The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents October 2012 Return to Table of Contents
Killing Them Softly
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Bob Primes

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
Fantasia (1940). The graphics and classical music transported me to an ecstatic mind state I hadn’t known existed.

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
Conrad Hall, ASC, for the humanity that sparked his genius; Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC, for his profound intensity; and Robert Richardson, ASC, for creating a bridge between classical perfection and contemporary sensibilities.

What sparked your interest in photography?
Life magazine and Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man.

Where did you train and/or study?
I proclaimed myself a filmmaker in the hippie days of San Francisco. I bought a Bolex, then an clair, and learned while I earned.  It wasn’t until I came to Hollywood that I realized how little I knew.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?
The Life magazine photographers, and the filmmakers of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.

What are some of your key artistic influences?
Beethoven; Chopin; Bartok; Bach; Brahms; Rembrandt; Van Gogh; Renoir; Monet; Chaim Potok; Gilbert & Sullivan; Modern Jazz Quartet; Jacques Tati; Alain Resnais; Ingmar Bergman; Sven Nykvist, ASC; François Truffaut; Raoul Coutard; Fellini; Ken Kesey; Allen Ginsberg; Lawrence Ferlinghetti; Jack Kerouac; Ezra Pound; Toscanini; Horowitz; Helmut Walcha; Pablo Casals; Brecht; Ansel Adams; Edward Weston; Henri Cartier-Bresson; Margaret Bourke-White; Edward Steichen; Harold Edgerton; Jordan Belson; and Liv Ullmann.

How did you get your first break in the business?
The reel from my hippie-filmmaker days got me a job as a director/cameraman at a big TV commercial house. It only lasted six months, but it brought me to L.A. Later, I was hired to shoot the TV show thirtysomething, probably because I’d never set foot on a TV set. The show won the Emmy for Best Drama, and I was launched (at least for a while).

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
Shooting an 11-minute ballet sequence in a single take from a dolly on a dance floor.  Without touching the zoom, we shot a kinetic, boldly framed take that was, miraculously, absolutely perfect. Unfortunately, the prima ballerina chopped it up with freeze frames and jump cuts to cover perceived imperfections in her form. Also, during the first week of my first big feature, Bird on a Wire, we had to blow up an entire gas station at night using about a dozen cameras. I had no idea how to expose for the gas flames and couldn’t find anyone to offer advice. There could not be a Take 2, and the special-effects supervisor was terrified by my uncertainty. I made my best guess and hoped for the best.  My satisfying moment came the next day, when the special-effects man came onto the set and proclaimed it the best-exposed explosion he’d ever seen!

Have you made any memorable blunders?
I inadvertently turned on a hot plate that happened to have the show’s supply of smoke cookies resting on it. The entire Hotel Bel Air was evacuated, and the fire department arrived in force to deal with the dense cloud of smoke. 

What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
After hearing complaints from an actor that I was putting too much light in his eyes, an executive producer called me into his office to remind me that I could be fired and he could be fired, but the actor could not be fired. It was a great lesson in political reality.

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
Pina, Tree of Life, Midnight in Paris, Black Swan and the progress of my cinematography students at the AFI.

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
I have not sufficiently plumbed the depths or beauty of extreme low-light cinematography. I hope to find natural painterly abstractions near the edge of visibility. 

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
Nothing too scholarly or requiring much discipline. I’m either passionately involved or pretty lazy. I need to always have something in my life to be obsessive about.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Conrad Hall, Haskell Wexler and Vilmos Zsigmond.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
Instead of looking toward what I haven’t yet accomplished, I’ve learned to look more levelly and enjoy the comfort and camaraderie of friends, all of us driven by the same inspiration.


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