A Conversation With George Spiro Dibie, ASC
Interview by Bob Fisher
September 11, 2007
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Jerusalem in what was previously called Palestine. My father came from Corfu in Greece to visit the Holy Land. My mother came from Beirut, also to visit the Holy Land. They met, got married and stayed in Palestine. My father was a government health inspector in Jerusalem. That was before Israel was declared a state by the United Nations.
What language did you grow up speaking?
My mother's language was Lebanese. I also spoke a little Hebrew, as well as French, Italian and Latin, because I attended Roman Catholic schools. I also learned some English.
Did you see movies when you were growing up?
Every Sunday I’d go to church and then I’d use the money I earned by running errands for my parents to see movies. During vacations, I’d go to the cinema from 8:30 or 9:00 in the morning until 7:00 in the evening. When I was 8 or 9 years old, I cut cartoons out of a magazine and glued them together into reels. I built a small tent in our backyard and turned a shoebox and a flashlight into a projector. I made up and told stories about the cartoons and charged relatives, neighbors and friends a nickel each to see my shoebox movies.
Were you a photography hobbyist?
We had a Rolleicord camera with 120 format film. I took pictures of my family and friends, and later of trees and landscapes. Later, when I was in high school, I took black-and-white pictures at proms and was paid 5 cents for each roll of film I shot.
What were your boyhood dreams and aspirations?
I dreamed that I would move to Hollywood and become a director or a cameraman. I didn’t know what a cameraman did, but I remember thinking that if I couldn’t become a director, I would become a cameraman.
When and how did you get to the United States?
After graduating from high school, I was hired by UNICEF as a teacher in refugee camps. I taught English to first, second and third grade students. By then, I had moved to Amman, which is the capital of Jordan. I applied for a job with the U.S.I.A. (United States Information Agency). They hired me to translate reports that came from the Jordanian Army. One day, I told the head of the U.S.I.A. in Amman that I had always wanted to go to the United States to learn to become a filmmaker. He handed an envelope to somebody, and said something like, ‘See that Mr. Dibie's papers are in order.’ I’ll never forget him. Seven days later I was on the way to the United States with a scholarship from the U.S.I.A. I enrolled at Los Angeles City College but transferred to the Pasadena Playhouse, where I could study directing. I went to classes from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m., and supported myself by working as a busboy and waiter from 1 until 10 or 11 p.m.
What was the Pasadena Playhouse like as a school?
It wasn’t just teachers talking. I learned how to light and direct plays. Dustin Hoffman was one of the student actors. I remember a teacher telling him to look for another line of work. My thesis project was directing an original play called The Wild Harp. It was about the last four days of Jimmy Dean’s life. We played to a full house twice in one night, because they sold so many tickets. It also got a very good review, but I decided directing theater wasn’t my future.
What was the next step for you?
I had saved enough money to buy 16mm Bolex and Auricon cameras and a projector. I tried to shoot my own movie, and organized a crew and cast, but I ran out of money. At that point, I began shooting films of weddings and bar mitzvahs and things like that.
How did you cope on a personal level with being on your own in a foreign country trying to break into an industry what was a relatively closed to outsiders?
When I lived in Jerusalem, I met people who told me stories about how they made it through the Holocaust. My challenges were child’s play compared to that. I’ve also never been reluctant to work harder than the next guy. That helped me overcome all handicaps, including having a strong accent and no connections in the film industry. I never gave up or allowed myself to become discouraged.
How did you get your first break?
I was working in a supermarket stacking groceries and also as a checker. I spoke with some customers about my ambitions. One of them was a woman who worked for 20th Century Fox. She promised to see what she could do. The next day, I got a phone call telling me to report to the studio at 6:30 a.m. and bring pliers and a screwdriver. I put on a tie and suit, and I had a screwdriver and pliers in my pocket. I reported to work wearing a tie and suit. Someone said, ‘Dibie, follow Doggy.’ Doggy was a short guy who smoked cigars. He was the gang leader. We jumped on a truck and drove for about 10 minutes on the lot to an area where Leon Shamroy (ASC) was shooting Cleopatra. That was my first day of work on an electrical crew. I worked my way up through the electrical crew system until I became a best boy and then a gaffer.
