You could say that Richard Rawlings Jr., ASC, who will receive the Society’s Career Achievement in Television Award this month, was born with photography in his blood. His great-grandmother owned one of the first Kodak Brownies and was an avid photographer. His father, Richard Rawlings Sr., ASC, took the love of image making to the professional level, notching cinematography credits on an array of now-classic TV series after working his way up on the crews of such ASC luminaries as James Wong Howe and Ted McCord. Following in his father’s footsteps, the junior Rawlings enjoyed three decades as a television cinematographer, starting with Charlie’s Angels in the 1970s and wrapping with Desperate Housewives in 2008.
Despite Rawlings’ early exposure to the business, and the hours he spent shooting stills and learning to develop and print his own work, he recalls that it was a high-school teacher who solidified his sense of photography as a vocation. Though his father was enjoying shooting such series as Wagon Train, Sea Hunt and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, the young Rawlings was planning to pursue a career in the U.S. Navy. However, some transformative events during his final year of study at Grant High School in Van Nuys, in 1960-’61, changed his mind.
One was a photography class he took. The instructor, Jim Menkin, sent students out on a simple still-life assignment. “‘If you find that when you put your eye to the camera, you actually climb into the scene, you probably have a gift for photography,’” Rawlings recalls Menkin saying. “And that’s exactly what happened to me!”
Meanwhile, some teachers at the school were already cautioning students about the conflict brewing in Vietnam. “Times were very different then, and it was a very liberal school,” he notes. “My history/government teacher was very interested in what was going on in Vietnam, and, in fact, he devoted the entire semester to it, exploring the history of France’s involvement and what might be motivating America’s interest in the region. That was a big influence on me. Around that same time, a good friend of mine who had joined the Army after graduating was killed in combat after just three days in Vietnam.”
Rawlings decided to alter his plans. “I talked to my dad about how I might find work in the motion-picture industry, and he said, ‘More than likely, I’ll be able to get you the job, but you’ve got to keep the job.’ He also told me that whenever I could get on a set, I should keep my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut. He always encouraged me to just watch people light and see how the camera crew worked.”
In 1962, with his father’s help, Rawlings landed a job in the mailroom at Warner Bros. It was the same place where his father had started his own film career in the 1930s. He even reported to his father’s former boss, who still ran the department. In 1963, Rawlings joined the California Army National Guard, in which he served for six years. “I always believed, and still do, that the armed services are very important, and I wanted to serve in some capacity,” he says.
In 1965, Rawlings moved into the camera department as a loader. Working his way up the ranks, he served as a second assistant for his father on Gilligan’s Island. As with many series in the mid-1960s, the show was transitioning from black-and-white to color, and a lot of executives and producers had opinions about how color should affect the way the show was shot. The popular wisdom was to move away from hard backlight and crosslight and allow the contrast and separation to come from the colorful hues of sets and costumes. According to Rawlings, his father believed that made more sense in theory than in practice. He explains, “On a feature film, you’ve got time to collaborate with wardrobe, makeup, production designers and set decorators to get just the right colors to give depth and dimension to the scene, but in TV, you don’t have time for that.”
Rawlings saw that his father and the show’s gaffer still made use of kickers and strong backlight for modeling the performers and separating them from the background. They worked very quickly and were still able to make each “castaway” look his or her best. This provided another key lesson: “In TV, you don’t have the luxury of changing the light because it’s not working,” says Rawlings. “When you bring that light in, it’s got to be where it’s supposed to be.”
If there was any question that Rawlings was learning from a qualified teacher, it was put to rest when CBS President William S. Paley visited the set and made a point of approaching the young camera assistant. “He told me, ‘Keep an eye on your dad — he’s a great cameraman, and you can learn a lot from him and end up in the same position,’” Rawlings recalls. “I was 22 years old, and that was a lot to take in.”
Rawlings worked constantly, moving from series to series as studios throughout Los Angeles bustled with network productions. He worked on The Wild Wild West, Gunsmoke, The Doris Day Show and many others. In addition to assisting his father, he worked for other seasoned pros, such as ASC members Ted Voigtlander, Monroe Askins, William Spencer, Charles Wheeler and John Nickolaus Jr., who helped him learn a variety of approaches to the craft. Rawlings absorbed techniques that he used throughout his own cinematography career, even as changing styles and faster emulsions altered his toolset.
“With every actress I worked with [as a cinematographer], regardless of whether she was the lead or a guest star, I would always take her aside and explain, ‘If you see me staring at you, don’t get worried. I’m trained to see what light does to your face, and I’m learning the different angles so we can put the light in the perfect place for you,’” he recalls. “And I would guarantee that the camera would not be turned on unless she was lit properly. That way, she didn’t have to worry about how she looked.”
The opportunity to move up to camera operator arose on the series Apple’s Way, which was also shot by Rawlings Sr. “My dad had just turned the series Kung Fu over to his operator, Chuck Arnold, in order to pursue new adventures,” he says.
After spending the early 1970s as a sought-after operator, Rawlings was asked to take over cinematography duties from his father on the hit series Charlie’s Angels. Producer Aaron Spelling wanted to reassign Rawlings Sr. to the new series Dynasty. “My dad said, ‘Spelling loves your work and the way you interact with the actresses.’ [Spelling] went to my dad — my dad didn’t go to him.”
It was the fall of 1978, and Rawlings was shooting one of the most popular shows on the air. It was also a time when ASAs were climbing higher than they’d ever been, and lighting styles were changing. “I’d go onto other sets and see all this bounce board up in the perms,” Rawlings recalls. “Instead of a hard light for backlight, they’d put up 4-by-8 cards and bounce light. I started doing things like that on Charlie’s Angels; I’d use bead board or white bounce for fill instead of the Nine-lights and other big units we’d been using.”