When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
My parents took me to see Lawrence of Arabia in 70mm, and its visual grandeur blew me away.
Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
So many! Among them: Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC; Freddie Young, BSC; and ASC members Ron Dexter, John Toll, Allen Daviau, Jordan Cronenweth, Owen Roizman, Haskell Wexler, Gregg Toland, M. David Mullen and Daniel Pearl.
What sparked your interest in photography?
When I was in high school, my sister told me the school newspaper was looking for a photographer. I told them I wanted to do it, even though I didn’t have any experience. Luckily, one of my father’s hobbies was photography, and he had some books that gave me the basics about shooting, processing and printmaking. Soon I had the run of the school’s lab to do the paper’s work and my own!
Where did you study and/or train?
I attended Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, with a plan to enter the engineering track, but I’m a visual person and couldn’t comprehend the abstract math required for engineering studies. Also, in the early years of engineering training there is no creative outlet — it’s all formulas and diagrams. I changed my major to theater and thoroughly enjoyed what I learned.
Who were your early teachers or mentors?
A Trinity professor named Allen Holly recognized my talent in photography and cinematography and encouraged me to continue, and I subsequently made three student films at Trinity. I was discovering and learning with some of the best friends and collaborators I’ve had in my life.
What are some of your key artistic influences?
My parents subscribed to Life when I was young, and each week I looked forward to its arrival and marveled at the images. Also, I greatly admire the works of Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, and many others who were the first lighting designers.
How did you get your first break in the business?
I arrived in Los Angeles a year after graduating from college and tried to get work as a cinematographer or camera assistant. I quickly discovered I ‘couldn’t get arrested’ doing either. As my money began to run out, I got work building sets for commercials, and I eventually met Ron Dexter. He hired me to build a wall, and I spent the next eight years moving up through the ranks as a grip, key grip, loader, 1st AC and operator. Ron is a genius and a natural teacher. He invented, designed and built many of the systems that are commonly used in filmmaking today, but he is so modest hardly anyone knows it.
What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
I find it most satisfying when I pull off a bit of visual manipulation, like shooting a medium shot that is supposed to look like dawn in the middle of the day. I also enjoy figuring out how to get the director’s and ad agency’s vision on film. We once put together a collection of devices to shoot a 360-degree move around a car doing 60 mph in one take, with no special effects.
Have you made any memorable blunders?
We’ve all screwed up royally along the way. To quote Ron Dexter, ‘I don’t mind seeing the mistake in take one, I just don’t want to see it in take two!’ I constantly create an environment where everyone on my crew double-checks each other, and I let them know I won’t be offended if they double-check me. In fact, I insist on it. A moment taken on the set is much preferable to a blown shot discovered days later.
What’s the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
‘Never pass up the opportunity to keep your mouth shut!’ What they don’t tell you in cinematography training is that your job is 50 percent cinematography and 50 percent diplomacy. I’ve learned the hard way that when things go south, as they sometimes do, it’s best to pause and reflect on what’s happening and why before opening your mouth and blurting out what first comes to mind. No one remembers what you didn’t say, but they will certainly remember something you said in haste.
What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
In terms of cinematography, Legends of the Fall, Braveheart, American Beauty and Road to Perdition. I’ve recently taken time between jobs to travel to Italy, France and the Netherlands to revisit the works of the masters in person. For the artist in me, a week in Florence or Venice is an amazing, revitalizing experience.
Do you have any favorite genres, or genres that you would like to try?
I once had the opportunity to shoot a commercial in the style of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, using black-and-white negative with period costumes, vehicles and sets. It was a ball! I would love to do an entire movie in that style.
If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’ve been truly blessed to be able to do what I love.
Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Jon Fauer, Chuck Minsky, Bing Sokolsky and Ueli Steiger. I will forever be in their debt.
How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
I’m deeply humbled and honored to belong to the ASC. When I was starting out, I avidly read American Cinematographer, and I used the American Cinematographer Film Manual on every shoot. I never imagined I would one day be invited to join the ASC, and the fact that I was the first cinematographer to be accepted on the basis of work done exclusively in television commercials made it even more significant. Walking through the front door of the ASC Clubhouse still raises the hair on the back of my neck. I’ve met many wonderful members and used them as resources on how to solve problems, and I’ve been quite honored that they also have called me and asked my advice.