Who did you work with as a gaffer?
I worked with Harry Stradling (ASC) on the film On a Clear Day. I learned so much by watching and listening to him. He could light faces beautifully and make backgrounds dark and gutsy at the same time. Barbra Streisand was the star of that film. I created a special light for her. It was called a Stri-light. It was a scoop that I painted for reflectivity. She really knew how to find her light. One of the most important things I learned by watching Harry was how to light people’s eyes to reveal their souls. I also worked with James Wong Howe (ASC) on This Property is Condemned and The Molly Maguires. I’d watch and listen to him. He used light to sculpt images out of blackness. Sometimes he would lecture me about using source light and other things. I also worked on the television series Love, American Style and on some episodes of The High Chaparral. “Harkey” (Harkness) Smith (ASC) used reflectors on faces during big exterior scenes. The skies were always a beautiful, bright blue and the faces were perfect. I also worked with Howard Schwartz (ASC), Jack Marta (ASC), Harold Stein (ASC) and Philip Lathrop (ASC). They were all different. I learned a lot by watching, listening to and speaking with all of them.
Did you do any other kinds of work?
My neighbor was a teacher named Roger Dash. He was a PhD. Roger started talking to me about working together on documentaries. We organized Dibie-Dash Productions to produce documentaries and motivational films in 1966. Our first film was They Beat the Odds. It was a 22-minute film with real stories about six black people who grew up in the ghetto and succeeded. We intended to rent it to high schools. We showed it to some PhDs on the Los Angeles Board of Education. One of them told us, ‘Black people don’t think like that.’ That made me pretty angry because Dr. Roger Dash happened to be a black person. He knew more about this issue than all of them put together. But, we found other customers, including NBC and Pepsi Cola. They bought hundreds of copies and showed them to employees.
How did you and Dr. Dash divide the work?
We were co-producers. He wrote the stories, and I them made them into shooting scripts. I also directed, shot and edited the films. Roger and I produced around twenty 16mm films together during a 10-year period. One of them was called Getting a Job is a Job. We sold 2,500 prints of that film. We won some awards at film festivals. We won the Chris Award at the Columbus Film Festival for Growing up Black and the Gold Award at the Houston International Film Festival for a film called Odyssey to Existentialism.
When and how did you begin shooting television programs?
Warner Bros. needed someone to shoot a multi-camera video show called New Zoo Review in 1972. None of the cameramen in the Guild was interested in shooting video. Someone at a lighting rental company told someone at the studio about me. It was ironic because all of my experience as a cinematographer was shooting 16mm film. New Zoo Review led to my next job. The studio produced the pilot for Barney Miller on film, but decided to use video on the series. Danny Arnold was the executive producer and co-creator. Someone told him that I was a video guy, because I shot New Zoo Review. In those days, video shows had technical directors who looked at a wave form monitor in the control booth and made certain that the key-to-fill light ratio was 2:1, which was the SMPTE standard. I spoke with Danny and he agreed that no technical director was going to dictate the look. The story took place in a police station that was open 24 hours a day. Danny wanted a gutsy and somewhat dark look.
Please tell us about that experience.
I had a lighting director instead of a gaffer. He was use to working on game shows and other live TV programs. The first thing he said was that the stage demanded 250 footcandles of key light. I made a little joke and said, as soon as you leave, I'll talk to the stage and we'll convince it that we only need 50 footcandles. We used very source-y light. I was told that two video controllers refused to work with me, because I was shooting scenes at T3.5 wide open. They had been taught that all video shows were shot at T5.6. They complained that the pictures were noisy, which is the video equivalent of grain. They went to Danny Arnold and complained about me. They said I was watching everything they did, and insisting that they adjust colors. Danny listened and then he said, ‘That's why I hired him.’ They also complained about the noise, and he said that’s what a New York police station is supposed to be like.
