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American Cinematographer Magazine
Artistry and the "Happy Accident"
During his long and illustrious career, Conrad L. Hall, ASC captured a series of magical, indelible moments.

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 organizers.

Cinematic 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.

Throughout 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.

Hall's 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).

The 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."

That 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."

His 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."

Summing 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 ones."

After 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."

Hall's 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!

"Terror 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!

"That 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!

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.