Stephen Lighthill, ASC

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

When I was very young, my family caught all the musical features, probably because my dad had been a vaudeville actor. (Lighthill was his stage name, which he kept after leaving the stage). On the Town, shot by Harold Rosson, ASC, is the film I remember from my early years, probably because it was one of the few musicals shot on location. We lived in Connecticut, I knew New York City well, and I was impressed to see the sights I knew in a film. Little did I know I would grow up to be one of the cinematographers on one of the most frightening “musicals” of all time, Gimme Shelter.

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

Because of my roots in documentaries, my favorite style of cinematography is naturalistic, so ASC members Gordon Willis and Sven Nykvist have been especially influential.

What sparked your interest in photography?

I grew up with the images of World War II newsreels, and I wanted to be a combat cameraman from early on. Many years later, when CBS asked me to go to Vietnam to film the war there, I turned them down. I preferred to stay in San Francisco and film the amazing events of the Sixties; it was a world I knew well, and one that was often a war zone in its own right!

Where did you study and/or train?

I have a master’s degree in journalism from Boston University. While there, I fell out of love with writing — on summer jobs, I met too many alcoholic writers at small Connecticut papers — and in love with still photography and then cinematography. I took just two film-production courses at B.U., so I am essentially self-taught. It was a hard and sometimes painful way to learn cinematography, and if I could do it all over again, I would go to film school.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?

There were many cinematographers who inspired me. In the documentary world, I looked up to Terry Morrison, who shot for NBC, Jon Else (Cadillac Desert, The Day After Trinity) and Al Maysles (for whom I helped shoot the Christo film The Running Fence). During my brief career as a focus puller, I learned from Haskell Wexler, ASC (with whom I worked on George Lucas’ THX 1138), Dave Myers and Al Kihn. During those years, I also assisted Verne Carlson, who authored The Cameraman’s Handbook with his wife, Sylvia. He was very supportive.

What are some of your key artistic influences?

The great, engaged films of the Sixties and Seventies that came out just before I shot my first feature, Over-Under, Sideways-Down. These included Medium Cool, shot and directed by Haskell Wexler, and The Last Detail, shot by Michael Chapman, ASC. On the documentary side, my early influences were the vérité films of Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker, particularly Primary.

How did you get your first break in the business?

I got my first job shooting for a Sunday-morning public-affairs show. The program director of the TV station was a judge at a student-film festival who had seen and liked the first short film I made at B.U. My favorite moment of career luck was at the 1988 Sundance Film Festival, when an HBO executive saw Break Of Dawn, which was set in the 1930s and told the story of the first Spanish-speaking radio personality in L.A. The exec subsequently asked me to shoot the HBO anthology series Vietnam War Story.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?

The most fun moment: I helped design a time machine out of two hot tubs, inverted and placed together, for The Spirit Of ’76, a low-budget feature for Zoetrope Studios. One of the most gratifying moments: on Shimmer, I filmed a dolly shot of two boys running with flashlights at the last moment of daylight in Iowa, a shot we conceived and executed in 20 minutes that has been on my reel for 10 years.

Have you made any memorable blunders?

In the middle of a documentary on emergency medical technicians (EMTs), I didn’t have a daylight-conversion filter at the right moment, and I grossly overexposed footage of a person who was near death in full cardiac arrest. He lived through the experience, though, and my producer thought the footage was “edgy.”

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

Experienced filmmakers always reminded me to wear comfortable shoes while shooting. They were right, and they inspired in me a lifelong love of good shoes.

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?

I recently saw the documentary Richard Avedon, Darkness and Light, which reminded me of the amazing work of one of America’s greatest visual artists. But the most inspiring event of 2004 was viewing the eclectic and inventive stills work of ASC members at our recent salon.

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

I prefer science fiction and did a TV series in that genre, Earth 2 ­[click on photo from the show’s set for an enlarged view]. I had a long career shooting documentaries on social issues, and Dr. Strangelove is one of my favorite films, so I’d really love to try my hand at shooting a political science-fiction thriller. But really, I wish I were still shooting handheld onstage with Joe Cocker’s chorus, which I did with director of photography Dave Myers on the documentary Mad Dogs and Englishmen.

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

There are so many careers I think I would have been suited for: EMT (of course), chef (I make a mean smoked salmon) or president (of something).

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?

Steven Poster and George Spiro Dibie, both of whom I met in the course of my activities for the International Cinematographers Guild, and Robert Primes, with whom I worked side by side on many music films in San Francisco.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?

The impact of the Society on my life has been wonderful; the initials ASC make me part of a large, supportive community of cinematographers from whom I learn constantly.

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© 2005 American Cinematographer.