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American Cinematographer Magazine
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Huston sent Hall off with a camera to catch real-life, documentary-style examples of "life running down the drain" in the seamy skid row areas of Stockton, California. "I got a camper and covered the rear and side windows with black curtains," Hall remembered. "I had quick-set mounts on tripods in each window and just moved my Arriflex from window to window depending on what I saw. At one point we stopped at a stop sign and saw a guy getting a haircut. So I quickly hauled the camera over to that window and zoomed right in - pick a stop, any stop! - and got a shot of this guy just sitting there, staring into space as time went by. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed this clock above him, so I just panned up to the clock and back down to this guy.

"When John, the crew and the actors sat down to look at the footage I'd compiled, you could have heard a pin drop. Some of it was devastating. It really gave you the sense of the harshness of these lives that we were recording, and it provided an all-too-real reference point for the actors."

From the very first frame, Hall's moody photography on Fat City sets the story's tone of melancholia and spiritual exhaustion. In the much-admired opening shot, we see Keach's character slowly, wearily brace himself for another day in the cramped, lonely confines of his small apartment. Hall lit the scene almost entirely with existing daylight. "The opening sequence was a perfect example of taking advantage of God-given light, just opening the lens and using what was there," Hall said. "Stacy moves over to the dresser, and the light that's coming in hits the wall and silhouettes him. I know how to use movie lights, but I can also see when the natural light is perfect."

Despite the ideal meshing of the photographic style with the story, Fat City was snubbed by audiences, but Hall always rated the film among his personal favorites. The cool reception the film received led him to alter his approach on a subsequent project, The Day of the Locust (1975), a memorable adaptation of novelist Nathaniel West's searing indictment of Hollywood venality in the 1930s. Mindful of the commercial failure of Fat City, Hall agreed with director John Schlesinger to opt for gauzy, golden tones instead of grit. "My vote was for color on that picture, because the story was similar to that of Fat City," Hall said. "Locust deals with the frustration of ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful people who are surrounded by this golden wealth. As long as they're close to it, they're happy, but if they can't stay close enough their frustration will just explode. The look we settled on was all about the characters' hopes and dreams. The gauzy style of photography was meant to reflect the way these frustrated people saw themselves - in a romanticized light."

The cinematography on The Day of the Locust was widely praised and earned Hall yet another Oscar nomination. Buoyed by their successful working relationship, Hall and Schlesinger collaborated again in 1976, on the harrowing thriller Marathon Man, which starred Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier. "I loved working with John," Hall enthused. "He's very collaborative; he has a very sure sense of where he wants the story to go, but he's totally open in regard to how you get there."

Marathon Man (1976) ended Hall's string of 18 films made over 12 years; he would not shoot another feature for 11 years. Schlesinger himself noted a restlessness in the cinematographer, and attributed it to Hall's lingering desire to direct. During his long hiatus, Hall formed a commercial production company with his friend Haskell Wexler, and directed and shot hundreds of commercials. He also took up screenwriting, working on both an original script and another based on the William Faulkner novel The Wild Palms, a project he had long dreamt of filming.

Hall finally returned to feature cinematography in 1987 on Black Widow, a lush film-noir effort. The end of his self-imposed sabbatical initiated a period of artistic rebirth, and in 1988 he accepted director Robert Towne's invitation to shoot Tequila Sunrise, a romantic thriller that earned Hall both an Academy Award nomination and an ASC Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography. The film offered many moments for photography buffs to savor, but one in particular has earned Hall repeated kudos: a gorgeous twilight shot of a swing set in the park. The cinematographer was frequently asked how many nights he needed to get the shot just right; he revealed that he shot the sequence like a commercial, using a portable swing set that could be moved so that the setting sun was always in the ideal spot. "Contrast is what makes photography interesting," he maintained, "and there is more than one way to create it. I used all of those techniques on Tequila Sunrise."

After the triumph of Tequila, Hall lent his talents to the films Class Action (1991) and Jennifer Eight (1992). He reserved a special affection for the latter film, an unconventional thriller directed by Bruce Robinson. Once again, he embraced the concept of darkness in the frame to create the tangible sense that the film's heroine, a sensitive blind woman (Uma Thurman), was in true danger. At one point in the film, he strove to place viewers in the woman's shoes by blinding them for a moment with a harsh blast of light. "I wanted the audience to have the same feeling that the two detectives [played by Andy Garcia and Lance Henriksen] have when they knock on her apartment door. Since Uma's character is blind, she has no idea how her apartment is lit. She doesn't pull blinds down at sunset to keep the sun out of her eyes - she has no conception of light in her mind. So when she opens the door, wham! The two men are blinded by the sun. We see nothing but blank film; she's there, but we can't see her. Then suddenly she steps in front of our blinding light and is revealed perfectly lit."

After finishing Jennifer Eight, Hall went on to shoot two films with distinctly different styles, both of which stand as outstanding examples of the master's touch. With Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), Hall and writer/director Steve Zaillian embraced the wonders of childhood as they told the touching tale of a young chess prodigy (Max Pomeranc) who confronts the pressures of his own excellence with the help of his father (Joe Mantegna). And with Love Affair, directed by Glenn Gordon Caron, Hall proved that he could recapture the kind of old-fashioned glamour favored by his early photographic mentors; in addition to gorgeous footage of Hall's native Tahiti, the film boasts a romantic ambience that is rarely seen in modern films. The former film earned Hall his seventh Academy Award nomination, along with another ASC Achievement Award; the latter picture earned an ASC Award nomination.

Hall was particularly fond of Bobby Fischer, for which he created a style he dubbed "magic naturalism." He explained, "Prior to this film, I had been moving towards naturalism on several other pictures - naturalism being, to me, 'the way it is.' The magic consisted of stylistic touches to heighten the atmosphere. A good example of this approach is a shot in which the father and son are coming down a hallway where there's so much light they seem to be floating. I used 20Ks and just blew out the windows at the end of the hall. It's those little things that give you that sense of 'I've never seen this before,' and that's the essence of what magic is. Throughout Bobby Fischer, I used light in both exorbitant and understated ways. I'd occasionally use so much light that it would blow things out, but other scenes are so dark that you're almost struggling to see. Of course, such an approach has to be integrated so it doesn't distract from the story."

In summing up the rich arc of his career, Hall suggested that cinematography, like every other art form, can only be satisfying if the practitioner is open to exploration in the purest sense of the word. Alluding to the Zenlike sense of fulfillment he felt while shooting Bobby Fischer, he asserted, "Filmmaking is about finding things out, it's about examining, it's about discovering. You should approach your work in the same way that a child discovers new aspects of the world. I draw inspiration from absolutely everything around me, and what I observe from life. When you get to be a visual storyteller, you learn to watch how people behave and to see things - to study the light, to watch a field as you're driving by it in a car. It's like making movies 24 hours a day.

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