When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
As a pre-teen would-be artist, I loved the classic Disney animated movies, particularly Pinocchio (1940). For live-action, it was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), hands-down. When I was a young teen, I loved Ben-Hur (1959) — the past brought to life on an enormous scale.
Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
You learn so much by watching a great cameraman work, and as a visual-effects supervisor, I’ve had the priceless experience of working with many of the greats, including ASC members Sven Nykvist, Jack Cardiff, Vilmos Zsigmond, Haskell Wexler, Vic Kemper, Dean Semler, Chivo Lubezki, Roger Deakins, Peter Deming and Walter Lindenlaub, and BSC members Oliver Stapleton and Freddie Francis. I’m still hoping for the chance to work with ASC members Allen Daviau, Caleb Deschanel, John Toll or Russell Carpenter, and I regret I wasn’t able to work with Owen Roizman, ASC before he retired.
What sparked your interest in photography?
Buying a Polaroid camera. I could do split-screens and tricky perspective and see the image right away. That’s probably why I love digital imaging: no waiting!
Where did you train and/or study?
I have no formal training; I was a philosophy major in my very brief college career. Ten years of experience as an optical and tabletop/product shooter at the Ray Mercer Co. taught me the basic technical skills, and 11 years as a cameraman for Al Whitlock in the Universal Studios Matte Department taught me how to see. There’s no better way to learn the aesthetics of imagery than working around great artists like Al Whitlock and Syd Dutton, not to mention Al’s friends Henry Bumstead, Bob Boyle and Harold Michelson.
Who were your early teachers or mentors?
At Mercer’s, a great optical cameraman named Jim Handschiegl taught me the basics of the bluescreen process. Petro Vlahos, the inventor of the Color Difference Traveling Matte system and the creator of Ultimatte, taught me the rest — starting with how to get rid of that pesky blue blur — in a couple of classes at the University of Southern California, and the friendship that followed continues to this day. But most of all, it was Al Whitlock. I cold-called him after I saw some spectacular examples of his work in a middling Universal comedy, That Funny Feeling (1965). It was all shot on the backlot with the telltale reduced-scale buildings, but there are these beautiful matte-painting shots that put the characters in a very convincing Manhattan. The photographic quality was flawless; there was none of the dupe-y quality I saw in matte shots from other studios. I had to find out how that was done, and that phone call changed my life. Years later, I wound up working as Al’s cameraman.
What are some of your key artistic influences?
More Whitlock influence: I love the English landscape painters, Constable and Turner particularly. They have everything to teach about composition and color. Turner’s last work leapt right into the 20th century, even though he died in 1851. Ansel Adams and Elliot Porter are the photographers who got to me first. I still think Adams’ Zone System is the best method of visualizing exposure, even in this digital age; Porter, whose meticulously composed (and rarely cropped) 4x5 color images still pack a wallop, was a master of pure craft.
How did you get your first break in the business?
I got a job as a driver at Mercer’s, and over time, they moved me up to optical line-up and camera. Another big break was meeting John Carpenter, who was shooting a student film on my doorstep.
What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
Seeing the first screening of Lasse Hallström’s Casanova (2005). It was a wonderful mix of visual effects that worked out just as we planned and some that worked out of educated improvisation.
Have you made any memorable blunders?
As far as technical blunders go, I’m trying to forget! But the worst business decision I’ve made to date was falling in love with Casanova and turning out 65 added shots for cost or less. We thought, ‘Surely the studio will love us — they’ll use us on everything!’ Ha. I’m still very proud of our work and of that film.
What’s the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
When I asked Freddie Francis for his secret to glamour lighting, he said, ‘Put a great big light right over the lens. And get Brooke Shields if you can.’
What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
It’s not recent, but Jack Cardiff’s autobiography, Magic Hour, is full of wonderful stories from his very long career. At 85, he decided to give up features and concentrate on short films and commercials! He himself is an inspiration.
Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
I’d love to work on a big historical epic, preferably with sea battles — something like Ben-Hur or The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).
If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
I might be a philosophy professor struggling for tenure at a tiny regional college; a professional magician asking bar patrons to take a card, any card; or a still photographer trying to shoot the perfect bean.
Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Harry Wolf and Bill Fraker.
How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
It was a great moment when I first saw my name onscreen with the letters ASC after it. Membership has been a conduit for my continuing education about movies and moviemaking techniques; I can find the answer to almost any question by consulting an ASC member, and I’ve had the honor of contributing to that tradition. I’ve also had the chance to meet so many of my heroes in a social context, discovering they are not only human, but also incredibly generous men and women. And I suspect that being an ASC member gives me a little more credibility when I first meet the team on a new film.