The adventures of ASC members often include air travel, and that is certainly true of Bill Bennett. But Bill’s case is unusual — he is often the pilot. The son of an Air Force pilot, Bill arrived in California in 1974, around the time that hang-gliding started to gain popularity. Bill was intrigued. A few years later, a job in Hawaii called for him to rig small cameras on hang-gliders for a Coke commercial. His reaction: “These guys are nuts!” Six months later, he was doing it himself. In 1988, his hang-gliding exploits culminated in a 103-mile nonstop flight up the Owens Valley from Lone Pine deep into Nevada.
Around 1990, Bill added engine power to his flights, learning to fly small airplanes. Within a year or two, he had bought his own plane, and soon had his instrument rating, which allows him to fly with limited visibility, meaning he can dependably fly to work.
“Flying is primarily for enjoyment,” says Bill. “But I’ve been able to blend business and pleasure. I shoot a lot of car commercials, which are often done on roads in the middle of nowhere, away from big cities. They’re all about the locations. Getting to those places can be a chore. Almost every little town has a 5,000-foot landing strip. For example, there’s a town in southeastern Arizona called Safford where we used to shoot quite often. I could fly there in two hours, whereas everybody else had to catch a flight to Phoenix, rent a car, and then drive for four hours. Flying allows me to cover a lot of territory quickly.”
Bill has been doing a lot of air-to-air cinematography, and even though he’s not piloting in those situations, the fact that he knows how to fly makes the communication easier, even when the aircraft is a helicopter.
“I understand the limitations of air space, air speed, and the physics of how it all works,” he says. “The helicopter pilots and the picture plane pilots know that I know how to fly, and there’s a certain amount of respect that is mutual. They know that I’ll never ask them to do something stupid, crazy or dangerous because of a lack of understanding. Even if I don’t tell them up front, a pilot can tell by talking to someone if they’re a pilot, especially in that situation.”
Bill’s plane is a Beechcraft Bonanza A36, a six-place, single engine, retractable gear airplane. He keeps it at the Burbank airport. “Flying is also a nice escape from Los Angeles,” Bill says. “Many people ask how I can stand living in LA. My house is there, but 50% of my jobs are elsewhere, and I can always jump in my airplane with a friend and fly to San Francisco, San Diego, or Cabo San Lucas for a few days.”
Bill also spends plenty of time in the air on commercial jets. Followers on Facebook are often treated to stunning photos from spots around the globe.
“In about 2003, I came to the realization that although I had worked all over the world — from Morocco to Tokyo, Kenya to Uruguay — I had rarely travelled to places just to see them, as a tourist,” says Bill. “When you’re hired to work on a location, you get an abbreviated view of the place. You’re so focused on the job at hand, and time is so expensive that you rarely get the chance to dally and observe.”
On these journeys, Bill doesn’t bring a video camera, because that would be too much like work. “It’s not relaxing,” he says. “I do bring a still camera, a Canon G12, and I shoot a lot of stills. That satisfies my creative need to bring back something of my art.”
Since 2003, Bill has visited South America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia multiple times. Of course, as a cinematographer, he notices the light.
“The last time I was in Amsterdam, I visited Rembrandt’s house,” Bill recalls. “He had a large upstairs room that was a studio, and I saw evidence of him controlling the direction and quality of the light — bouncing light off the ceiling with white cloth and blocking light with shutters. As a cinematographer, seeing that was very beneficial and inspiring.
“When I was studying art history in college, and seeing the soft quality of exterior light in the works of Dutch Renaissance painters, I had the impression that this was their interpretation of the light,” he says. “Then when I traveled there for the first time, I discovered that that is what it looks like! The light in Texas, where I spent my high school and college years, was very bright, harsh and contrasty, and the same goes for Southern California, where I moved after graduation. I’m sure European cinematographers, when they move to Los Angeles, are shocked at what the light looks like here.”
Based on conversations I’ve had with cinematographers who came to LA from Europe, I can confirm that. Bill mentions a film recommended by Kees Van Oostrum, ASC called Dutch Light (www.dutchlight.nl).
“One of the things we cinematographers find challenging and most enjoyable to pull off is to create a look or environment of light that didn’t exist when you got there. The ability to draw a connection to the quality of light in, say, Florence at dawn, and recreate that in Southern California is great fun. The traveling revitalizes my mental library of interesting images.”
See more of Bill’s images at http://www.wfb4.com/.