The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Jan Kiesser

Jan Kiesser, ASC

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?

I remember the Buck Rogers serials I experienced at Saturday matinees when I was very young. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was my first major theatrical experience of being whisked away into another world and reality, transcending time and place. It was always the visuals in these stories that captivated me.

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

Jack Cardiff [BSC], for his painterly visual storytelling with very slow film speeds. James Wong Howe [ASC], for his inventiveness. Freddie Young [BSC], for the epic scale of Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. More contemporary cinematographers are [ASC members] Vilmos Zsigmond, Gordon Willis, Caleb Deschanel and Emmanuel Lubezki.

What sparked your interest in photography?

I received a 35mm Japanese range-finder camera from a second cousin who was returning from a tour with the U.S. Navy. My curiosity about how to effectively use this camera, and my desire to understand photography in general, led me to read Ansel Adams and others, and to build a darkroom in one of our bathrooms. I think I was 12 or 13 years old.

Where did you train and/or study?

In order to study cinema, I was about to change majors at UCLA from engineering to theater arts when I found an opportunity that took me directly into Hollywood’s motion-picture industry. Personal study, making Super 8mm movies and networking are what took me forward.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?

I have learned from every cinematographer I’ve worked with, but I believe I learned the most from Vilmos Zsigmond. He is an instinctive teacher; he would always ask me why I would do something, not just what I would do. He would also give me opportunities to offer input into lighting, staging and composition on movies we were shooting.

What are some of your key artistic influences?

I traveled throughout Europe for a year when I was young and spent much time immersing myself in all the art I found there. That experience had a profound effect on me, informing my aesthetic. Vermeer and Rembrandt have always been go-to references in my lighting.

How did you get your first break in the business?

My first job was for Wally Bulloch as an animation cameraman. This took me away from going to film school at UCLA, but enabled me to become a union member and develop my passion for filmmaking in the real world rather than the academic one.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?

The entire experience of making Such a Long Journey in Mumbai, India, and how it all came about. It was an amazing challenge with an exceptional story.

Have you made any memorable blunders?

Not having an agent to look out for my well-being on my first feature as a director of photography.

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

In my early days of operating for Vilmos, we were discussing lighting, and he advised me to observe light in the real world all the time. I often reflect on that as I continue to observe and learn every day.

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?

Digital Cinematography: Fundamentals, Tools, Techniques and Workflows by David Stump, ASC, has helped me hone my skills and develop a deeper understanding of the technology surrounding digital cinema cameras.

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?

I love historical fiction, but have had great fun on musicals.

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

I would most like to try installation art.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?

Vilmos Zsigmond, Donald M. Morgan and Allen Daviau.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?

It has broadened my perspective and understanding of cinematography, expanded my education, and enabled the development of meaningful relationships with other cinematographers.


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