ASC Close-Up: James Neihouse

The large-format specialist discusses his experiences and inspirations: “I don’t really remember what got me started taking pictures — I’ve just always had a camera in hand.”

ASC Staff

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
2001: A Space Odyssey; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; Dr. Strangelove.

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
Gregg Toland, ASC; John Toll, ASC; Haskell Wexler, ASC; Gordon Willis, ASC; Freddie Young, BSC; Russell Carpenter, ASC; Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC; Owen Roizman, ASC.

What sparked your interest in photography? 
I don’t really remember what got me started taking pictures — I’ve just always had a camera in hand. I can remember playing around with my dad’s camera when I was maybe 4 or 5 years old. It has always just seemed like the natural thing to do.

Where did you train and/or study? 
I attended Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, Calif., for still photography, then fell in love with cinema and began learning as much about the process as I could. I was fortunate enough to have some great mentors along the way.

Who were your early teachers or mentors? 
Graeme Ferguson, one of the founders of Imax, has been and still is a mentor. I’ve learned a lot from Imax director-editor Toni Myers. My high-school art teacher, Don Smith, helped me begin to see light and understand composition.

What are some of your key artistic influences?
I think paintings by the old masters influence me most. I love studying their use of shadow and light. Vermeer, Turner, Hopper, Wright, van Honthorst, de la Tour. Photographs by Saul Leiter, Vivian Maier, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange. 

How did you get your first break in the business? 
George Casey brought me along as camera assistant to shoot The Eruption of Mount St. Helens. I ended up shooting a lot of the film, and he gave me ‘director of photography’ credit. The production eventually became the first Imax film nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Documentary.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
For me, it’s when my work touches someone’s life. For example, when astronaut Susan Helms told a national television audience that she decided to become an astronaut after seeing The Dream Is Alive, that was very satisfying. To top that off, Susan became one of our Imax camera operators for the Imax film Space Station 3D. 

Have you made any memorable blunders? 
I guess my most memorable one was shooting a volcanic eruption with the lens cap on… There were extenuating circumstances.

What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received? 
Respect your crew, collaborate, never stop learning, and never let them see you sweat. 

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you? 
I recently saw a collection of Andrew Wyeth paintings. Seeing them in person is amazing — I love his muted use of color and simple compositions. 

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try? 
I’m very interested in doing a period piece. A widescreen Western would be fun to do as well.

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead? 
I love to fly, so I might be a bush pilot.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership? 
Richard Crudo, Denis Lenoir and Reed Smoot.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career? 
Being asked to join the ASC has been the greatest honor of my career. One of the most enjoyable things about the ASC is the camaraderie between members — being able to freely exchange ideas and seek advice from the world’s best cinematographers, and do it in a non-competitive and wonderful social environment. Being accepted as a peer of these talented artists energizes me to always do my best work and continually set my personal bar higher. 

Portrait by Claire Mondragon
You'll find Neihouse’s personal site here.

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