The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Robert F. Liu, ASC
Isidore Mankofsky, ASC
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ASC Close-Up
The ASC honors Isidore Mankofsky, ASC with its Presidents Award.

Photos courtesy of Isidore Mankofsky
When he was a child, future ASC member Isidore Mankofsky didn’t sit in a darkened theater and see a classic film that wowed him. His parents weren’t artists. He didn’t take any art classes, and he never went to the ballet or opera. He didn’t even own a camera, but when the time came for a career decision, he plucked “photographer” seemingly out of thin air. “When I was in high school, somewhere along the line, it dawned on me that I’d like to do photography,” he says with a shrug. “I don’t know where that came from.” He got his first camera just before he joined the U.S. Air Force, which took him to Korea. He recalls, “It was a 35mm Argus C3, and I’m not sure how it came into my hands, but it wasn’t with me for long — after it got plenty of use in basic training, I lost it in a poker game to a quartet of noncoms.”

Mankofsky, who recently accepted this year’s ASC Presidents Award, was born in New York City and raised in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Chicago. His parents had emigrated from Odessa, Ukraine, in 1923. After high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, and when he was stationed in Germany, he was assigned to the motor pool. After relentlessly badgering the squadron commander, he received a transfer to special services, where one of his jobs was to take pictures of the base athletic teams for the base magazine. Knowing nothing about photography, he had to learn to shoot, process the film and print the pictures. “You could say that was the beginning of my career in the magical world of motion pictures,” he notes wryly.

Following his honorable discharge, Mankofsky enrolled in the Ray Vogue School of Photography in Chicago, but a quick look around revealed a lot of competition. “Then, as now, everyone who picked up a camera thought he was a professional photographer. But motion-picture photography was different — it was magical. It hadn’t dawned on me that it was just 24 still frames per second.” Mankofsky traveled to Santa Barbara, Calif., to enroll in the Brooks Institute of Photography’s motion-picture track.

When one of his instructors got a call for an “all-around” person to work at KOLO television station in Reno, Nev., Mankofsky interviewed for the job and was hired. One of his first assignments was to document, on black-and-white 16mm, the new TV-antenna building on Mount Rose. “I still have the film, my first effort as a professional cinematographer,” he notes. He returned to Chicago and worked as an industrial photographer at Stewart Warner Electronics for a short time, and then, just when he was about to return to California, a stroke of luck occurred during a handball match at the local YMCA. (He still plays the game to this day.) His opponent, Jim McGuinn, a producer of educational films at Encyclopedia Britannica Films, asked if Mankofsky would be interested in shooting a series in Florida. Over the next 13 months, Mankofsky shot 161 half-hour 16mm films that comprised a complete lab course in chemistry.

One of his frequent collaborators at Encyclopedia Britannica was director/ producer Larry Yust. Their 1969 film version of Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery, part of Encyclopedia Britannica’s Short Story Showcase series, gave Mankofsky the opportunity to try diffused light, a technique that had not yet gained a foothold in the industry. His dilemma was how to shoot a film with an outdoor setting on a studio-bound set. “Outside, even on a sunny day, the light in the shade is soft — it’s just ambient light,” he notes. “The only way to do it I could think of was to hang a bunch of big bats in the permanents and shine Maxi-Brutes through diffusion material.”

Mankofsky’s work at Encyclopedia Britannica was a training ground, much like music videos and commercials are to today’s cinematographers. “Each film was an opportunity to do something that I added to my book of knowledge,” he says. “Because each film presented its own problems, the cinematographer was, among a lot of other things, a problem solver. I learned as I went along. Of course, I made mistakes. I did everything — aerials, time-lapse, high-speed. I can’t even swim, and I shot water work! In my nine years at Britannica, I don’t think I had to reshoot anything. I’m sometimes asked how I learned composition, and it just came to me.” He adds that Yust was such a stickler for symmetry that “he has influenced my framing ever since!”

Mankofsky spent 17 years trying to join the camera guild, to no avail. When a group of cameramen filed a lawsuit that ultimately broke down the union’s wall of nepotism, Mankofsky, who wasn’t part of the suit, was grandfathered in. That led to his first union picture, American International Pictures’ Scream Blacula Scream (1973). On that picture, the dilemma was shooting a dark-skinned actor, William Marshall, who was wearing a mostly black costume at night. “In my days at Britannica, I shot with Kodachrome, which was a very contrasty film,” Mankofsky recalls. “I had learned to be very careful with my lighting because Kodachrome didn’t have much latitude, maybe 1 stop, and then you were in trouble. Print stocks at the time weren’t very good; they were also contrasty. I had to get the contrast down, and I did that by having the lab flash the film.” Flashing the film, which brings up detail in the blacks but does not affect highlights, would have some producers breaking into cold sweats, but the powers-that-be had no idea Mankofsky had instructed the lab to do such a process.  In that era, he notes, producers were more hands-off. “They weren’t quite as dictatorial as they are now,” he jokes.

In 1975, Mankofsky started working at Universal TV. His agent had received a call from a production that was seeking a feature cameraman to shoot a pilot, and from then on, Mankofsky was pigeonholed as a TV cinematographer, a tag he felt he never shook completely. “I felt like it held me back,” he says. “I stuck to my guns in not shooting series.” He specialized in miniseries and telefilms; his credits in those genres include Captains and Kings (1976), Columbo: How to Dial a Murder (1978), Goldie and the Boxer (1979) and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (1981).

During this stretch, Mankofsky also shot some features. In 1979, Jim Henson called upon the cinematographer to shoot The Muppet Movie, the Muppets’ first big-screen venture. Henson’s The Muppet Show had a high-key, live-TV look that everyone knew wouldn’t translate to the cinema, and Mankofsky had to devise more film-appropriate visuals. The only caveat Henson had was that the color of the Muppets’ fur, especially green, had to be true. “Green on film, especially at night, can be tough, and Kodak stocks at the time weren’t particularly sensitive to green,” notes Mankofsky. “But it was great working with the Muppets. First of all, no one complained about the light in his eyes or how long he had to stand in — you just stuck them on a pole. And the puppeteers were really nice guys. When I asked Henson to move Kermit to the right a little for a better frame, Henson wouldn’t answer; Kermit would answer.

“Henson didn’t want any special effects,” he continues. “He wanted everything live. For example, when Kermit was driving an older Studebaker, four or five puppeteers were working the puppets from the floor of the car, so the car had to be modified so it could be driven from the trunk. A wide-angle lens poked out of the distinctive front of the Studebaker grill so the driver could see.


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