Three student cinematographers were honored with 2015 ASC Gordon Willis Heritage Awards in a ceremony at the Clubhouse Sept. 26.
The winners are:
Undergraduate: Nicolas Aguilar, Chapman University, for Run
Documentary: Rob Scribner, Full Sail University, for Warbird Pilot: Behind the Visor
Graduate: Steven Holloway, American University, for The Defeat (x3)
ASC President Richard Crudo introduced the event by stressing how important it is for the ASC “to recognize the amazing talent coming out of film schools, and to encourage people to pursue careers in cinematography.” Addressing the students, he said, “We’re here to recognize you, and to share the great fellowship and camaraderie that the ASC is about. We are a forward-looking group rooted in history and tradition. That is the essence of this organization.”
Each year, the ASC renames the Heritage Award for a deceased member who made “an unforgettable impact on the art and craft of cinematography.” Willis, who died in 2014, was the cinematographer on the Godfather trilogy, Klute, The Parallax View, All the President’s Men, Annie Hall, Manhattan and Pennies from Heaven, among other films. He received Academy Award nominations for Zelig and The Godfather Part III, and he received an honorary Academy Award in 2009.
The ASC honored him with its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995.
Following a montage of clips from Willis’ work, Crudo recalled working with him as a camera assistant in New York. “Gordon was a consummate technician. He had a death grip on the technology used to make motion pictures, but that was only in service to what was in here." (Crudo tapped his chest.) "When I asked him why he did something, he'd say, ‘Oh, I don’t know, it just felt right.’ He said it took him 30 years to learn to become simple; it took me 30 years to understand that answer.”
Rodney Taylor, ASC presented the undergraduate award to Ketchum for Run, directed by Trevor Stevens. The film focuses on Marcus, a reluctant gang member who tries to protect his younger brother, even as his gang sends him on a dangerous mission. The project was shot in an industrial landscape at night, with very little lighting and long takes. “The major technical challenge was how to put these characters in a real-looking world and make the cinematography as invisible as possible,” said Ketchum. Because the long takes follow the characters through many different environments, lighting the action-packed sequences with up to 30 extras was another difficulty. “My goal was to keep it simple and just show what the audience needed to see,” said the cinematographer.
Ketchum thanked his teachers, mentors and parents. He also singled out three cinematography instructors at Chapman — ASC members Johnny Jensen and Bill Dill, and Jurg Walther — and said he has also been inspired by fellow Mexican cinematographers and "role models" Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC; Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC; and Gabriel Figueroa. “Cinema isn’t only my passion, it’s also my life and what I want to do every single day,” he said.
John Bailey, ASC, presented the documentary award to Scribner, who also directed and wrote Warbird Pilot: Behind the Visor. “I feel especially honored to make this presentation because documentaries have been an ongoing love in my life,” said Bailey. “Many ASC members started there and continue to shoot documentaries when we can. I would encourage all of you to make some documentary films, even if you aspire to shoot fictional projects; it’ll make you a better filmmaker and a better cinematographer.”
Warbird Pilot: Behind the Visor focuses on John-Curtiss Paul, who maintains and flies legacy aircraft for the Warbird Air Museum in Boise, Idaho. Only a handful of dedicated pilots are able to repair and maintain the old aircraft, and flying them can be risky. Scribner said the most difficult shots were those taken in the cockpit as he flew with Paul, wearing a helmet and visor and trying to hold the camera upside down and over his head in the tiny space. “When you start pulling three Gs, the camera starts to sink, and you have to push up with all your might to keep it on an even plane,” he said. “I was trying to focus, watch the histogram and keep the framing right. And it can be quite taxing on your stomach, too!”
Scribner recalled that he fell in love with cinematography when, while in the armed forces, he was riveted by the visuals in the movie Sahara, shot by Seamus McGarvey, ASC, BSC. Although he’d never touched a camera, he decided at that moment to become a cinematographer. “Earning my degree online with Full Sail, I didn’t have any contact with the ASC,” he noted. “I had to find all my inspiration on my own.” In addition to McGarvey, he said he had also learned from Shane Hurlbut, ASC. “I wouldn’t be here without Shane's expertise and willingness to share his knowledge.”
John Toll, ASC presented the graduate award to Holloway for The Defeat (x3), which was made for a theory class that focused on different eras in cinema. The film, which Holloway also directed, presents a single vignette in three different styles: German Expressionism, French New Wave and film noir. “The biggest challenge was setting it up to shoot in one day,” said Holloway, who was a documentary cinematographer for 25 years before he returned to school to earn a master's degree. “I pre-lit everything and set up the three different looks, so when we went from one look to another, all I had to do was turn off lights and turn on others, or open up the windows to give a natural ambient lighting.
“After all those years of making documentaries, I fell in love with the narrative process again,” Holloway said, adding that he has been reading American Cinematographer for more than 20 years. He thanked his American University professors and his wife, "who was patient during my five years of graduate school."
(The Defeat (x3) can be viewed here on Vimeo.)
The ASC Student Awards Committee is chaired by Isidore Mankofsky, ASC. To be considered for the Heritage Award, students are recommended by instructors at their respective film schools, and a blue-ribbon panel of ASC members judges the submissions. There were 13 nominees this year. “I was so impressed with the quality of all the work,” Toll observed. “I sincerely believe it’s incredible work.”
American Cinematographer will interview the cinematographers about their winning projects in an upcoming issue.