When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
Definitely Rodan (1956), a terrible Japanese movie about a flying pterodactyl that decimates Tokyo. In my teens, I saw Bergman’s Persona (1966), and although I didn’t understand it at all, my world totally changed. I discovered poetry and mystery in imagery.
Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
I learn from absolutely everyone. There is so much fine work being done across the spectrum, but the cinematographers who have probably influenced me the most are Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC, for redefining the way light and space speak to the viewer; Owen Roizman, ASC, for his chameleonic ability to adapt his work to the guts of a story; and Conrad Hall, ASC and Caleb Deschanel, ASC, for giving their lighting a sense of magic but embellishing their frames with the natural grace notes of accidental light we find in the real world.
What sparked your interest in photography?
In junior high, my friends and I made Super 8 films, pixelated two-minute epics in which we would tape paper wings onto my sister’s lizards and fly them on threads in front of landscape paintings. Willis O’Brien it was not.
Where did you train and/or study?
I learned along the way through the kindness of others, especially at KPBS-TV, a small public-television station in San Diego where I got to shoot and make documentaries. I learned mightily from my mistakes.
Who were your early teachers or mentors?
Paul Marshall at KPBS gave me a major jumpstart as a documentary cinematographer. Wayne Smith taught me the basics and had the patience to let me learn by my failures. When I had down time, which was often, I played VHS movies backwards and forwards, trying to figure out why those cameramen made the decisions they made. I learned a lot about lighting that way.
What are some of your key artistic influences?
I almost always have a camera with me, and I feel I’m constantly learning from reality with that.
How did you get your first break in the business?
Nothing happens in this business without the help of others, and I mean nothing. All you can do is prepare and hope for a break in the wall that seems to hold you from your dreams. I think my most momentous break came when Jim Cameron decided to hire someone relatively unknown to shoot True Lies. When it opened, I became an ‘overnight’ name after 20 years of swimming upstream in very obscure rivers. I’m very grateful to Jim for that.
What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
The shot that introduces Rose (Kate Winslet) as she gets out of a car in Titanic. The camera moves down from above her, you see a large purple hat, and then, in a My Fair Lady moment, she looks up into the camera for the first time, and I move a soft bounce in close to her face and open up a little over a stop in exposure. She just glows.
Have you made any memorable blunders?
Oh, Lord, what haven’t I done?!
What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
‘Every producer, every lab, every equipment house and every crewmember (from director to caterer) is your family.’
What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
Recently I’ve been devouring the work of the great street photographers (Kertesz, Cartier-Bresson, Eggleston and Meyerowitz) because it’s such a refreshing break from the calculated ‘reality’ of most mainstream cinematic work. On the more formal side, Robert Mapplethorpe is a touchstone, and I loved his XYZ exhibition at the L.A. County Museum of Art.
Do you have any favorite genres or genres you would like to try?
I’d die to do a musical in the vein of The Red Shoes.
If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
I’d live a life next door to cinematography, shooting fashion or traveling the world as a National Geographic photographer.
Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Steven Poster, Isidore Mankofsky and Roy Wagner.
How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
I’ve discovered how influential the ASC is around the world and how much of an educational impact we make on upcoming cinematographers. So many people in the ASC are devoted to imparting the knowledge that keeps our marvelous art alive.