“When that picture ended, there wasn’t any immediate work coming up for an assistant at RKO, and one of those lucky things happened. MGM was doing an Esther Williams picture, and they needed an underwater assistant cameraman. John Arnold [ASC] was head of the camera department at MGM in those days, and Ray Johnson was his assistant terrific people. I went there thinking I had four or five weeks’ work, and I ended up being there for 14 years. They took a liking to me and I liked them. After five years as an assistant, they made me an operator.”
Koenekamp’s first film as an operator was The Brothers Karamazov (1958), adapted and directed by Richard Brooks. “To me,” he says, “it’s almost a bigger step going from assistant to operator than it is going from operator to cinematographer, because as an operator you’re the eyes of the director and cameraman. I was a little scared of it at first. For the first year or so I just sweated out being an operator, not thinking about anything else. I worked with a lot of different cameramen and started learning how to do lighting, how to lay out shots and how to work with a director, which is probably the most important thing on a set.
“One man I really did like working for was [ASC member] Bob Surtees. I thought he had everything right in the palm of his hand. He knew exactly what was going on, what he wanted and how to do it. And he had a great personality he was fun to work with. We’d go out to dinner, and he’d tell jokes and have a good time, but on the set he was dead serious. I also worked on a number of pictures as an operator for [ASC member] Milt Krasner. Milt was a laid-back kind of guy; he’d sit back and keep his eye on what was happening, and he got to the point where he would let me do things. He’d let me talk to the gaffer. We had a really good relationship.
“I worked on Raintree County with Surtees as the technician on the camera, and that was Panavision’s first picture all they had were lenses, and they had built their first blimp, which was almost as big as a couch. It was a big camera that had a standard movement and was very noisy it took four strong grips to pick that camera up and move it. I knew [Panavision founders] Bob Gottschalk and Richard Moore [ASC] well and loved the way they were constantly designing new things. When they finally came out with the Panaflex, which is so widely used now, it was just unreal compared to what we used to have. If an operator hasn’t worked with an old camera with a finder on the side and parallax problems, they don’t know what they’ve missed, because that was the devil. Everything now is reflex, and the Panaflex viewing system is so great.”
When things slowed down at MGM, Koenekamp joined the crew of TV’s Gunsmoke as an operator. In 1962, Ray Johnson had taken over as head of MGM’s camera department, and he brought Koenekamp back to the studio to interview for the cinematographer’s job on The Lieutenant. When that series finished. Koenekamp segued to The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a four-year stint that would bring him Emmy nominations for his work on the 1964-65 and 1965-66 seasons. In 1966, MGM gave Fred his first feature, The Spy With My Face, a big-screen version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
“The biggest transition in moving from TV to features,” Koenekamp states with some bewilderment, “was that instead of shooting 11 or 12 pages a day, we were doing three or four pages a day. To this day, I can’t figure that out. We’re working the same hours on a feature now as on a TV show 12-hour days, 14-hour days, whatever. You’re doing a lot fewer pages, but it seems to take as much time. I think we talk more and rehearse more on a feature, and maybe do a little more coverage.”
Five more MGM features followed in the next three years, Doctor, You’ve Got to be Kidding (1967), with Sandra Dee and George Hamilton; Stay Away, Joe and Live a Little, Love a Little (both 1968), with Elvis Presley; the gangster saga Sol Madrid (1968), with David McCallum; and the Glenn Ford Western Heaven With a Gun (1969). Then Koenekamp went to shoot The Great Bank Robbery (1969) for Warner Bros.
“I was on The Great Bank Robbery when I got my really big break,” he remembers. “My agent called and said Fox wanted me to interview with a director. It turned out to be Frank Schaffner, and the picture was Patton . Frank was the most congenial gentleman I’d ever met. He never yelled, never got uptight, and was the most prepared director I ever worked with. He had a very quiet voice and manner; you really had to keep your ear in there or you could hardly hear him. Frank asked me how I worked on a set. ‘Do you like multiple cameras?’ ‘Yes, I’ve always liked multiple cameras, and I like a handheld camera on the set all the time. You never know when you’ll need it.’ We probably talked for an hour, and it seemed to go very smoothly. About a week later I got a call, and they said they wanted me for Patton.
“Over the last few years, several people have asked me what advice I would give a young cinematographer. I say, ‘Preparation.’ It starts with reading the script, knowing the script inside out. I would make notes in the script of how I felt, and one of the things I loved to do and many directors didn’t want to do was go through the script with the director and feel him out. Frank Schaffner was wonderful about this. We would sit together and probably have the assistant director join us so he would know ahead of time what was going on. By the time we started shooting, there were no questions. I knew what he wanted and how we were going to approach that day’s work. With all the complexity of [that shoot] England, Greece, North Africa and Spain it’s amazing how smoothly Patton went. But that’s where preparation pays off.” Patton had an additional payoff for Koenekamp, in the form of his first Academy Award nomination.