The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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TV Series
Robert F. Liu, ASC
Isidore Mankofsky, ASC
Page 2
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
“The question I’m asked most about The Muppet Movie is how Kermit rode the bike. We took a crane with an arm extended out, and monofilament ran from that down to the bike. Kermit’s feet were strapped to the pedals, and the pedals would turn as the bike wheels turned. The voice and mouth movements were remote-controlled; we’d just pull it along. However, the shot I’m most proud of is the one that shows Kermit sitting in the director’s chair in the big soundstage. Where’s Henson? I did that in such a simple way, and no one has figured it out. I put a couple mirrors in, and Henson is behind the mirrors. I lit it so the shadows in the mirrors looked like they continued past the chair legs.”

Mankofsky followed the Muppets with the period film Somewhere in Time (1980), starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. He had met the director, Jeannot Szwarc, while at Universal. “I’d subbed on a couple of shows Jeannot was doing,” he remembers. “One Sunday morning, he called me up to see about having breakfast at Canter’s, and he asked if I’d do the film. We had a great relationship on the film, but oddly enough, I never worked with him again, nor with any of the executives on that film. They never called me back, and I’ve never known why!”

Mankofsky still marvels at Seymour’s photogenic quality. “No matter how you lit her, she looked gorgeous,” he says. “The light just wrapped around her. Of all the actresses I’ve photographed, she was the easiest.”

Somewhere in Time didn’t do particularly well in its theatrical release, but it eventually caught on in secondary markets and gained a cult following. Avid fans of the film hold an annual convention at the shoot’s location, Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Mich.

Mankofsky soon shot another feature, Richard Fleischer’s The Jazz Singer (1980), and then photographed several telefilms, including Portrait of a Showgirl (1982), In the Custody of Strangers (1982) and The Burning Bed (1984). In 1985, he hooked up with director Savage Steve Holland to shoot the comedy Better Off Dead, starring John Cusack. The film was a hit, and Warner Bros. ordered up another Holland/Cusack picture, One Crazy Summer. Mankofsky recalls, however, that Cusack refused to do some of the gags in the second picture. “A lot of the material that was really good isn’t in the movie,” says the cinematographer. “Or, if it’s in the film, it isn’t the way it was supposed to have been done.” On both comedies, Holland managed to stick Mankofsky in front of the camera. “In One Crazy Summer, he had me brushing the teeth of the fake dolphin, and he also had me inside the thing to film in the water,” he says. “In Better Off Dead, I’m the neighbor in an aardvark coat, cutting the hedges.”

Sandwiched between those comedies was a George Lucas TV spectacle, Ewoks: The Battle for Endor (1985), a sequel to The Ewok Adventure. On The Ewok Adventure, producer Thomas G. Smith had called Mankofsky to shoot the second unit for Industrial Light & Magic; the two had worked together at Britannica. “Tom is one of the most loyal people I’ve worked for,” Mankofsky notes. “Whenever he had the opportunity, he’d try to get me on a film.” When John Korty, director of Ewok Adventure, had to leave the production early due to a scheduling conflict, “George Lucas decided to direct the rest of it, and I shot that material,” recalls Mankofsky. “George is a very, very nice man but an impatient director. He’s a lot like me; when something starts to slow down, I’ll go and do it myself.”

When time came for the Ewok sequel, Mankofsky shot first unit for directors Jim and Ken Wheat. Actor Wilford Brimley didn’t get along with the directing duo, so scenes featuring Brimley were directed by production designer and future director Joe Johnston. “I would quietly go over to Wilford and ask him to move his hat a bit so I could see his eyes, and he’d say, ‘Oh, sure,’” recalls Mankofsky. “If the Wheats had asked that, he would have thrown them out.”

Over the next 10 years, Mankofsky shot numerous TV movies, including Fatal Judgment (1988), A Very Brady Christmas (1988) and The Heidi Chronicles (1995). He earned Emmy nominations for Polly (1989); Love, Lies and Murder (1991); and Afterburn (1992). He won an ASC Award for Love, Lies and Murder and notched additional nominations from the Society for Davy Crockett: Rainbow in the Thunder (1989) and Trade Winds (1994).

In 1991, Mankofsky reunited with the Muppets to shoot a special-venue film in 3-D, a new format for him. On MuppetVision 3-D, which still plays at Disney theme parks today, Mankofsky was the creative cinematographer while Peter Anderson, ASC served as the technical cameraman. “Peter wanted to shoot tests every day, but the producer came in and said, ‘Just shoot, and if it doesn‘t turn out, then that can be considered the test,’” Mankofsky says. “We only had to reshoot one day out of the whole schedule, and that was because the cameras went out of sync.”

Mankofsky remembers the massive amount of light needed for the shoot: “On a big outdoor set where Miss Piggy is fishing, I had 100 coops that each held six 1,000-watt bulbs just to get the fill-light level where we wanted it. For keylight, I had an 18K, and for backlight, I had a Xenon. It got so hot up in the permanents that we had to stop shooting; it overpowered the air-conditioner! I needed 1,600 footcandles and had no idea how to get that, but after turning on all those coops, I put my meter up, and it read 1,600 footcandles exactly. Whew!”

When Mankofsky started down his cinematography path, he had two goals: to win an Academy Award and to join the ASC. The goal he has met has turned out to be the most rewarding, he says. A former member of the Society’s Board of Governors, he serves as the Society’s secretary and chairs several committees, including the Heritage Award Committee, the Constitution and Bylaws Committee and the Newsletter Committee. Recently, he was the curator of an exhibit of ASC members’ still photography. “I don’t know why I do all those things!” he laughs. “When I was in the service, they told me to never volunteer for anything. But I’ve never been one to just sit around the house.”


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