The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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It was late afternoon in Chicago 31 years ago. I was riding in a car with some friends, and we stopped for a traffic light at the corner of Clark Street and Diversey Avenue. I was in the passenger seat, and I looked casually out the window. And there she was. She was brunette, in her mid-twenties, about 5' 5". She was wearing older but not faded blue jeans and a sleeveless white blouse. She had on brown sandals with straps that crossed her feet twice, and no polish on her toes or fingers. She was clutching a laundry basket filled with dry, semi-folded clothes. She was waiting for a bus.

The orange tone of the low sun reflected off the glass windows of a building across the street, throwing softly speckled patterns of light on everything around her, but she remained in a calm space, a spot on the sidewalk where the light only glowed as if coming from a source undefined. The warm summer breeze wafted her hair lightly, and she stepped toward the curb and craned her neck to look down the street for the bus. She reached up with her right hand to brush her long hair out of her eyes. She wore one ring, a simple silver one.

The traffic light changed about 15 seconds after we stopped, and my friends and I went on our way. She never saw me, and I don’t believe my friends saw her. She wasn’t especially remarkable; she wasn’t a drop-dead beauty or a traffic-stopping bombshell. Yet not a month has gone by in 31 years when I haven’t thought of that girl. Mostly it’s a passing thought, an image that crosses my mind in the midst of dealing with daily duties. Sometimes it’s more than that, a curiosity about who she is and where she is now. It wasn’t sexual, the way you would imagine a teenaged boy would think of a slightly older woman. It was sensual, an appreciation for that particular moment in time and the sweet melancholy of knowing that this was all there would be of the encounter.

Cinematographers frequently reference other works while developing the unique style for the project we’re shooting. Often it’ll be another film. Many times it’ll be a painting, a still photograph, clips from a magazine or even a piece of music. Anything that stirs an emotion and leaves an impression carries with it the seed that can be adapted to another expression of art. But your own life experiences frequently inspire the most sublime transpositions into cinematographic form.

We keep a mental catalogue of these experiences to draw on as needed. They inspire our art and speak to the depth of our ability to understand how our circumstances affect our state of mind, how we find substance in our physical surroundings. And they create memories as vivid as something happening right now, moments we have deemed important in our lives, sometimes not knowing why.

While shooting the film The Fixer, I was looking for a way to depict the humble surroundings of a poor priest who is hearing the confession of a man in search of redemption. I remembered an early Christmas morning when I was a child. The sun had not yet risen, and everyone was asleep. The living room was suffused with the dark blue ambience of pre-dawn, and the Christmas-tree lights sparkled gently in the somber atmosphere, an oasis of hope. I proceeded to light the scene at hand with that feeling — not the exact colors, but the feeling of that room. When the director saw the dailies, he said it reminded him of the sound of steam radiators heating up in winter. The editor remarked that the room had the smell of old wood and crisp air.

I have no doubt that someday I will have to film a scene that has the same ethereal quality of the encounter with that woman 31 years ago, and I will break down the technical components necessary to make it achievable and understandable to all the other craftspeople involved in creating motion pictures: the camera assistants who must order the proper lenses, the electricians who need to get the right lights, the grips who will need to rig the cranes, the assistant director who must schedule it at the right time of day, and the art department who must have props in the proper color palette.

But the inspiration will be mine. That’s what makes me a cinematographer.

 

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