The American Society of Cinematographers

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I am really looking forward to the day that my cinematography career gets started. I’m serious. I’ve shot more than 50 features and television shows, won awards, and established myself as an industry leader on a number of fronts, but I feel like a beginner.

Every time I sit in a movie theater and watch extraordinary work by another cinematographer, I feel a sense of pride that I’m in the same profession, and hope that someday I’ll be a professional cinematographer. Right now, I’m in the experimenting stage. I’ll try different things, and I constantly pick up new ideas and new techniques from just about anywhere — a visit to the art museum, an edgy fashion magazine, a particularly well-written passage in a book, a jazz piece I’m hearing for the first time. All these things and more contribute to the toolbox of visual inspiration that I test on everyday filming jobs so I can be ready when I turn professional.

When will I turn pro? That’s a hard question to answer. Right now, I’m having too much fun playing with the possibilities of what cinematography can bring to a project. And because each project is a unique and different entity, I can’t really apply the same techniques I used on another project. I have to do something different every time so I can see if there’s any limit to the extent of my imagination.

There’s an exercise I practice on every project: I never go with my first idea for lighting a scene. The first idea is going to be the most obvious way to shoot it, and you’ve probably done it before and were successful at it, which is why you feel compelled to do it again. Throw out that idea and look for the second idea. I guarantee it will be much harder to find, but also more interesting to watch.

Sometimes that second idea comes from the pressure of the moment, from the need to get something done no matter what. When Conrad L. Hall, ASC was filming Jennifer 8, the production was days behind schedule, and they were about to start lighting a complex night sequence in which Andy Garcia explores corridors in a building with a flashlight. The producers asked Conrad how much time it would take to light the scene. Recognizing the responsibility they were putting on him to help get the production back on schedule, Conrad called his gaffer over and asked to see the flashlight Garcia would be holding. He took out his light meter, read the intensity of the beam from a few feet away, and told the producers “We’re lit.” Conrad taped reflective material on his body and instructed Garcia to point the flashlight at him occasionally as he walked down the hallway so the light would kick back into his face. Conrad danced around the camera just out of shot to vary the angles of the reflection. Just like that, Conrad brought the production back on schedule, and the lighting effect was perfect for the scene.

When we come to the set ready to play, leaving our minds open to new possibilities, we expand the visual texture of the movie and free ourselves from the shackles of it becoming a job.

My parents were placed in internment camps during World War II, despite the fact that they were American citizens born in the United States, and they were subsequently denied the kind of educational opportunities they wanted. They always told me, “Never have a job. Do what you love to do, but be the best at it, and somebody will pay you for it.” It was a bold statement coming from people who were denied the right to do it themselves, but I took it to heart. Though money was very tight when I was growing up, I was encouraged to dream, and I dreamed big. I loved making movies with the neighborhood kids. It was a lot of work, but it was all play. When I declared at age 8 that I wanted to go to Hollywood and make movies, my parents told me, “Then that’s what you should do.”

When will I turn pro and make all this playing around into a career? With any luck, never.

 

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