The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents June 2014 Return to Table of Contents
Presidents Desk
ASC Close-Up
James Chressanthis

James Chressanthis, ASC

When you were a child, what film made the strongest

impression on you?

Lawrence of Arabia (1962).


Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?

Freddie Young, BSC, whose work on Lawrence of Arabia is still astonishing. He and director David Lean told the story visually. Young made the invisible subtext palpable. His book The Work of the Motion Picture Cameraman opened a new world to me.


What sparked your interest in photography?

My father brought back amazing Kodachrome transparencies from his trips in Micronesia. He let me use his 35mm reflex camera, a big deal for a kid in the 1960s.


Where did you train and/or study?

I studied engineering and physics and then switched to fine arts: drawing, sculpture and photography. On my own, I made films in Super 8mm, 16mm and black-and-white video at Arizona State University and Southern Illinois University, and when I taught at Western Michigan University, I directed and shot a documentary about a Greek mountain village and the harvest cycle. Later, I received my first real formal training in film at the American Film Institute. The visiting artists included Jane Fonda; David Lean; Stephen Goldblatt, ASC, BSC; Conrad Hall, ASC; Laszlo Kovacs, ASC; Sydney Pollack; Sam Shepard; James Stewart; and Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC.


Who were your early teachers or mentors?

At AFI, Howard Schwartz, ASC, conducted great screenings and Q&As with working cinematographers. He recommended me to Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC.


What are some of your key artistic influences?

The New Wave filmmakers and films of France, Italy and America, especially François Truffaut, Alain Resnais, Five Easy Pieces, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Deliverance. Also, artists Robert Rauschenberg and Anselm Kiefer.


How did you get your first break in the business?

I was the AFI camera intern to Vilmos Zsigmond on The Witches of Eastwick and later shot second unit for him on commercials. He and his crew gave me a breadth of knowledge and confidence I applied to the smaller projects I was shooting in those days, breakthrough music videos for Hammer, NWA, Dr. Dre and even the great James Brown.


What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?

There have been many, to be sure. Early on, I filmed Cesar Chavez on his 36-day fast to protest pesticides in our food. For the climactic race in Four Minutes, with Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute-mile barrier, I was able to use the camera expressively to convey the supreme difficulty and ecstatic elation of his run; it was a perfect collaboration on a gem of a film. Recently, I shot the civil-rights drama The Watsons Go to Birmingham, which reconstructs a national tragedy and the good that was born from it. I try to photograph films that touch on my own experience in some way.


Have you made any memorable blunders?

Sure, but I can’t seem to remember one!


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

Vilmos Zsigmond told me, ‘Jim, it takes 10 years to become a cinematographer, so be patient and remember, nice guys finish first. And promise me that when you are successful, you will help the next person.’


What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?

20,000 Days on Earth (2014), a hybrid documentary/art film about singer/songwriter Nick Cave that vividly exposes the artistic process and how dreams, memory and our experience are fused into new art.


Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like

to try?

I’ve shot many genres: intimate drama, action, musicals, romantic fantasy, science fiction and thrillers. What I look for is not a particular genre but stories that have a human scale and offer the opportunity to try something new.


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

I’d be a painter or a mixed-media artist.


Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?

Donald M. Morgan, George Spiro Dibie and Steven Poster.


How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?

Only cinematographers grasp the tremendous artistic and underlying technical achievement that make the most successful film image appear effortless. It’s the shared recognition of this and the comradeship that results from membership that are so enjoyable. 


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