We had scenes at police headquarters sets at all hours. We wanted it to be dark at times, and other times there was sunlight coming through windows. There was a show where we put cigarette butts and trash on the floor, because we wanted a down and dirty look. I remember coming in the next morning and finding out somebody had cleaned the set and mopped the floor. We had to make the place dirty and throw cigarette butts on the floor again. My point is that it was a comedy, but we were still telling a story. The more realistic it looked, the more people accepted the characters and their jokes. After a while, the crew was making jokes about the cartoon lighting on other multi-camera shows.
How long did you work on the Barney Miller series?
It ran for eight years, but I also did other things during that period.
Give us an example of using darkness on another comedy.
I remember an episode of Growing Pains with Joanna Kerns. Her father gives her a shoebox and tells her that his insurance policy is in it. He says he is dying of cancer. She starts crying. It was in a living room set with a lot of source lights. I subdued the look for the mood of that dark scene. A technical director complained that it was too dark, but the director allowed me to do it because it was right for the story. The girl and her father walked into the kitchen. You could see the sun setting through a window. I made the sunset kind of a pinkish, straw-colored tone and darkened the kitchen a bit, so their faces were semi-lit. We wanted the audience to feel their sadness. They went outside. You could see the windows in the background providing a kind of amber, orange source of backlight. I added a little bluish tone to reinforce the idea that they are outside. I got an Emmy (1987) for that show.
Is that a battle that you fought more than once?
I can give you more than a few other examples. One time we were rehearsing a night scene with Christopher Hewett who played the title role in Mr. Belvedere. He was standing in the shadows of his darkened living room until the beam of a flashlight revealed his face. A voice ordered us to bring the lights up so the audience could see Chris. It was the technical director, who was sitting in the control booth talking over a loudspeaker. I asked, ‘What’s the point of writing a nightscene if you make me light it like a daytime scene?’ Chris also spoke up and so did the director. We won that battle.
That episode was called “Strangers in the Night.” You won your first Emmy Award for that episode in 1985. In your own words, what’s the moral of that story?
You earned five Emmys and had seven other nominations for multi-camera shows. There probably would have been more, but isn’t it true that for many years the TV Academy didn’t allow multi-camera shows produced on film to compete for the Emmy Award?
The actual title of the Emmy Awards I received was Outstanding Lighting Direction (Electronic) for a Comedy Series. The truth is that was a misconception of the role that cinematographers play. It doesn’t matter whether your tool is a film or a video camera, and it is not just about lighting. It is about artfully creating a sense of time and place and visually augmenting moods and performances. Meryl Marshall listened to us when she was president of the Academy. The category is now Outstanding Cinematography for Multi-Camera Series.
All that recognition you have received for earning those Emmy Awards and nominations has created a perception that you specialized in 30-minute comedies. Will you set the record straight?
Don’t get me wrong. I loved the comedies and the people whom I worked with, but I also shot 60 to 70 movies of the week, including some for a regular series called The ABC Armchair Mysteries. We shot them in three days, 120 pages with big name stars. They were on at 11:30 in the evening for 90 minutes. I also shot Dibie-Dash documentary films well into the 1980s, many commercials, public service announcements, and even some live programs.
You were the first cinematographer to move freely between shooting film and video television shows. Will you please share some memories about that experience?
The Guild had a special E for electronic category for cinematographers who shot video shows at that time. That was the only thing you could do. I challenged that ruling and eventually won. The truth is that I approached lighting the same way whether I was shooting a film or video show or a movie. It was always about the story and the mood, and not about the equipment or technology. I shot the Buffalo Bill TV comedy series on film, usually working with a maximum of 20 to 30 footcandles of key light. Another time, I shot two shows on adjoining stages at Paramount Studios. One was a film show, Goode Behavior that we shot that on Monday and Tuesday. I shot Sister, Sister, a video show, on Thursday and Friday.
We heard that you had a secret weapon called the D-B Net. What is that?
It is a special type of gauze fabric that I used for diffusion behind and in front of the lens. There are all kinds of diffusion material available, but I knew exactly what I needed for certain types of lenses and focal lengths, and I finally found that material in France while I was visiting the George Pompidou Museum, which is close to the garment district. I went from one place to another until I found it, and then I bought a big supply. The holes in the fabric were diamond-shaped, kind of an oval. When you put it behind or in front of the lens, it gives you a very beautiful halation. I have given a lot of D-B Net away to other cinematographers.
