When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
When I saw The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), I was knocked out. I saw it eight times in the first week, which wasn’t easy for an 11-year-old who couldn’t drive to the movie theater. Korda’s The Thief of Bagdad (1940) was another huge influence.
Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
John “Hard Way” Fulton, ASC was always looking for the better effects shot, no matter what it took to make it. His ideas were progressive, and the shots were surprising in a good way. Of the live-action cinematographers, [I admire] ASC members Charles Lang and Gregg Toland and all the usual suspects, some of whom I’ve been lucky to work with. I love the classically perfect shot.
What sparked your interest in photography?
To have a visual reminder of an effects shot I’d seen in a movie, I’d use a toy spaceship or plastic dinosaur and try copying the shot, which gave me a print that I could study and hold.
Where did you train and/or study?
I was self-taught. There was no real interest in effects until Star Wars came along — no classes, nothing. So I had to guess how things were done and shoot my own stills and 8mm and 16mm effects movies. Occasionally, American Cinematographer would have an effects article with pictures!
Who were your early teachers or mentors?
In the ’60s, there were only a dozen of us effects fans in Los Angeles. One was Jim Danforth, who graciously took time to teach me about art and film and quality. Phil Kellison gave me my first job using 35mm gear, shooting effects commercials at Cascade Pictures. Phil was an amazing cameraman who knew how to light a dime to look like a dollar. I also found people in the phone book. Bill Abbott, ASC kindly let me watch some model shoots at the Sersen Tank in Malibu.
What are some of your key artistic influences?
When I was a kid, The Beatles, Ray Harryhausen, John Singer Sargent, Arthur Penn and the real world. Today, it’s the real world, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Jim Cameron, Phil Tippett, Steve Jobs and the Internet.
How did you get your first break in the business?
[Future ASC members] John Dykstra and Richard Edlund hired me at the start of Star Wars. John felt my camera/stop-motion background might be valuable in shooting with his new computer-controlled cameras. I didn’t know anyone working there, but rumor had it that they were trying something new, and I was eager to learn. I even cut my salary to get hired.
What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
Whenever an impossible shot is finished and it works. I’ve always been driven by seeing the final image, not by the process.
Have you made any memorable blunders?
Long ago, I was the only cameraman using three old high-speed Mitchells to shoot a big exploding miniature. When the dailies came back, one camera was underexposed by five stops. The next time, I triple-checked everything, and guess what? Same thing. I traced the problem back to one lens. The Mitchells vibrated a lot at 128 fps, and that caused the iris to close down all by itself.
What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
Jim Danforth taught me the value of critical thinking, especially about your own work, and how to see your work as the audience will see it. And during The Empire Strikes Back, George Lucas showed me a helicopter shot and asked if I could add a creature running on the ground, which at the time seemed impossible because of the six-axis camera motion. He said, ‘Give it some thought,’ and within 15 minutes I had a solution. That taught me that a right answer might be one thought away.
What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
The Social Network, the Phantom camera at 1,000 fps, the aerial-platform sequence in Star Trek (2009), the zero-gravity hallway in Inception, the 3-D stereo design of Fly Me to the Moon (2008), a Blu-ray of Gone With the Wind on my Sony LCD at a simulated 120 fps, and everything by Malcolm Gladwell.
Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Richard Yuricich, Allen Daviau and Joseph Westheimer.
How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
Everyone in this business holds the ASC in high regard, which has given me some clout on a set when I’ve most needed it. But really, what I most appreciate is being part of a distinguished group of great cinematographers with a long tradition of excellence and mutual support.