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Michael Chapmanpage 2page 3
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A Flexible Finish
American Cinematographer Magazine
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Although Chapman had given up operating by that point, he decided he'd try to shoot the simulated home movies that appear in color midway through the film. He loaded a 16mm camera with reversal film and gave it a shot, but it was no use. "I was just too good," he recalls with frustration. "I couldn't frame those scenes badly enough to make them look like real home movies. So I gave the camera to Marty, and he couldn't do it badly enough, either. Finally, we got a Teamster to do it, and he got it just right!"

When director Carl Reiner began looking for a cinematographer to shoot his film noir send-up Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982), he naturally thought of Chapman because of Raging Bull. The cinematographer fondly recalls his work on the Steve Martin comedy, which required him to use a variety of practical tricks to make his cinematography match the 1940s-era Hollywood scenes that would be blended into the film. "Steve and Carl were very nice guys, and we had a wonderful time making Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid," he says. "We didn't have digital technology, but it was still too good-looking in a way. Younger people didn't know those [old Hollywood] actors, and they didn't get the joke.

"That was the last movie I did with a gaffer named Don Scott," he adds. "I'd worked with him off and on for years. He was an old-timer, and he'd actually worked on some of the movies that we intercut [our footage] with. Much of what we did on Dead Men was archeology; we dug out old arc lights and had them cleaned up and polished. Don showed me techniques I didn't know how to do, things that involved mirrors and pans of water, that they once did routinely. I don't think anybody remembers how to do them anymore."

Chapman went on to shoot a number of comedies, including Ghostbusters II (1989), which sparked a period of collaboration with director Ivan Reitman that included Kindergarten Cop (1990), Six Days Seven Nights (1998) and Evolution (see AC July '01). "I had fun on all of them," says Chapman. "I'm sure I adapted [my technique] to what was good for comedy, but by and large, I don't think you have to elaborately change your way of doing things. They always say tragedy is a close-up and comedy is a long shot, and I think that's true. You want the joker and the jokee to be in the frame at the same time. On comedies, I use a little more fill light; you tend to create a lit atmosphere where the performers can be at home, where they can move around and do their jokes without having to hit a precise mark."

Of course, by this time, Chapman was frequently creating images that would subsequently be manipulated or enhanced digitally. He recalls working on Space Jam (1996), in which basketball players freely mingle with cartoon characters: "That's a great example of lighting an area and letting people perform in it. We had what amounted to a basketball court, and we set up several cameras - for close-ups, long shots and all that - and they followed basketball players playing against tall people in green suits. Once I lit it, there was nothing for me to do. I just hung out and watched."

Although Chapman still loves his work - at press time, he has four feature films in the can - he says he has mixed feelings about the direction in which his craft is going. "In a curious way, I'm glad I got into the business when I did, because what I did as a cameraman was a more self-contained craft than what it seems to be today. I think the job I did, and still do, is disappearing somewhat. I don't think it's going to happen overnight, but 50 years from now it will be a very different world." Nevertheless, he is excited about the overall future of visual storytelling, which he believes is still in its infancy. "If I were young, I would spend a lot of my time learning the digital end of postproduction. Why not? I'd love to get in there and paint; I'd love to make a movie that looks like Monet or Picasso. If you can get to the edge of abstraction, why not try it? It could be wonderful."

In conclusion, Chapman insists on debunking some of the myths surrounding the American New Wave of the 1970s. "I was involved in a ridiculous number of those movies, and I must say that it was much more about accidents or happening to be at the right place at the right time than any overarching genius on my part," he emphasizes. "Had I known at the time that it was going to be thought of as a great renaissance, I would have taken a lot more notes and paid more attention. We thought we were just making movies."

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.