Owen Roizman, ASC Among 2017 Honorary Oscar Recipients

A self-portrait by Owen Roizman, ASC. At the top of the page is the cinematographer shooting Tootsie (1982).

Esteemed cinematographer Owen Roizman, ASC is taking home the gold — in the form of an honorary Oscar statuette — as part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Governors Awards, to be held on November 11 at the Ray Dolby Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland Center.

The evening’s other well-deserved honorees are writer-director Charles Burnett, actor Donald Sutherland and director Agnès Varda.

The Honorary Award, an Oscar statuette, is given “to honor extraordinary distinction in lifetime achievement, exceptional contributions to the state of motion picture arts and sciences, or for outstanding service to the Academy.”

A five-time Academy Award nominee — for The French Connection (1971), The Exorcist (1973), Network (1976), Tootsie (1982) and Wyatt Earp (1994)  — Roizman was on the AMPAS Board of Governors from 2002-2011, representing the Cinematographers Branch.

Among many other honors, Roizman was presented with the ASC Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997 and then the Camerimage Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001.

Roizman was also the president of the ASC from 1997-’98 and a longtime member of the ASC board.

Known for his pioneering and influential use of soft light and stylized naturalism, Brooklyn native’s diverse credits also include Play it Again Sam, The Heartbreak Kid, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, The Three Days of the Condor, The Return of A Man Called Horse, The Electric Horseman, Straight Time, The Black Marble, Absence of Malice, Taps, True Confessions, Havana, Grand Canyon and French Kiss.

Still an assistant, Roizman takes a turn operating for a promo shot.

Interestingly, Roizman did not aspire to be a cinematographer until later in life — far more focused on sports and then engineering studies in college. 

He got his start working during his summer breaks at a camera rental house in New York City, as his father, Sol, worked as a newsreel cameraman and then an operator on commercials. 

Sol and Owen Roizman, working together at MPO Videotronics.

After graduating college, Owen later joined his father working at MPO Videotronics — then the biggest commercial production house in the world — as an assistant to Gerald Hirschfeld, ASC. The three — cinematographer, operator and assistant — worked together until Sol's death, after which future ASC great Gordon Willis briefly joined the team.

Working his way up, Roizman began shooting for MPO, working with young directors who favored a single-source soft-light technique borrowed from the still-photography world that was revolutionary at the time in motion pictures. And the more he used it, the more he liked the effect — as did clients seeking a new, modern look. Roizman gradually moved away from the hard-light approach that he'd learned, favoring this more naturalistic style.

Bundled up against the bitter cold, Roizman offers actor Gene Hackman some instruction on an Arriflex IIC between scenes while shooting the classic cop thriller The French Connection during the winter of 1971. The crew consisted of (from far left) second assistant Gary Muller, operator Enrique Bravo and first assistant Tom Priestley, Jr.

While his first feature film was the unreleased drama Stop! in 1970, Roizman made his mark with his second: The French Connection, directed by William Friedkin. His camerawork in the Oscar-winning gritty crime drama would not only earn Roizman his first Academy Award nomination, but informally define his style for many years, making him known for his "gritty New York street photography" and using only "available light."

Noting his commercial background, Roizman appreciated the irony of the label, later noting, "I had totally changed everything I'd ever learned in order to shoot The French Connection. People would later ask if in fact I really had shot everything with available light and I would say, 'Yeah, everything that was available from the truck.'"

Though Roizman delivered this look when it fit the picture, his creative signature was actually far more mercurial, as evidenced by his diverse credits. 

What follows is a brief gallery of images of Roizman at work on various pictures. A more complete piece on the AMPAS honoree will be published soon.

Roizman and actor Max Von Sydow share a lighter moment while filming The Exorcist (1973), one of the most shocking horror films ever made. Heavy coats were regularly required on the refrigerated set depicting the bedroom of the film's demon-possessed child; paranormal activities leave the space frighteningly frigid. As director William Friedkin wanted to see the performers' breath vapor, Roizman painstakingly created a backlight effect for each actor while staying true to his source-lighting approach.
In the foreground, Roizman sets up a shot as a bounce card is positioned next to actor Walter Matthau while on location in New York City shooting the hard-boiled crime caper The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), directed by Joseph Sargent.
Roizman checks his light while setting a shot on actress Faye Dunaway while shooting the classic satire Network (1976), directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Paddy Chayefsky. “It was the best script I'd ever read,” Roizman would later say, “but also one of the most challenging to shoot as it consisted of so much dialog. So it was difficult to create a visual approach to the story.”
Actor Dustin Hoffman makes a point to Roizman while shooting the bank robbery sequence for Straight Time (1978), based on the cult novel No Beast So Fierce by Eddie Bunker. While much of the picture was filmed on location in Los Angeles, including this scene, major portions were shot on sets created by production designer Steve Grimes — allowing Roizman to take advantage of his years of commercial stage experience. While the production began with Hoffman directing, Ulu Grosbard later took the helm.
Set in the Los Angeles of 1949, the detective film True Confessions (1981), directed by Ulu Grosbard and co-starring Robert Duvall and Robert DeNiro, fictionalized the real-life mystery of the infamously macabre Black Dahlia murder. Here, Roizman shares a lighter moment on the set with DeNiro.
On location for Wyatt Earp (1994) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a bearded Roizman (pointing) and writer-director Lawrence Kasdan devise a shoot-out sequence. To the left is producer-actor Kevin Costner and assistant director Steve Dunn. The picture was Roizman's third with Kasdan. Seeking to make it a unique contribution to cowboy cinema, the cinematographer screened every Western he could find as research before settling on his own visual approach. He noted, "I didn't want to copy what I'd watched; if anything, I wanted to go against what had been done."

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