The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Fred Elmes
Fred Elmes

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
The film that grabbed my imagination was The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), directed by Robert Wise. I was 12 years old and was on vacation with my family in the Midwest. It was haunting: the spaceship, the huge robot, the words that would save the world. I was entranced. I stayed and watched it a second time.

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
I’m a great admirer of Sven Nykvist, ASC; his lighting and camerawork take the art to a fantastic new level. Also, Gianni Di Venanzo; Carlo Di Palma, AIC; and Gregg Toland, ASC. More recently, I find the work of ASC members Nestor Alméndros, Jordan Cronenweth, Caleb Deschanel and Vilmos Zsigmond inspiring.

What sparked your interest in photography?
My dad gave me his Leica camera at an early age, and it was my ticket to exploring the world. I began to understand about controlling the image while tinkering with a light on a still-life photograph I was setting up. I noticed that putting the light behind the subject gave the picture a very beautiful, new quality. Backlight made all the difference.

Where did you train and/or study?
I studied still photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology. I went on to New York University’s graduate-film program, where I had good hands-on experience. After NYU, I was invited to become a fellow at the American Film Institute. There, I learned in greater depth film history and analysis, furthered my experimentation and experience making student films, and was afforded an introduction to Hollywood.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?
At NYU, I was teaching assistant to the wonderful Czech cinematographer Beda Batka, who opened my eyes to the power of camera and lighting to tell a story. At the AFI, Frank Daniel and Tony Velani were great influences.

What are some of your key artistic influences?
Photography: Edward Weston, André Kertész, Alfred Stieglitz and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Painting: Edgar Degas, Wilhelm Hammershoi and Pieter de Hooch. Music: John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Phillip Glass. Films: Sasha Hammid and Maya Deren, Fritz Lang, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Francis Coppola.

How did you get your first break in the business?
At the AFI, I worked with David Lynch on Eraserhead. I also had the amazing luck of collaborating with John Cassavetes, the resident filmmaker at the AFI. When he asked me to shoot The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, I enthusiastically signed on. So early in my career, I benefitted from working with two extremely talented and original filmmakers.
What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
One that comes to mind is a choice made on Kinsey. Bill Condon and I grappled with how to combine the decades-long biographical aspect of the story with the sexual-history interviews conducted by Kinsey and his students. We decided that by alternating color with black-and-white stock — a difficult choice from the production and distribution perspectives — we could take the story to another level. The audience response to that choice was extremely satisfying.

Have you made any memorable blunders?
One day late in the schedule on Blue Velvet, we were upstairs in a building with no elevators. The crew was extremely unhappy about having to carry the gear up four narrow flights of stairs, so I permitted them to bring up only half the lighting I’d asked for. It was already the end of another long day; the actors’ moods were frayed, and the rehearsal went on and on. Soon I regretted not having the gear left on the truck. We were well into overtime, and at that point, I was stuck with providing a soft toplight that I didn’t think David would be happy with. He loved it, and it’s become a classic, elegant Lynchian moment: Dean Stockwell sings ‘In Dreams’ to Dennis Hopper using a work light as his microphone.

What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
It’s the director’s movie. The director is always right.

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
An exhibit at MoMA of Monet’s Water Lilies, Paul Outerbridge photos at the Getty Center, and the films The Lives of Others and The Constant Gardener.

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
I’ve always wanted to turn an opera into a film.

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
I’d like to be a chef. I love the art and science of cooking — it’s creative, but in the end, it has to please the audience!

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Haskell Wexler, Steven Poster and Vilmos Zsigmond.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
It is an honor to be accepted by those I’ve always admired. It’s also an opportunity to support the community of young filmmakers. After all, that’s where we all started. 

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