William A. Fraker, ASC

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

Many of the films of the Thirties impacted me — that was a period in Hollywood when movies were undergoing an enormous change. Sound was being introduced to motion pictures, and the memorable films of that time included The Informer, Les Miserables, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer and Mutiny on the Bounty. It was this type of film, the Thirties film, that made the biggest impression on me.

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

I have enormous respect for all cinematographers. Granted, some achieved more recognition than others, but every single one of them made a contribution to the culture. If I had to make a list, I’d place [ASC members] Joseph Walker, Joe McDonald, Ted McCord and, of course, Conrad Hall right up there at the top.

What sparked your interest in photography?

My interest in photography was essentially sparked by the concept of “moving” pictures. Motion pictures are a series of still photos, and because of the persistence of vision they become “moving pictures,” a series of still pictures that move. That really captured my imagination.

Where did you train and/or study?

My training in film began at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema, from which I graduated in 1951. Slavko Vorkapich, father of the montage, was the head of the school at that time. [Future ASC members] Connie Hall and Jack Couffer were classmates, and the entire experience was marvelous.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?

It would be almost impossible to name just one or two teachers or mentors who influenced me in the early stages of my career in film. I’d have to say that just working six days a week as a loader and second assistant cameraman — marking feet, hitting the slate, loading and unloading magazines on a TV series called The Lone Ranger — taught me some invaluable lessons about my work ethic and the demands that a career in film makes on an individual. We did three half-hour shows every week and one half-hour show every two days. The schedule was grueling, but my teachers and mentors were the experienced craftsmen and artists I worked with. They were a well-organized crew, and the entire experience was exciting for me.

What are some of your key artistic influences?

Artistically, I’ve been primarily influenced by the directors with whom I’ve been fortunate enough to work. Each had his own vision, and I like to think the result came out of a common understanding of what should appear on film. Working with Richard Brooks, for instance, the most important aspect of every scene was the actors’ expression — and in particular the eyes. He’d say, “I don’t care how you light this scene, but I have to see the actor’s eyes.” And he was right. Roman Polanski was a master at manipulating an audience, and he too was very specific about camera movement and placement. I’ve learned from literally every director I’ve worked with; it’s all part of participating in the creative process, and when it works it works across the board.

How did you get your first break in the business?

Like everyone else, I had a number of “first breaks” in the industry, but I’d have to credit one of my instructors, Herbert Strock, for giving me my first real job. Strock was a film editor/producer/director who taught an editing class at USC, and he was always extremely helpful.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?

There were almost too many satisfying moments on every project for me to choose just one. Let me just say that you set out to achieve 100 percent of each of your goals on every film, and if you can reach just 85 percent, you’re satisfied!

Have you made any memorable blunders?

Of course I’ve made some mistakes, errors in judgment that probably came from misinterpreting what the director was going for, or from just trying too hard. But that’s how you learn, from your mistakes. If I were to choose one example I’d have to say it was while working on Rosemary’s Baby with Roman Polanski — it took me a while to figure out that Roman’s point of view was significantly different than my own. I failed to take into consideration the fact that there was a significant difference in our heights, but once we worked that out, we got on famously.

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

The best advice I’ve ever been given was to extend myself. It’s a famous quote: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” All the tools, the technologies, are there for you to use, but you can’t assume they will tell your story. That’s up to the cameraman, to use everything at his disposal to tell a story visually.

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?

Inspiration comes from a number of sources, and I never tire of watching movies. New ones, old ones, the films on Turner Classic Movies — no matter how many times you see a film, there’s always some nuance, some aspect of filmmaking, that you missed before. And of course, each script brings with it a different kind of inspiration, visually. That’s what keeps this profession so rewarding, so fresh.

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

I don’t honestly think I have a favorite genre, but I have always loved the romanticism of the films that were being made in the Sixties, Seventies and even the early Eighties. Speaking for myself, the work was always hard, the hours were long, the schedules sometimes downright brutal. But we all had fun, and no matter how difficult or challenging a project was, we knew that our work mattered somehow. I’m not sure that same camaraderie, that same atmosphere, exists on the set today, given our present studio system (or lack thereof)!

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

If I weren’t involved in film, I can’t imagine what I’d be doing. My minor at USC was International Relations, and I studied two languages: Chinese and Russian. Having been raised in a Spanish-speaking household, you might say English was (and is) my second language.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?

Stanley Cortez.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?

The ASC has been an important part of my life in so many ways. Just being part of such a prestigious organization has been a real honor — having a place to go, to meet with friends, compare notes, commiserate or just hang out in the Clubhouse. It’s like a second home for all of us.

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© 2006 American Cinematographer.