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Return to Table of Contents August 2009 Return to Table of Contents
Julie & Julia
Short Takes
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Aaron Schneider
Aaron Schneider, ASC


When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?

When Spock died in Star Trek II (1982), I had a stomachache for a week. Like most children of the ’80s, I was drawn to the world of fantasy and sci-fi adventure — E.T. (1982), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Back to the Future (1985) and, of course, Star Wars (1977).

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?

Conrad Hall, ASC had the single biggest influence on my work. I can recall him really laying into how badly shot my first student film was. He couldn’t tell a lie when it came to his visual taste. Jordan Cronenweth, ASC was one of a kind. I also bow down to the classic works of ASC members Gordon Willis, Owen Roizman and Caleb Deschanel. We contemporaries like to horse around with bells and whistles, but those guys reinvented the wheel and rolled it uphill.

What sparked your interest in photography?

I went to the University of Southern California film school with an eye on visual effects but soon learned I’d be sitting at a computer for the rest of my career. USC, Kodak and Panavision were sponsoring a class at that time that invited ASC cinematographers to screen one of their films and re-create the lighting from an individual scene; students took part as electricians and grips. Owen Roizman, Connie Hall, Jordan Cronenweth and many others participated. I was hooked.

Where did you train and/or study?

USC. I also shot my own short films and spec commercials and learned mostly by doing.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?

Gene Polito, ASC was my first cinematography instructor. Woody Omens, ASC also watched over me, and I was a fanboy to John Schwartzman, ASC, who would usually take my calls. Later, Owen Roizman and Bob Primes, ASC took an interest in my work and helped welcome me into the mentorship of the Society.

What are some of your key artistic influences?

I’d say most of my ideas, whether they are visual or narrative, come from day-to-day life. Just yesterday, I was playing around with a tiny spot of hot light that was lasering in on my kitchen sink. Probably 15 stops over the ambient exposure, it lit up the room when I put my hand in it. On Facebook recently, somebody’s status update read, ‘Andrew Warzinski woke up before dawn to bury a pig.’ Wouldn’t that make a great opening sentence for a short story?

How did you get your first break in the business?

There have been many angels and mentors in my career, but I got my first paying job by peddling my work door-to-door. I once sneaked into Michael Bay’s office at Propaganda Films and insisted he watch my reel. Lesson learned, as he never hired me.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?

I was operating a camera on a short film in which a 9-year-old boy breaks into grief-stricken tears while riding in the back of a World War II general’s car. The light broke through the passing trees just in time to catch the first tear that dropped from his eye. I doubt I’ll ever experience anything like it again.

Have you made any memorable blunders?

On a bluescreen job, I convinced the director to use strobe lights to make it easier to cut mattes (because there would be no motion blur). Since the bluescreen wasn’t moving, I assumed I could light it with normal tungsten lights. Wrong. It was my very first paid job, and we had to wait two hours for four more expensive strobes to show up, but it worked, and the director kept hiring me and using strobes.

What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?

When I was starting out, a veteran first assistant told me the 2-Make Rule, ‘Make your leading ladies look beautiful and make your day.’

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?

I was walking around the Santa Monica Airport art hangars, and the artists’ work was so varied and unique that it made me feel like I didn’t have an original idea in my head. It inspired me to think about my own creative process.

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?

I like the two extremes of fantasy and reality — heightened style for fantasy and classicism for drama.

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?

My high-school aptitude test told me I should become either a photographer or a flight attendant. I’m lucky it worked out, and so are the passengers.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?

Gene Polito, Robert Primes and John Alonzo.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?

It was a sincere honor. Steven Poster, ASC did a lighting seminar for my USC class after he had just been invited into the Society, and he shared the news and his enthusiasm with the class. It seemed like such an impossible dream at the time, but when it happened, it gave me the confidence and encouragement I needed to keep doing my best work — I felt I owed it to my peers to keep doing the work for which I had been recognized. I have also made some very dear friends in both the active and associate membership.

 

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