A Conversation With Robert F. “Bobby” Liu, ASC
October 13, 2008
Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in Shanghai.
The YMCA sponsored sending my father to be educated in the United States. When he returned, he got a job as a senior clerk at Anderson Clayton, an American firm with offices in Shanghai. He worked there the rest of his career. I have six brothers and a sister. I’m the second oldest. I was born in 1926, but due to a clerical error, I am legally five years older according to the records. From the time I was a baby until I finished my undergraduate studies, there was not a moment that didn’t involve war. I experienced insults that are deep in my mind, that I will never be able to wash away.
My father was well-off prior to the Communist takeover. We had a darkroom in the house, and my older brother and I were good in chemistry. We tried to make things like batteries and soap. We even tried to make enlarging paper, but we couldn’t make a smooth coating on the paper. We had an 8mm Kodak camera and played with it when we were in high school. Our father used to take us to watch movies on the weekend. I was very interested in Tom Mix and other silent movies. I was fascinated with moving pictures, but never thought that I would end up in this business. I was very fortunate.
My bachelor’s degree is in political science. The film medium is so powerful. I had seen a movie in which Walter Pidgeon played a diplomat, and I was very impressed. But as I earned my diploma, I realized that it went against my principles. I think it was Machiavelli who said, ‘An ambassador is an honest man sent abroad to tell lies.’ When I heard about that I said, ‘That’s not me.’
After the Communists took over in 1949, I went to Hong Kong. A friend introduced me to a motion picture company there called Great Wall Studio. There were two cinematographers on their staff. One of them was Chuang Kuo Chuen, a true pioneer filmmaker in China. He made a feature silent movie at about the same time that Americans started making silent pictures. He put up the money, wrote, photographed and directed it, and his wife was the star. It’s something like a Tarzan type of movie, a love story in the Vietnam jungle. Later, he became my father-in-law. My first job there was as a boom man in the sound department. When Chuang Kuo Chuen was offered a film in Taiwan, his original assistant couldn’t go, and he gave me the job. I worked with him on and off for many years.
You won’t believe this; my whole life is miracle after miracle. The first time I came to the U.S., I was sponsored by both the Chinese and American governments. There was a large organization in Taiwan that was trying to train and further educate the people in their own field in the United States, so that they would be better off when they go back home. The U.S. government paid the tuition. I was chosen to study because I was in cinematography. I spent a few months learning English and went to USC. I met Herbert Farmer, a truly dedicated educator who encouraged me to do graduate work. That’s why I got my master’s degree. When I returned, I had an obligation to teach for two years. The Academy of Arts & Crafts, the organization that sent me, owned a studio. I was teaching filmmaking as an associate professor, and I was also head of the educational film studio, where they had a small stage.
Robert Wise lectured at USC while I was there. I met and got to know him. Later, he came to Taiwan, where he was trying to make a picture called The Sand Pebbles. I called him up, and he asked me to come see him right away. We met and he gave me a script to read. Later, he came back to make the picture, and he brought a cinematographer with him to shoot some tests. He borrowed me from Central Motion Picture Corp., the government-owned film studio where I was working, to work with cinematographer Ted McCord [ASC]. He offered me a job as second unit cinematographer on the Taiwan scenes, but it didn’t work out. Instead, I was assistant director, handling Chinese cast and 5,000 extras the first two days. That was a good education for me.
The American organization that sent me to USC contracted with me to make a documentary film for them. They wrote the script and I did the rest with a newsreel cinematographer who shot most of it. I directed and edited it, and the organization sent it to the Asian Film Festival, where it won an award. That film was called Industry: A Free China. I didn’t pay a lot of attention at the time, but that film helped me immigrate to the United States. I also showed it to James Wong Howe [ASC].
I never worked with James Wong Howe, but through a camera teacher at USC, a classmate and I were invited to Christmas dinner at his house. I showed him some of my school projects. Later, we had dinner at a restaurant in Chinatown owned by an old friend of his. A few years later he invited us again, and I showed him the documentary film I had made. He seemed to like me very much and complimented the editing. This was how James Wong Howe and I became friends.
