The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Pete Kozachik
Pete Kozachik, ASC

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
The original King Kong (1933) burned itself into my 9-year-old psyche with its powerful, dreamlike images. Poring over stills from the film, I began to study lighting and composition.

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford; Jordan Cronenweth, ASC, Blade Runner; Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, The Black Dahlia; Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC, L.A. Confidential; and Robert Elswit, ASC, Magnolia.

What sparked your interest in photography?
As a kid, I wanted to tell stories with exciting visuals modeled after fantasy films. Popular Photography and the venerable Famous Monsters magazine jump-started my 8mm filmmaking.

Where did you train and/or study?
I thoroughly enjoyed photo and art classes in high school, but most training was, and remains, on the job. When I was 15, an industrial filmmaker gave me a pile of American Cinematographer issues, a course of study in itself. In L.A., I had the good fortune to work at Coast Special Effects for six years. We did a lot of projects, mostly commercials, making it a great place to learn quickly. We had name directors of photography shoot higher-end spots, and that was a fantastic study opportunity. Other alma maters include Introvision, Industrial Light & Magic and Tippett Studio.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?
Every cameraman I’ve worked with has taught me something valuable, whether by intent or not. In the mid-1970s, Alex Hankocy of the University of Arizona film/TV studio hired me to shoot and edit; he stressed self-reliance, answering many questions with ‘Read the book,’ referring to the American Cinematographer Manual. My long-term mentor in L.A. was Phil Kellison, a director/cameraman at Coast FX; he specialized in trick photography and stop-motion animation and taught me lighting, stage protocol, in-camera effects, you name it. Phil is gone now, but his lucky protégés remember him with gratitude.

What are some of your key artistic influences?
Outside of movies, the most relevant have been still photographs and classical paintings for their use of light — and dark! In galleries, I go straight to pictures that use light to shape, emphasize and separate. And nature’s light, in all its manifestations, continues to inspire.

How did you get your first break in the business?
I befriended Tom Scherman at Coast FX by persuading a tropical-theme restaurant to sell him a prop from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. In return, Tom strategically placed my poster-sized résumé in the studio men’s room. They hired me as a modelmaker, and one time, when I delivered a piece with a sensitive mechanism, the boss said, ‘You made it; you might as well shoot it.’ I worked onstage from then on.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
Toward the end of shooting The Nightmare Before Christmas, we cut in the last shot for the romantic end scene. As it ran through the flatbed, one guy jokingly pretended to weep, though it looked more like he was covering up real sentiment. At that moment, I realized we were really going to touch the audience.

Have you made any memorable blunders?
Long ago, I was running motion-control on an elaborate commercial shot that we had to rig and program as we progressed. It was slow going, with more at stake the further we got. Four weeks in, I picked 2 a.m. to hit the wrong button, smashing custom-blown glass props into the set. The director of photography, Alex Funke, ASC, calmly noted that this would be a good time to wrap for the night.

What was the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
At ILM, Dennis Muren, ASC had a simple, powerful phrase: ‘One shot, one thought.’ When we lapse into gilding the lily on a setup, that quote provides a reality check.

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
Seamus McGarvey, BSC’s work in Atonement beautifully differentiates between eras of innocence and war. As for books, The Stanley Kubrick Archive portrays a stirring drive and vision, and there are great movie stills in The Noir Style.

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
I’ve been very fortunate to work in a favorite genre, stop-motion-animated features. I’d like to use the technique with its recent improvements in a creature feature like the ones I grew up on. Beyond that, there are some brilliant sci-fi stories out there that I’d like to put on film.

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
I’d probably be on another creative avenue in the film business — writing, editing, developing new technology or initiating a new project.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Dennis Muren, Alex Funke, David Stump and Hiro Narita.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
Having hero-worshiped ASC members for decades, I was both honored and apprehensive before my interview with the Membership Committee. The group proved to be kindred spirits from varied backgrounds dedicated to sharing knowledge gained from personal experience. As a beneficiary of several generous mentors, I see the ASC as a platform for passing it forward, a duty and a privilege. 

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