by Stephen Pizzello
Ed. Note: This article
was penned in 1995, when Hall received the Lifetime Achievement
Award at Camerimage, the international festival of cinematography
held annually in Poland. The piece originally appeared in the event's program book,
and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the festival's
brilliance can be defined in many ways. Some filmmakers, like Hitchcock
or Kubrick, are obsessive planners who create meticulous blueprints
in their minds. Others prefer more organic methods - cutting loose
with the camera in an attempt to catch lightning in a bottle, whether
it be an actor's spontaneous gesture, a sudden reflection of
the light, or the inexplicable poetry of a single moment in time.
his brilliant career behind the camera, Conrad Hall, ASC, had a
keen eye for what he called "the happy accident, the magic
moment." Like a dowser seeking water, Hall used his camera
as a divining rod, following his instincts toward an existential
font of imagery. His willingness to take risks resulted in a rich
cornucopia of cinematic triumphs, an aesthetic legacy that earned
him the unflagging admiration of both his peers and film lovers
the world over.
greatest images are both timeless and sublime: a cascade of reflected
raindrops that mimic tears on a killer's dispassionate countenance
(In Cold Blood); the mirror image of a chain gang, trapped
in the sunglasses of an impassive prison guard (Cool Hand Luke);
a faceless, horsebound posse in relentless
pursuit of two mythical outlaws (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance
Kid); a solitary, backlit figure entering the cavernlike tavern that symbolizes his spiritual defeat (Fat
City); the Bosch-like decimation of Hollywood Boulevard (The
Day of the Locust).
list is endless, indicative of a mastery that seemed to grow stronger
with each picture. After completing the beautifully crafted Searching
for Bobby Fischer, a film that embodies both the wonders and
terrors of childhood, Hall mused, "I'm looking for the accident,
the joyous happenstance that comes with filmmaking, rather than
going through some tortured manufacturing of the image."
philosophy guided Hall throughout his earliest days behind the
camera. During his college years at the University of Southern California, he discovered an affinity
for visual expression, but only after switching his major from
journalism to cinema. "I found that learning how to tell a
story with words was really not my cup of tea," he said. "I
really didn't think about being a storyteller, but I noticed that
the school had a cinema course, and that was very interesting to
me for all the wrong reasons. You could go to school and study
about movies, which was nonacademic and an easy way of getting
through life. But the problem was, once I shot film and told a
little story and saw it on a screen, I was deeply affected. I knew
that this was something more than just movie stars, free trips
and fame. There was a great power to be used in telling stories
through pictures. The fact that the potential audience was so extensive
was a very heady and profound concept for a young, idealistic person.
I immediately took it to heart."
resolve was deepened by one of his instructors, Slavko Vorkapich,
a Yugoslavian writer who had immigrated to Hollywood in 1922. Vorkapich, a master of visual montages, eschewed traditional
modes of narrative storytelling in favor of pure visual expression,
and he encouraged his students to tell their stories with pictures
alone. Hall took his lessons to heart, and his career is a testament
to the power of the Vorkapich philosophy. "In 1948 and '49, we were allowed
100 feet of 16mm film per semester," Hall remembered. "The
rest of the time, our thoughts and ideas were realized on paper
with stick figures and little frames - storyboards that we drew.
We did a lot of theorizing, and Vorkapich got
us to think visually, to tell a story solely with pictures. I work
on that basis still. I take and extrapolate a scene visually so
that if the soundtrack were to stop, there would still be a sense
of what the story is about."
up Vorkapich's impact upon his nascent
artistry, Hall offered, "He had the spirit and soul of an
artist. He taught us that filmmaking is a new visual language.
He taught the principles, and said it was up to us to apply them.
He gave us something few students get a chance to feel as early
as we did - we were learning to be artists, using the filmic craft
he taught us, communicating with artistic sensibilities, not commercial
graduating in 1949, Hall joined two classmates, Marvin Weinstein
and Jack Couffer, to form an independent production company, Canyon
Films. While preparing to shoot their first feature, which all
of them wanted to direct, they wrote job titles on scraps of paper
and tossed them into a hat to determine who would be producer,
director and cinematographer. Hall's pick was cameraman. That stroke
of fate began his path toward membership in the International Cinematographers
Guild and became one of the defining moments of a career. Hall
soon found himself operating for such esteemed ASC cinematographers
as Ted McCord, Robert Surtees, and Ernest Haller. While all of
these artists had an influence on his cinematic thinking, Hall
singled out McCord as a particularly important mentor. "He
wanted to give something to the story, to contribute a way of seeing
it that was special and pertinent to the material. He also wanted
to be original, and not reproduce something he'd seen in a painting
or in somebody else's work. And he was always frightened on whether
or not he was succeeding. So from Ted I learned about going to
the edge with your knowledge of cinema, and about trying to do
something different or new. You should never work from a masterly
sense, but from the sense of 'Is this going to work or not?' I still think that way."
willingness to take artistic risks manifested itself early on during
shooting of the low-budget road film The Wild Seed (1965).
This black-and-white film proves that Hall always had an inherent
knack for conveying abstract ideas and subtle thematic concepts
through inventive use of the camera. The film's story concerns
a young, adopted woman who travels across the U.S. after discovering that
her real father is living in California. Along the way, she meets
a young man who initially sees her as someone he can exploit. One
day, camped by the road, the girl reads to her companion from a
letter written by her birth father. Hall's creative camerawork
resulted in a sequence that remains among his personal favorites. "As
the girl reads the letter, the boy sits on a rock, maybe six feet
away," Hall detailed. "I started to pan from her reading
the letter across the emptiness to an extreme close-up of him listening.
The look on his face showed how his feelings towards her were changing.
The power of the scene results from the marriage of his performance
to the movement of the camera. It was a powerful shot, and it worked
beautifully for the story."
On his next picture, the black-and-white wartime
sea drama Morituri (1965), Hall
discovered - in as nerve-wracking a way as possible - the blessings
of the collaborative process. "While shooting for a complicated
day-for-night scene, the wrong filter was accidentally used.
I shot with that filter for three days, and when it went to the
lab, word came back that there was nothing on the film!
and disappointment are the only words that apply to the way I felt," he
said. "Word of my impending unemployment reached my ears.
But Bill Abbott, the wizard in charge of special effects at Fox
Studios, noticed a very faint negative image. He made a high-contrast
dupe on special film stock and saved the day. It was the best day-for-night
footage I've ever shot, and that very 'happy accident' brought
me my first Academy Award nomination. Thank you, Bill!
kind of experience really toughens you up," he maintained. "Either
you know for sure that you're never going to be wrong or you get
used to being frightened all the time. At this stage in my career,
I'm pretty used to being frightened!