The cinematographer’s credits include the television series The Muppets; The Mick; Me, Myself and I; The Kids Are Alright and The Unicorn.
“I fell in love with light when I was very young,” says Craig Kief, the most recent addition to the ASC roster of active members. As a child in first grade, he won an art contest with a prize of attending an art camp at the University of Illinois. One of the classes taught students how to build and use shadow puppets. “What really captured my imagination,” Kief says, “was a scene where a special-effect puppet I had built used UV black light to fluoresce in a dream sequence. This was the start of my fascination with storytelling through light.”
This love was affirmed, he adds, during a community theater acting class in his hometown of Naples, Florida. The then-13-year-old had two major takeaways: “One, I was a terrible actor. And, two, the stage lighting was really cool.” Kief volunteered for years afterward on the theater’s lighting crew, “hanging lekos and operating followspots for their shows,” he says. At 15, he got a job at a local lighting rental house doing weekend weddings and events, and he was the “go-to guy for lighting” in his high school’s drama department.
Determined to become a Broadway lighting designer, his plans altered when a movie photographed by Lajos Koltai, ASC, HSC came to his town. After trying to get on set to watch the lighting crew — and being denied — the high schooler persisted and managed to get a job as a PA for the prop department. “On my first day — shortly after my first-ever breakfast burrito — on my walk past the rows of trucks, the 18Ks on Condors, and watching the flurry of activity around the camera, I decided I had discovered a far more interesting future.”
Kief attended Florida State University Film School, and, just before graduation, was invited to shoot a feature for director Roger Corman. In 1999, he was awarded an Honorable Mention for the ASC Gregg Toland Student Heritage Award. “To this day, it is still one of my proudest achievements,” he says.
Kief relocated to Los Angeles and worked as a gaffer while simultaneously shooting “anything I could.” Early in his career, he shot music videos, commercials, documentaries and promos. In 2011, which Kief calls a “monumental year,” he was featured twice in American Cinematographer, earned a best music video nomination at Camerimage and photographed an ad campaign and music video featuring the Muppets.
Because of the unique techniques used in the Muppets shoot, most of the crew was invited to work on the subsequent ABC series The Muppets, with Kief serving as director of photography. Following this, he photographed series including The Mick; Me, Myself and I; The Kids Are Alright and The Unicorn.
“My career has consistently taken me down eclectic and unexpected paths I never would have imagined, and that route has always proven to be for the best,” he says. “Today, I still feel that original thrill of my first day on set every day at call time, when I get to tell stories with light and shadows, with people that I love.”