I was on third preference quota, which meant I didn’t need a sponsor in the United States. It meant that I needed three things: an advanced degree at a well established university in the U.S., five years of experience, and special achievement in my field. The award I had won for the film fulfilled the third requirement. I was approved to immigrate with my family. I wrote a letter to Herb Farmer, and he offered me a job managing and running the motion picture laboratory of USC Cinema department. How do you like that? It was another miracle. I couldn’t believe it. Before I even arrived, I knew I would have a job waiting for me. That was in 1966.
How long did you work at USC?
Two-and-a-half years. Then another student at USC, a client of the lab who was working on his doctorate degree, suggested that I come to work at UCLA, where I could be a cinematographer, and the pay was a little better. I was interviewed and got the job. I worked at UCLA for three-and-a-half years as principal cinematographer at their media center. I shot various documentaries and many surgical films for various medical departments.
How did you make the transition to narrative filmmaking in Hollywood?
There was a journalism student at UCLA who was also a body builder. He wanted to make a film for his thesis, but he didn’t know how to shoot, so he hired me. I shot his film, and he suggested that I try to get into the minority group pool as a way into the entertainment field. I was unfamiliar with that. I tried it and at first nothing happened. He urged me to try again – this time as a second assistant rather than as a director of photography. Within two weeks I got a job. I have to thank John Flinn [ASC]. The day he went out for his acting career, I was hired as second assistant on Gunsmoke. John didn’t know it but he helped me get a foot in the door.
I have to thank another wonderful friend, Edward Plante [ASC]. He was the director of photography for Medical Center. I worked for him a couple of times as an extra camera assistant. When his first assistant left, he moved his second to first and I took the job as his second assistant. That’s how I accumulated the hours and got into the union. I was a second assistant for him for about two and a half years. Later, Gene Polito [ASC] had me work with him as second assistant on a feature called Westworld. He moved me up from second assistant to first assistant on a movie of the week. I worked with him on quite a few shows. Gene brought me to Universal Studios. Richard Glouner [ASC] was the director of photography who helped me move up to operator. I’m very grateful. Eventually, they started putting me on shows where there had been problems, maybe personality problems or something. I was very fortunate in that after I got on these shows, they ran smoothly. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a very easy guy to get along with. I have a bad temper and I’m stubborn-minded.
After operating for a season on Lou Grant, a single-camera series shot on 35 mm film, you moved up to director of photography and went on to shoot four seasons of that popular, award-winning show. What was your approach to that assignment?
When I operated on Lou Grant, the major set – the newsroom set – was lit with a tremendous number of photofloods above the ceiling. It was very expensive, used a lot of electricity and made for a very hot set. When I took over, the first thing I did was to suggest that we switch to fluorescents, which were rare at that time. Everyone wondered whether it would work. I knew from experience and from my days at the USC film lab that color temperature can be played with very easily, as long as your light sources are uniform. I ordered warm white fluorescents, which mingled well with our tungsten sources on stage. The second thing I did was to gradually convince the producer to shoot more on locations and less on stage. When I started, we were doing about five days on the stage and two days on location for each hour-long episode. I proved that I could make the transition seamless, and by the end of the last season, that had switched – we were doing five days on location and two on stage. That was also rare for a television series at that time.
For me, this job is fun. My mind is always open to figuring out a better way. I’m not trying to say I know the best way for everything – I don’t. But all the things you learn stay with you. I have no regrets about going from the bottom to the top twice. I realize that this is all worthwhile. If you enjoy it, it doesn’t matter. The catch is, whatever job you are assigned, do that job well. That’s my goal. Whatever my job is, I do that job the best I can do. Don’t try to overstep, even though you may know the answer. I don’t need credit and I don’t strive for it. I never expected this award. It’s very fulfilling and rewarding for me to receive this acknowledgement from the people I worked with.
It’s such an honor to be in this prestigious society. The members are not only loyal to each other, but very thoughtful about future generations in cinematography. I think this is a very important objective, to care about those coming up, as the founders did. We should give as much as possible. I’m old and retired, but my heart is always with the ASC. As far as this award goes, it’s another miracle to me.
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