The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Shutter Island
John C. Flinn III, ASC
Page 2
Sol Negrin, ASC
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
John C. Flinn III, ASC receives the Society’s Career Achievement in Television Award for years of sterling work.

Photos courtesy John C. Flinn III, ASC
John C. Flinn III, ASC, who received the Society’s Career Achievement in Television Award a few weeks ago, lives and breathes his work. “I’ve been doing what I do for going on 46 years, and I can hardly wait until tomorrow,” he says.

“I love it and thrive on it.” And that’s either behind the camera or in front of it. That’s right: Flinn’s first foray into the film biz was as an actor. “I really wanted to give that a shot, but in those days, getting on the lot was tough,” he says. It was the mid-1960s, when studios were still filled with contract players. However, Flinn had an “in” at Columbia Pictures, where his father was director of advertising and publicity. (Flinn’s grandfather had been a producer and vice president at Cecil B. DeMille Studios.)

Between acting lessons, Flinn would get on the Columbia lot and observe rehearsals, and what he witnessed behind the scenes steered him onto a different career path. “I saw how this whole team — directors, cinematographers, et cetera — came together to create this thing right before my eyes,” recalls the Los Angeles native. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s for me.’” He went to Bill Widemeyer, the head of Columbia’s camera department, and offered his services —mentioning, of course, that he knew nothing about cameras. “A few weeks later, Bill called me up and asked if I could be at Columbia Ranch in an hour. I said, ‘To do what?’ And he said, ‘To be a second assistant cameraman.’ I go over there, and Freddy Jackman [Jr., ASC] is up on a crane; he was the cameraman I was supposed to see. The assistant director called out, ‘Fred, there’s a kid here to see ya.’ Fred looks down and says, ‘Yeah?’ I said, ‘My name’s John Flinn. I don’t know a thing.’ The crane arm comes down, and he says, ‘You’re the first son of a bitch that’s told me the truth. Leroy, show this kid what to do.’ And that started it.”

It was 1965, and the gig was on the comedy series The Wackiest Ship in the Army. “I had never been in a camera truck before, and there was so much stuff! I thought I’d never learn any of it. But there were great guys who sat down with me and took the time to explain what each thing did.”

So, Flinn learned on the job from expert ASC cinematographers such as Bill Fraker, Ted Voigtlander, Richard Rawlings, Monroe “Monk” Askins, Burnett Guffey and Charles Wheeler. “After I’d been in the union with about eight or nine days of camera, the camera department called me up — again on a Friday — and told me to be at the airport at 7 on Monday morning to go to Hawaii. They were doing the pilot for From Here to Eternity, and Guffey was going to be the cameraman. I made sure my roommates locked me in the house so I wouldn’t go anywhere or do anything that would make me miss that flight! We shot for eight days, but the pilot never went anywhere.

“I got to work with so many cool guys,” he continues. “I worked with Connie Hall [ASC] on Divorce American Style for a week, and I worked with Bob Surtees [ASC], who was so great to me on Alvarez Kelly.”

Flinn was basically day-playing and doing something that was unusual in those days: freely moving among the different studios. The Mitchell NCs and BNCs might have all been the same, but each studio’s camera department had its own techniques, and Flinn learned all of them. As word got around, he became a popular fill-in and go-to assistant on multiple-camera days. “Having the opportunity to bounce from one studio to the next was very cool,” he says. “To get in there and be accepted by the elders was really something. I had the opportunity to learn a lot.”

He hadn’t yet turned his back on acting, however. When he wasn’t working camera, he’d get a part or do stunt work, sometimes moving from in front of the camera to behind it on the same production. Such was the case on the comedy series Get Smart, where Flinn did stair falls and fight stunts and eventually became a Kaos agent. When he wasn’t trying to take over the world, he was a camera assistant on the show. Flinn says, “I’d get on shows, and the director would come up to me and say, ‘Read this part.’ I was the operator on Gunsmoke, and sometimes [director] Vincent McEveety would ask me to read a part. I also did some stunts and saddle falls. I doubled John Russell, an old Western actor. I worked at Disney and got some parts on shows there, too. I still have my SAG card, which I’ve had since 1967.”

Flinn got the card immediately after an incident that almost killed his budding career on the spot. He explains, “I wanted to get on the set of In Cold Blood at Columbia to watch Connie Hall light. The crew knew why I was really there, and they got me in as an extra, a policeman. I’ve got the uniform on, and I’m on the set of the police station. This guy comes up with a pipe in his mouth and yells, ‘What is that in your pocket?!’ I open up the pocket and say, ‘Cigarettes, asshole. You want one?’ I look over at Connie, who is just shaking his head. This guy just turns and walks away, and I ask the assistant director, Tommy Shaw, ‘Who was that jackass?’ And he says, ‘That’s Richard Brooks, the producer, director and writer.’ Oh, my god, what have I done? Brooks comes back up the ramp, takes the pistol out of my holster, looks at it, then puts it back and walks away. Moments later, Tommy walks over and asks, ‘You got a SAG card?’ I told him no, I was just studying camera and acting. ‘Kid, go get your SAG card now, as you are.’ I went down to Sunset Boulevard in the police uniform, paid my $110, went back to the studio and got a two-week contract at $850 per week.”

While working with cinematographer Robert Morrison on the four-part series Backstairs at the White House (which was filmed in 1978 but aired in ’79), Flinn got to know producer Ed Friendly (Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, Little House on the Prairie) and director Michael O’Herlihy. “I got along with those guys so well that they knew how much I loved my work,” says Flinn. Soon after, they asked Flinn to shoot a telefilm in Ireland because Morrison was tied up with another project. The Flame Is Love (1979) was Flinn’s break as a director of photography. He recalls, “I had plenty of time to prep, which gave me time to check the look and time of day. When the wind blows on those grass hills in Ireland, there is every different shade of green you can imagine. You just can’t believe it. And the clouds are going a hundred miles an hour. I had to literally time those clouds, because I could be in the middle of a scene and everything would go dark when a cloud passed by. That experience helped me when I went to Hawaii to shoot Hawaii Five-O and Magnum, P.I.”

The call about Hawaii Five-O came while Flinn was in Ireland: Jack Lord asked him to shoot the show’s final season. After that, Flinn returned to L.A. and shot a few TV movies before signing onto a new series, Steven Bochco’s Hill Street Blues (1981). The drama about an inner-city police precinct became one of the top shows of the decade. In 1984, Flinn moved on to tackle the dramatic fireworks at a modeling agency on the short-lived series Paper Dolls. “It got canceled at lunchtime during the 13th episode,” he recalls. “When I called my agent and told her the news, she said she was busy looking for a cameraman to go to Hawaii to shoot a show called Magnum, P.I. I said, ‘Would you do me a favor and call them and tell them I’m available? I’d appreciate that!’ A half-hour later, she calls and says, ‘You’re leaving tomorrow.’ I knew Tom Selleck — he and I went to school and played ball together. I ended up staying in Hawaii for the next four years.”

Magnum, P.I., which starred Selleck as the laid-back private investigator Thomas Magnum, was another hit series that came to define the 1980s. On the show, Flinn practiced his mantra of never shooting the same shot twice. It wasn’t a strict rule, but an overarching philosophy. “I did do some of the same shots but would change up the composition a little,” he elaborates. “If take one was really cool and the director liked it, I’d ask to move the camera a bit just to get a little different background so he could have a choice. I could take the camera and move it five feet and get another beautiful picture.”

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