ASC Close-up: Michael Bonvillain

ASC Staff

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
Bob Richardson [ASC], for his great taste, his eclectic body of work, and the way he makes outrageously hot toplight look natural. Gordon Willis [ASC], for his impeccable control and his work with Francis Coppola and Woody Allen, among many others. Vittorio Storaro [ASC, AIC], because if he’d shot nothing besides Apocalypse Now, he’d still be a hero. It’s such a beautiful hallucination. Also, Roger Deakins [ASC, BSC], John Alton [ASC], Gregg Toland [ASC], Emmanuel Lubezki [ASC, AMC] … too many to list, actually. One of the things they all have in common is that they’ve worked with great directors and made classic movies.

This article originally ran in AC, Jan. 2014.

What sparked your interest in photography?
When I was six, I got a Polaroid Swinger camera. Black-and-white, and the picture developed in 60 seconds. Amazing.

Where did you train and/or study?
The University of Texas at Austin.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?
My first job out of college was working in New York City with commercial director/cameraman Steve Horn. His sense of lighting, lensing and texture was very inspiring. I then had the great good fortune to work with a gaffer named Peter Bloor on Homeboy, a film shot by Gale Tattersall and directed by Michael Seresin [BSC]. (Thanks, Mike Trim.) That really opened my eyes and led to a real appreciation of that Peter Bizou [BSC]/Chris Menges [ASC, BSC]/Alan Parker sensibility. I also learned to run a heavy-head Brute Arc.

What are some of your key artistic influences?
Music, cartoons, formal black-and-white portraiture and, of course, films.

How did you get your first break in the business?
The teaching assistant in my first film class asked me to operate for his thesis film. I’d never operated in my life. After the cinematographer left, I ended up shooting the rest of the film myself (with the help of a great Austin crew).

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
Running across the Brooklyn Bridge on Cloverfield, directing the helicopter and its light all around the bridge; screening dailies for my first feature Amongst Friends and seeing the images projected; and, of course, surfing during lunch on Lost.

Have you made any memorable blunders?
Oh, yeah ….

What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
‘Never stand when you can sit, and never sit when you can lie down.’

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
Films: Django Unchained, The Place Beyond the Pines, Mud and Gravity. Books: Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, Bruce Block’s The Visual Story and James Ellroy’s Blood’s a Rover. Music: Fleet Foxes, Jack White, Jay-Z and KCSN radio.

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

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
I can’t really imagine.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Steven Poster, Alan Caso and Kees van Oostrum.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
In addition to it being a great personal honor, I love the Clubhouse and being able to meet and spend time with other cameramen. That’s the best part of all.

You'll find Bonvillain’s site here and Instagram here.

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