“He’s a director’s secret weapon,” says Angelina Jolie of Dean Semler, ASC, ACS, who will receive the ASC Lifetime Achievement Award this month. With some 60 films under his belt, Semler has a special affinity for working with first-time directors like Jolie, for whom he shot In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011).
Another such collaboration that won Semler considerable acclaim was Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (AC May ’91), whose seven Academy Awards included statuettes for best picture, directing and cinematography. “I knew it was going to be tough out there, and I knew I would make some mistakes,” says Costner, explaining his decision to hire Semler for his directing debut. “I wanted somebody who could roll with the punches and not be afraid of the dirt. I didn’t know what my own learning curve was going to be, and I needed somebody who was going to help me. Plus, Dean’s got that great Australian mentality.”
Semler is an Aussie through and through. He was born in 1943 in the small town of Renmark, on “the Mighty River Murray” in South Australia. “It was semi-arid but on a beautiful river,” he says. “I used to love getting on my bike and just going, feeling the space, feeling infinity.” His parents were strict Lutherans and had no car, no telephone and no television set. Every Sunday, the family would don their best clothes and bicycle to church.
His parents gave him a camera when he was 14. “It was a tiny Coronet with a flash that opened up like a flower. I still have the first picture I ever took with it. It’s on my computer as a screen saver!”
Although Semler excelled in school, he never graduated. “I discovered girls in my last year of high school,” he says with a laugh. “I had a few girlfriends, and my mind was just elsewhere.” He took a job as a junior clerk at the nearby railway station, but his older sister urged him to get involved in a profession where he could utilize his sense of humor and wit. “A few months later, a TV station in Adelaide [advertised] for a props boy,” he recalls. “I had no idea what a props boy was — I had never even seen a television!”
He got the job. “The first time I walked around the studio, it was like being on the moon. I was 16 and nervous as hell.” He started out floor managing for live variety shows and commercials, and soon he was operating one of the big studio cameras. “The news cameramen used to walk through the studio with their Bell & Howells, and I’d look at them and think, ‘Wouldn’t it be the bee’s knees to do what they’re doing, going out and shooting film?’”
He got his chance when the news director sent him out the door with an assignment and said, “You’ll learn.” Semler was 19. “It was fabulous,” he recalls. “I loved telling a story with moving pictures and took great pride in using film efficiently. With the Bell & Howell, every time you cut the camera, the shutter would stay closed, so there were no flash frames. I could edit in the camera. We had 100-foot rolls of 16mm black-and-white reversal stock, and I could fit three stories on one roll of film.”
He eventually left the station for a job at ABC television, the government-run national network that produced dramas and documentaries in addition to news. He was the assistant cameraman to three senior cameramen, who each had a month’s vacation every year. When they were off, Semler would eagerly fill in, and his work made an impression. “Zoom lenses had just come in,” he recalls. “I did a story on the city skyline changing and used a lot of double zooms. That got me a job at the ABC headquarters in Sydney.”
Semler was asked to shoot a documentary called The Infinite Pacific, which celebrated the 200th anniversary of Australia’s founding by retracing the voyage of Capt. James Cook. “That was the first time I shot color, and I don’t know why I got the job over senior cameramen who had a lot more experience, but I wasn’t going to say no!”
When Don McAlpine, a friend and future ASC and ACS colleague, became chief cameraman at the Commonwealth Film Unit, he asked Semler to join him. “Those were nine of the best years of my life,” says Semler. He traveled the world, shooting documentaries. “My favorite experiences were working with ethnographic filmmaker Ian Dunlop, recording traditional Aboriginal lifestyle and charting the changes in their community. I had an NPR Éclair. I worked without an assistant; a small unit was much better.”
Director Phillip Noyce was at Film Australia during the same period, and he and Semler made a series of documentaries together. “Dean was a master of cinéma vérité — I had never seen anybody like him, and I still haven’t,” says Noyce. “He handheld that camera like he was a human tripod. He knew how to make himself invisible, yet he was so attuned to the human psyche. He just had this instinct for humanity. You see it throughout his work.”
Semler began shooting short films that played before a theater’s main attraction. One was A Steam Train Passes (1974), which took a journey back in time on a restored locomotive that had been built in 1943. Semler’s eyes light up at the memory of “that big, green, thundering machine.” The film brought Semler accolades, awards and offers to shoot commercials, which he turned down repeatedly before finally agreeing to the new, more lucrative lifestyle.
When McAlpine asked Semler to shoot second unit on The Earthling, a feature starring William Holden, Semler jumped at the chance. He worked as a freelance cinematographer for the next several years. Then, out of the blue, he got a call from director George Miller, who was prepping Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981). Miller had just seen A Steam Train Passes and offered Semler the job. “A very strong bond developed between Dean and me,” says Miller. “When Dean came off the viewfinder, you could tell by his body language whether he thought the shot had gone well. If he came off with a little twinkle in his eye, I knew we had the shot. If he came off a little hesitant, I’d say, ‘Let’s go again.’”
The Road Warrior proved to be a turning point for Semler. It also changed the way action films were made. “It was so raw and visceral,” he observes. “George told me to be bold. There I was, strapped to the front of the truck, facing Mel Gibson, who was driving. The camera was on a bungee cord. The villain smashed the side window and attacked Mel. It was violently bumpy, and my eye started to bleed, so I closed the eyepiece and just aimed the camera toward the action and crossed my fingers. George loved it so much he added shaking to the rest of the sequence.”
Gibson recalls how helpful Semler was to him on the set. “I wasn’t very experienced as an actor, so I had a lot of questions about the camera and how things work. Dean would always take time to explain what he was doing. He’d say, ‘I’m going to tilt the camera this way,’ or, ‘I’m going to run it at this frame rate or from this low angle.’ It made me feel so much more secure.”