When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
At age 6, I was in She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain. Then I was out of the biz for 20 years. Red River and The Rains Came were memorable. In grammar school, I ran the 16mm projector for years to get out of the classroom. I needed glasses, so I must have showed the films out of focus.
Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
There are so many great cinematographers today. That old three-point Hollywood look is gone, although some film schools still teach it. There was Freddie Young, BSC and Sven Nykvist, ASC. Now we have ASC members Caleb Deschanel, Steve Burum, Allen Daviau, Haskell Wexler, and so many others who can make images just like we see them by eye. The new film stocks help some, but I think basic photography still solves most photo problems.
What sparked your interest in photography?
My grandfather was an itinerant photographer. He itinerated from my mother’s family and was never heard from again! During the three years I spent in Japan in the U.S. Navy, I took up still photography seriously.
Where did you train and/or study?
I was mostly self-taught, with some help from Japanese amateurs. I learned optics from Sidney Ray’s Applied Photographic Optics and found solutions to film problems by researching systems outside the film industry.
Who were your early teachers or mentors?
Jimmie Gordon and Cecil Love taught me a lot about effects while I worked at Film Effects of Hollywood. I worked on It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and made star-field background plates for Star Trek. Carroll Ballard taught me a lot while we shot the documentary Harvest, an Academy Award nominee. Joe Hanwright challenged me to duplicate still images he showed me. As a commercials director, I also learned from Joe about casting the right people and letting them be themselves.
What are some of your key artistic influences?
The Family of Man, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Claude Monet, the Impressionists, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Freeman Patterson, Japanese art, and a love of nature. I’ve found in nature color combinations and designs that put manmade ones to shame. While struggling to make it in L.A., I spent weekends in the wilds to make living in the city tolerable.
How did you get your first break in the business?
After I was turned down by UCLA’s graduate film division, John Young suggested I audit classes, and I soon got a job working for the film division’s production manager. That led to a job as a set builder on a Disney animal film. I built the sets, took the light readings, wrangled animals, and cooked for our five-man crew. Lonely Are the Brave played locally, and we went to see it every night. Then I shot a 16mm National Geographic special about Alaska, and that gave me my first stuff to show.
What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
Shooting air to air with Clay Lacy and developing the equipment to do it.
Have you made any memorable blunders?
I once lit a prison-cell set so that only the prisoner could be seen, not the cell. The client said he didn’t want to see the cells walls, only the prisoner listening to the radio, so that’s what I gave him. I shouldn’t have listened. They didn’t pay me.
What’s the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
While I worked in construction with my dad, he told me that if I gave customers more than they bargained for, they would return and never question the bill. I worked with some of the same commercial-agency clients for 30 years.
What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. She makes it so clear how we use our internal sense of composition. Also, Ashes of Snow, A Very Long Engagement, Memoirs of a Geisha, and the flawless effects we see today. Will our kids even know what’s real?
Do you have any favorite genres, or genres that you would like to try?
I’m doing a Gumby DVD now and I want to use live-action backgrounds with animated foreground characters. Gumby is now a clay ‘green’ spokesperson for the planet. We need that.
If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
I always wonder what would have happened if I’d stuck with still photography. I enjoy the challenge of coordinating a large production, but there are usually some compromises in creating the perfect frame and capturing the exact moment as Cartier-Bresson did; sound and motion make up for any less-than-perfect images. When you shoot stills, it’s just up to you.
Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Bill Bennett, Stephen Burum, Allen Daviau, Jon Fauer and Gil Hubbs.
How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
So far, not all that much. I think it’s admirable for the ASC to recognize TV-commercial cameramen like me. We have contributed a bit to the art. I feel that through the ASC, teaching and my Website, I can give a little back to the new generation. They’re going to have a tougher time than we did, because there was far less competition when we were starting out.