Do you have any other tricks like the D-B Net?
You are asking me to give all of my secrets away. About 25-years ago, I experimented with putting two sheets of Saran Wrap on the camera lens while I was shooting a hair spray commercial with Farrah Fawcett. Something magical happened. Some people thought I was crazy. I remember using it on another commercial with Victoria Principal. She asked what I was putting on the lens, so I told her. When she saw how kind it treated her face, she loved it. I guess the moral of that story is that you have to be willing to experiment and trust your instincts.
Have you figured out how many TV episodes you have shot over the years?
I haven’t. I know that I have half-a-dozen souvenir tee shirts from shows which have gone over 100 episodes. I would guess that I have shot something between 2,000 and 3,000 episodes of series, and between 10 and 20 pilots for other successful shows.
If you put those hours back-to-back, it is the equivalent of shooting between 150 and 200 movies. This is like asking, who is your favorite child, but do you have favorite series in that immense body of work?
Off the top of my head, I’d say Barney Miller, Buffalo Bill, Growing Pains, Night Court, Just the Ten of Us, My Sister Sam, Mr. Belvedere, and I’m forgetting other shows.
That’s a pretty formidable list. How about a memorial episode?
One of my most memorable experiences was shooting a Halloween episode of Growing Pains. It was a one-hour episode, and we had four days to shoot it. We had to create moods and looks that touched on all of the emotions in that one show. There was an interior scene mainly motivated by a fireplace with some night-light coming through a window. There also was a black-and-white sequence and another one where colors were very important. We had interior and exterior scenes and one where a Steadicam was important. There was a character who turns out to be a ghost. I made his lighting slightly colder. It wasn’t noticeable. It was something the audience feels rather than sees. Later, they say, ‘I knew something wasn’t right about him.’
How about some of your most memorable pilots?
That’s another long list, because I shot every pilot that was made by Warner Bros. for 10 years when I was under contract to the studio, including My Sister Sam, Head of the Class, Murphy Brown, Driving Miss Daisy and The Trouble With Larry to name just a few.
This recognition is for your artistry as a cinematographer, but we would be remiss if we didn’t ask when, how and why you became president of the International Cinematographers Guild. You were president for 20 years.
There were actually three Locals, one on the West Coast in Los Angeles, another in the Midwest in Chicago, and a third one on the East Coast in New York. Frank Stanley (ASC) was president of the Hollywood Local. He was a great cinematographer and a very decent human being. Frank encouraged me to run for second vice president in 1984. Unfortunately, he got sick and retired. The first vice president was Wade Bingham. He was a camera operator, and didn’t think he would get the respect needed to run the Guild. Wade decided to resign. That’s how I became president. I was elected the following year. It was a 20-year ride. I am proud of the things that we achieved. The three Locals were merged into one national Guild. That made us a lot more effective and efficient. We had a successful diversity program, which encouraged and enabled more women and minorities to work as cinematographers and their crews. I believe we did a lot of good things. It was my way of thanking the people who helped me.
On that subject, you must have young and aspiring cinematographers asking you for the secret of success. What do you tell them?
I ask them what they think the odds were when I was growing up in Palestine that I’d end up working as a cinematographer in Hollywood. You have to persevere. It takes talent, a desire to keep learning, and a willingness to work very hard. I tell them to get as much experience as they can, doing everything they can. You can learn by working with and watching more experienced cinematographers. It’s not just about learning how to expose film, focus and operate a camera. You also have to learn about set etiquette and attitudes, and how to talk to people so they listen and cooperate. I tell them to get on sets and watch how cinematographers they admire work with the gaffer, grips, the boom guy, make-up and hair people and everyone else. I also encourage them to shoot every chance they get, including free films for students.
What kept you going when things were tough and looking impossible?
That’s simple. I love the work. You are helping the director, writer and producers create a fantasy world. You read a script and start to dream about what it will look like as you tell the story. To me, it is like painting, and I love to paint. That was my boyhood dream, and it has all come true.
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