Preparation was also a key to success on The Towering Inferno (1974), for which Koenekamp shared an Academy Award with Joseph Biroc, ASC. “I got a call saying Irwin Allen wanted to talk to me at Fox,” Koenekamp recalls. “Oddly enough, I’ve been a firetruck buff all my life. I don’t know why, I just love them. I talked to Irwin, and he said he wanted me to do Towering Inferno. They already had Joe Biroc on it, and Irwin said, ‘Joe’s going to do the second unit with you, but you’ll do the first unit with director John Guillermin.’ John’s a very quiet guy, so I had to feel him out a lot. Irwin was just great. He and I became good buddies, and I went on to do four films with him.

“Joe Biroc and I worked together in preproduction. We shot tests together and tried to decide how much smoke to use and which reds to use for fire effects, because we wanted to use the same things. We finally came up with a package we both liked and Irwin liked.”

In addition to proper preproduction planning, Koenekamp preferred to work with the same crew whenever he could. “I didn’t like changing crews, particularly if I liked everybody personally. I had three assistants at different times: Mike Benson, Ed Morey and Chuck Arnold. Each one I made an operator, and today all three of them are cinematographers. It’s a real good feeling for me to know that those fellows went ahead and did well. I had the same gaffer for 22 years, Gene Stout. He started with me in television and went right through all the features. He got to know how I thought, which was so important. If I was between features and a movie of the week came along, I’d take it. It was less money, but it kept the crew together.”

When asked about his overall philosophy of lighting, Koenekamp says he likes to think he approached each project differently. He learned his craft by watching on the set, and he also got some advice along the way, but all of that only went so far. “If you don’t do it yourself, you can watch all day and not really know what it’s all about. People ask, ‘What’s the mood of the picture?’ but I ask, ‘What’s the mood of the scene?’ I felt each scene deserved some thought as to its mood. I can’t think of a picture where I tried to light it exactly the same all the way through to keep the same mood, because I just didn’t feel it would work that way. When I first became a cameraman, I was told that comedy should be bright, but after a couple of shows I threw that out the window because I didn’t believe it anymore. I think there’s a chance to do interesting things whether the picture is a comedy or a drama. I liked to play each scene for what it was.”

Still, some tricks served him well in his 27 years as a director of photography. “Uptown Saturday Night [1974] was a really tough movie for me,” he recalls. “It was basically an all-black cast with skin tones ranging from relatively light to very dark, so I had to use a little care in balancing light. I found that using a soft color like amber looked awfully good. It seemed to bring out the texture of the skin.

“On Islands in the Stream [1977], we had a lot of pages of night work. If you recall, George C. Scott’s house sat on a little cliff that overlooked the water, and I asked Frank Schaffner, ‘Would you okay a day-for-night test out here? The ocean’s a hundred yards away, and if we shoot this at night I’m going to have a horrible time lighting anything out there. I don’t want to shoot against a black backdrop.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, try it, let’s see what it looks like.’  When I first learned about day for night, I was told to just underexpose it two stops. Well, that worked to an extent, but the skies are what kill you. The hot skies will give you away every time. So I got together with the art director and set decorator, and they designed some bamboo shades that I could pull down all around the porch. They weren’t solid — you could still see a little something through them. I could lay out the shot and bring the shades down just a hair above the water line. So the water was still hot from the sun, but the sky wasn’t coming right at you. Then I did something I’d never done before: I overlit the actors. George said, ‘God, these lights are hot, Fred!’ I said, ‘I just need them for these particular scenes.’ What happened going down two stops was that I lost the actors’ faces, so by overlighting them, when we came down we still had the faces. Things like that are really fun to try, and I must say, the day-for-night footage in that film looks pretty good.” This is something of an understatement, as Koenekamp earned another Academy Award nomination for his work.

Koenekamp says he is thrilled to receive the ASC Lifetime Achievement Award, which he will accept at the annual awards banquet on February 20. “I’m very excited. I never thought it would happen. I’ve been retired for 15 years, and I just kind of put it out of my mind that it could happen. When ASC president Richard Crudo called me and told me, I went through the floor.”

Koenekamp says he retired at age 67 because “I was unhappy with the kind of movies I was getting. I was getting brand-new directors that had never done anything, and it was pretty tough on the set. I felt burned out. The last picture I did was The Flight of the Intruder [1991], which was a physically challenging picture to make. When I walked off the set that last night, it was a real sad night. My wife was out of town, and I went home and sat there and had a drink. I thought, ‘Is it really over?’ For six or eight months after I retired, I’d get calls every once in awhile, and finally everyone realized I wasn’t working anymore. I didn’t miss a lot of things, but what I did miss — and still miss — is the camaraderie of the crew. I spent more time with them than I did with my family. When I had a good crew, it was always fun to go to work.”

<< previous || next >>

© 2005 American Cinematographer.