As I begin my second term as president of the ASC, the recent passing of Billy Fraker is very much on my mind. When I wrote my first column one year ago, I included this statement among the musings about the things I believe in: “I believe William A. Fraker, ASC, BSC is no mere mortal, but a benevolent angel sent to earth to remind us that we work in a magical, romantic industry.” As with everything I say, I said it because I believe it to be true. When that article ran, Billy called to thank me.
When I talked with Billy about his work on Heaven Can Wait, Bullitt or Looking for Mr. Goodbar, I’m sure his colorful stories were tinted with the nostalgic glow that we all tend to give our memories. But watching his face and the twinkle in his eyes, it was clear that he loved the business as much as the creative process. Just the fact that you were making movies was enough to make you feel good about yourself.
With Billy’s passing, another link to a crucial era in cinematography and the industry has faded. His heyday was a time when the heads of studios met personally with cinematographers and directly hired them for projects. The challenges of balancing the political agendas of the parties involved in getting a picture into production existed then, as they do now, but it is far less common today for the person ultimately responsible for the success of his particular studio to feel that the choice of cinematographer is important enough to warrant a face-to-face meeting.
That way of doing business boils down to the respect that was accorded not only to our craft, but also to all the major artistic contributors to a production. It recalls a time when the pride of “getting it right” in front of the camera was preferable to “fixing it in post”; when the true skill of a producer was in assembling the right artistic mix of people for a production rather than hiring whomever was willing to work with equipment the producer had already chosen; when making a big-screen movie meant that you had to watch your dailies on a big screen to really know the effect of what you’d created. That respect for the talent of a great craftsperson translated into work of stunning originality. That originality translated into good box office and movies that are now considered classics. And Bill Fraker was in the middle of it.
I brought my parents to Los Angeles for the ASC Awards in 2004, when I was nominated for my work on the TV movie Judas. It was the first time my dad had ever worn a tuxedo. I had been an ASC member for only one year. As my family and I approached the ballroom, we crossed paths with Billy, and I introduced him to my parents. Billy shook my dad’s hand and said, “Mr. Goi, we love your son. He’s going to be president of the ASC someday.”
I will miss Billy. For me, he represented not only the artistry that was expected of a world-class cinematographer, but also the dignity, romance and glamour of the craft. I firmly believe that the generations of cinematographers to come will do extraordinary things and create memorable images, but I hope they take to heart one quality that Billy possessed in abundance — something you cannot learn in film school or with a technical manual, something that is indescribable but understood: Mr. William A. Fraker had class.