The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Lowell Peterson
Lowell Peterson

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
My sister Wendy used to take me to the movies, and she created in her little brother a lifelong movie-lover. When I was a little boy, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) scared the hell out of me, but I was fascinated by the fantasy world Ray Harryhausen created. As a young teenager, I was in awe of the epic quality of Cheyenne Autumn (1964), and in retrospect, I’m certain I responded to the 65mm photography of Monument Valley.

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

When I first came to Los Angeles, there were five Japanese movie theaters, and the lighting and compositions in the films they played resonated with me. Kazuo Miyagawa shot the great Mizoguchi films, but in his later career at Daiei Studios, he became a master of color cinematography. Fujio Morita shot many of Hideo Gosha’s movies. I also admire Sven Nykvist, ASC for his ability to illuminate the inner lives of women. Russell Metty, ASC is another big influence; he applied black-and-white technique to shooting color, and his work with Douglas Sirk is an inspiration for my current project, Desperate Housewives. Of the many great modern cinematographers, I most admire Gordon Willis, ASC.

What sparked your interest in photography?
I joined a college film society and watched a lot of movies. I remember having a sort of epiphany when I saw Rebel Without a Cause and realized there was a grammar to making movies. I was struck by the scene on the living-room stairs between James Dean and Jim Backus, and how the use of high and low camera angles visually expressed the drama of the scene.

Where did you train and/or study?
I did some acting as a child and toured with a theatrical company. The sense of belonging to a community of artists was very appealing. I enrolled at Yale intending to study architecture, but after joining the Yale Film Society, I began to see the possibility of a career in the movies. Eventually I ended up at UCLA’s film school.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?

Bobby Liu, ASC taught me how to block a scene and line up a shot. Ed Brown, ASC taught me a lot about framing and operating. And from Craig Denault I learned about lighting with big sources and how to use soft light on actresses while creating contrast in other parts of the frame. All of them showed me how to treat a crew with respect and get joy from the day-to-day work.

What are some of your key artistic influences?

The quality of light in Watteau and Vermeer, the compositions of Utamaro, the Zone System of Ansel Adams, the directing styles of Vincente Minnelli and Nicholas Ray, the group improvisation of Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, and modern opera and theater.

How did you get your first break in the business?

I partnered with a fellow UCLA film student, Nick von Sternberg, and we broke into low-budget features. He was the cinematographer and I was his assistant on sub-Roger Corman and Blaxploitation movies.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?

The discovery of soft bounce light while shooting a period student film. We taped white bed sheets to the set walls and bounced the lights off of them.

Have you made any memorable blunders?
Early on as a director of photography, I was so intent on the work that I sometimes ignored the politics of the production. I had to learn how important the relationships with directors, producers and other departments are to realizing the cinematography.

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

I was honored to have John Alton, ASC visit my set when I first became a cinematographer. He told me to light the people, not the sets.

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
Michael Powell’s autobiography, John Doyle’s revival of Sweeney Todd on Broadway, several great modern-opera productions, and recent music by Radiohead and The Killers.

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
I would love to shoot a musical.

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

I might be a theater techie or doing music recording — something where I wouldn’t have to get up so early in the morning!

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?

Bobby Liu, Ed Brown and Michael Watkins. Allen Daviau was head of the Membership Committee, and he supported me at a time when there was some resistance to inviting television cinematographers to join.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?

As a student of film history, I became aware of that unbroken line of cinematographers with the initials ASC after their names, from the silent-film pioneers through all my heroes of the 1940s and 1950s and on into my era.  Joining that list of artists was certainly the most important event of my career. When I walk into the Clubhouse, I think back on a hundred years of film images that are seared into our collective memory, and then I meet with my ASC colleagues and start looking ahead to what the future will bring.

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