Isidore Mankofsky, ASC

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

Gunga Din (1939), shot by Joseph August, ASC; The Four Feathers (1939), shot by Georges Périnal and Osmond Borradaile, ASC; Beau Geste (1939), shot by Theodor Sparkuhl, ASC and Archie Stout, ASC; The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1934), shot by Charles Lang Jr., ASC; and maybe even Captain Blood (1935), shot by Hal Mohr, ASC), and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), shot by Tony Gaudio, ASC and Sol Polito, ASC. I enjoyed many other swashbuckling sagas as a kid. They may seem a bit corny by today’s standards, but they were escapist entertainment, the comic-book films of the time. They had adventure, suspense, romance, laughs, chivalry and action.

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

I greatly admire the work of Russian cameraman Sergui Urusevsky, who shot The Cranes Are Flying (1958) and I Am Cuba (1964). Both are tremendous monochrome films and Russian agitprop pictures, and each is a groundbreaking film of the period. The Cranes Are Flying tells the story with brilliantly forceful cinematography — great lighting, imaginative composition, the elaborate movement of actors in the frame, deep focus, and the movement of the camera with cranes and handheld camera. All of these techniques contribute to the story without being obvious. I Am Cuba comprises four stories, each filmed in a unique way that enhances the effect of the story. It was way ahead of its time.

What sparked your interest in photography?

That’s a hard question. My first photographic efforts were as a still photographer, but I loved the movies and marveled at the mystery of cinematography. In time, my curiosity got the better of me; the blank page needed to be filled, and that urge inevitably led me to cinematography.

Where did you study and/or train?

While in the U.S. Air Force, I started getting instruction at the post’s photo lab on developing film and printing my pictures, but my first efforts were terrible. After I completed my four-year hitch, I attended a photography school in Chicago. My work there was poor, but I was learning. I paid my way through school by working at a stills lab and photographing billboards. Then off I went to Brooks Institute of Photography, which was just starting its motion-picture department. But the majority of my training came at the college of hard knocks!

Who were your early teachers or mentors?

Rex Fleming, one of the founders of the Brooks Institute, was the motion-picture instructor there. At the time, there were only a few students in the movie division. Our instruction came mainly while working as crew members for Rex on the many industrial and medical films he was doing. He was a wonderful instructor and a terrific role model. He instilled in me the confidence that I needed to do any job as a cameraman.

What are some of your key artistic influences?

I’m not sure. I did not take art appreciation or any other art classes in school or out. Perhaps the artistic influences just arrived by osmosis.

How did you get your first break in the business?

My first break came as I was about to complete my schooling at Brooks. The school got me a job at KOLO, a TV station in Reno, Nevada, where I shot my first documentary. It was a great learning situation. After I returned to Chicago, my search for work continued. I was playing handball at the Evanston YMCA, and my opponent, Jim McGuinn, was a producer at Encyclopedia Britannica Educational Films. He remembered that I had aspirations of becoming a cameraman, and he asked if I’d like to interview for a series of films at EBF. I was subsequently hired to shoot a group of films in Florida. Thirteen months and 161 half-hour films later, EBF offered me a staff job. I stayed there for nine years and did at least 80 more films, including narrative features, on many subjects.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?

The satisfaction usually comes months after the fact. Seeing a film anew and being very gratified that I had a part in making it is when I appreciate it most.

Have you made any memorable blunders?

I have made too many blunders to recount, but in the best tradition of my craft, I have always pretended that nothing was amiss.

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

Be bold, and take chances — advice I have not always followed, much to my regret. Also, following your intuition is usually the smart thing to do.

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?

I recently finished judging the TV and feature films for the ASC Awards. There are so many great talents out there; the films were so good that I had a hard time judging in all of the categories. It really is a shame that they all could not share the award. I was so inspired that I may look for more film work!

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

I think I’ve worked in most of the recognized genres. The variety was fun because it enabled me to try many different styles, and each offered new challenges. (However, I did one type of film I would rather not do many of: A Very Brady Christmas.) My favorite genre is period films. Any period will do, as long as it’s not the present! And I still prefer working on films where most of the images are created in camera, rather than in post.

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

I’d be a handball hustler.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?

Howard Schwartz and Harry Wolfe.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?

Besides work, the things I wanted most in my career were to be invited into the ASC and to be nominated for an Academy Award. Half a cake is better than none, though, and I have the better half! When I was voted into the ASC some 25 years ago, I could hardly believe it. Membership has meant a great deal to me, and not just for the prestige of having the letters behind my name. Recognition by one’s peers is a high tribute. Now that I’m no longer working as a director of photography, I contribute to the organization as best I can.

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© 2005 American Cinematographer.