up
Shelly Johnson

Shelly Johnson, ASC

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
The Wizard of Oz (1939) was the first one I was truly blown away by. How can a film transport you with images, color and music? It did what I like to do with films, which is to create a new world in which a story can exist.

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
I’ll keep this to cinematographers I’ve actually seen work on the set: ASC members Bill Fraker, Conrad Hall and Allen Daviau. It was absolutely amazing to watch them work with actors, directors and their crews. The respect they had for other people was equal to the respect they received. I came across all three by total happenstance, and I’ll never forget those experiences.

What sparked your interest in photography?
Life Magazine. I had no idea how those photographers had the presence of mind to create those images until I got a chance to meet a few of them. Then it came clear: They are people who understand what life is, and they have a deep desire to share that outlook in a positive way.

Where did you train and/or study?
The Art Center College of Design. It was a well-rounded education that included film students fumfering around in life-drawing classes. The art students were quite entertained/mortified, and the instructor took pity on us and gave us a passing grade.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?
Larry Bolens; Allen Daviau, ASC; and Woody Omens, ASC. I still hear their words echoing in my head today, although I had no understanding of what they were talking about when I was 19.

What are some of your key artistic influences?
I’m interested in how artists live their lives and access their creativity through vulnerability and fearlessness. I try to do that as well but pull up short of cutting my ear off.

How did you get your first break in the business?
My dad was a television director, and I always admired his camera crews. When I got a chance to work with them, they made fun of me relentlessly and introduced me to the concept of not resting on my laurels.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
Some directors know how to challenge cinematographers to work at the edge of our abilities and well outside our safety zones in pursuit of creative imagery. It’s not a comfortable place to work, but the results are expressive and often surprising, especially to the cinematographer!

Have you made any memorable blunders?
Oh, yes! Big, fat, glorious blunders! They will always keep me humble.

What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
‘Learn from your mistakes, not your successes.’

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
This is going to sound strange, but there’s a painting at the Huntington [Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens] called Two Boys by Candlelight, Blowing a Bladder, by Joseph Wright. It’s an image of two young brothers playing with an inflated pig’s bladder positioned in front of a candle. The source of light in the painting is the luminescent backlight through the bladder. If I ever have to shoot a scene where two boys are inflating a pig’s bladder, I’ve got the inspiration!

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
I like the fact that a cinematographer can move freely through all genres. I cannot think of one I want to avoid.

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
An architect or an artist, I guess. I didn’t get past ‘C’ on the alphabetical list of job categories. I made a U-turn when I got to ‘doctor.’

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Russell Carpenter, Don Burgess and Richard Rawlings Jr.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
Being a member of the ASC is the fulfillment of a lifelong goal and gives me a forum to help others as many have helped me. ASC members are a class act, and I love their heritage and plans for the future. In my case, Groucho Marx’s famous quote easily comes to mind! If the ASC ever figures out that I’m useless without a good crew, a well-written script and a collaborative director, they will have no choice but to lock all the doors and windows when they see me walk up the driveway.


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