In a way, calculus and theoretical physics led Rodney Charters, ASC, CSC to receive the ASC Career Achievement in Television Award, mostly because his grades were so low in that class at the University of Auckland. “I went there to study architecture. It was my preliminary year, and the only compulsory subject was calculus, but I just got stumbled by the raw math,” he explains. “If I had been able to graduate with proper marks in math, I would have gone to architecture school, and my life would have been very different. On my way to school, I’d pass about eight cinemas, and over time, I ended up going to four movies a day and skipping class. That was my film education.”
Charters comes from a family with a rich photographic history in New Plymouth, a small town on the Tasman Sea side of New Zealand’s North Island. His father ran a photography studio, and his grandfather was a photographer and was in charge of printing the local newspaper. Rodney was swept up rather quickly into the photography business, carrying bags to wedding shoots on Saturdays and doing black-and-white portrait touchups with pencils directly on the negatives.
His father, Roy, had a Bell & Howell projector, as well as a Bolex and a nice fluid head, and when the New Plymouth Film Society got the notion to make a film of its own, Roy got the call. “They made a movie called The White Goat,” Charters recalls. “They needed an actor, and suddenly, I was in it!” Not coincidentally, he actually had a white goat for a pet. It was the typical boy-loses-goat, boy-searches-for-goat, boy-gets-foot-stuck-on-the-railway-viaduct-with-a-train-approaching-and-is-rescued-at-the-very-last-moment type of narrative. “That’s what I grew up around, so it was only natural that I started asking my dad to borrow the Bolex,” he says.
When he was stumped by the math at the University of Auckland, his art-history professor advised him to enroll in the art school and look into film studies. At the same time, Charters thought he would give the National Film Board in Wellington a try. “They asked me if I wanted to be an editor, a cinematographer or a sound person. I said I actually wanted to do all of those, and they said that wasn’t the place for me. They suggested I go back to the university!”
So, with his pride somewhat wounded, Charters returned to Auckland and became the first person to graduate from the photography department as a filmmaker.
A short film Charters made in school about two people on a Yamaha motorcyle did well at a film festival in Sydney, and he subsequently sold it to Yamaha. “I could mount the 16mm Bolex and a 10mm lens all over the bike and handhold it while sitting on the seat,” he says. “My dear friend Bob Harvey had a Fiat 500 with a canvas roof, and we took the door off so I could sit in the back and shoot out from ground level. It was a great tracking vehicle.”
The short also got him into the Royal College of Art in London, which he attended from 1968-1971. The filmmaking department was housed at the Royal Natural History Museum. “It was a giant studio that had been used for dissecting whales — so bizarrely British!” he recalls. “I was exposed to some real equipment for the first time.”
Charters landed several sound-recording jobs while he was studying in London, and after he graduated, he continued to work in that field in Great Britain. His gigs included commercials for Ridley and Tony Scott, including the very first spot Tony directed.
During a visit to the United States in 1972, he had a chance encounter with a Canadian film crew that suggested he look for work in Toronto. There, he was promptly hired by CTV as part of a two-man sound crew, and was sent to Northern Ireland one week after Bloody Sunday to cover the fallout in Newry, a hotbed of Irish Republican Army activity.
The producer scored an interview with the IRA’s second in command for that region. The crew was loaded into a cab, blindfolded and driven in circles for 40 minutes before being whisked into the back room of a pub to meet the man. Charters recalls, “He had a turtleneck sweater pulled up over his face, and we did an interview with him while two armed men stood behind him. The next day, we were filming the march, and I locked eyes with a guy in the crowd that I recognized to be the one we interviewed — he was a wanted man, standing out in broad daylight. He knew I knew who he was, so we had to get the hell out of there!”
Charters was stationed in CTV’s London bureau, which covered events in England, Africa and the Middle East. He worked with famed Canadian broadcaster Michael MacLear. “I realized that to be taken seriously as a shooter, I had to buy a camera, so I bought an Éclair ACL and spent six months in the Amazon jungle shooting a documentary about members of the Baha’i faith living there,” he says. When he returned to CTV, he transitioned to cameraman, bought an Arri 16SR, and shot documentary and news footage for the next decade. He became a member of the Canadian Society of Cinematographers in 1978.
In 1986, out of the blue, cinematographer and future ASC member Mark Irwin, CSC offered Charters the B-camera position on a hockey film called Youngblood. Irwin needed someone who could follow the puck. “I hadn’t shot 35mm before,” Charters says. “I shot 90 fps most of the time on a 300mm lens on the ice during games. In dailies, we watched everything go slowly out of focus. It was a total nightmare for my focus puller, but we got through it.”
When Irwin decided to move to America for work, he asked Charters to take over for him as cinematographer on the TV series Adderly. “That show was derring-do and spy-type stuff,” says Charters. “I used my SR. I bought a little 30-60mm T1.3 zoom, and we’d shoot the whole thing wide open. On 16mm, it ended up looking pretty good.”
In 1987, he began shooting the series Friday the 13th. These were the early days of TV drama in Toronto, and the production was allowed to experiment and push boundaries without much corporate interference — until they shot a scene depicting a throat-slitting blood sacrifice in a church. The show came under fire from a religious group in Texas. “They labeled us the most un-Christian show on television, and they went after our advertisers,” Charters recalls. “We withered on the vine after that, and the show died.”
Next, Charters shot the 1990 telefilm Psycho IV: The Beginning and a short-lived anthology series created by Wes Craven called Nightmare Cafe. The director of Psycho IV, Mick Garris, then brought Charters aboard the 1992 supernatural thriller Sleepwalkers. Two collaborations with producer Stephen J. Cannell followed, the series The Hat Squad and Traps. “During that time, I had an amazing opportunity to hang with Connie Hall [ASC] for three days while he was shooting Jennifer 8,” Charters recalls. “Those were some of the most influential days of my life as a cinematographer.”
When Charters shot TekWar and TekWar: TekLords, telefilms that experimented with 3-D imagery, he “realized right away that 3-D was a whole new world to cinematographers.” He earned a Canadian Gemini Award nomination for TekWar.