The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry

A Conversation with Isidore Mankofsky, ASC

October 13, 2008

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in New York City, and grew up in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and in Chicago, where we moved in 1941. My parents came from Odessa. They were from the Ukraine but they identified themselves as Russian. They came to New York in 1923. I was one of 12 children, eight of whom survived infancy.

What are your memories from those early days?

My brother tells a story about my mother who was not able to afford to pay anyone to take care of us, and she would take us younger children to the local movie theater, pay our admission, a dime or a nickel, probably, and tell the usher not to let us out until one of the older boys came after school. I was pretty young, and I don’t really remember that.

Were you interested in photography as a boy?

It wasn’t something I did as a boy. I was working when I was 11 years old, sorting vegetables at a vegetable shop, sweeping up at the cleaners, and helping out at a bakery. I didn’t own a camera until I joined the Air Force. But when I was a senior in high school – I have no idea why – I decided that I wanted to be a photographer. When I went overseas, I had an Argus C3, a 35mm still camera, and I started taking pictures. I was working in an automotive unit and I was almost court-martialed because of my continued requests for transfer to special services. Finally I started working in the photography lab on base. I was developing and printing my own film. I was just learning; the prints were not very good.

What was your next step?

After I was discharged, I immediately enrolled in a photography school. I paid my way through school by working at a stills lab and photographing billboards. Then as now, everyone who picked up a still camera thought they were professional photographer. Motion picture photography, that was different – it is magical. So I decided I wanted to become a motion picture cameraman. I went directly from there to Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, California. There were about 10 students and two instructors in the film program, which they had started a few years earlier.

How did you make the transition to working cameraman?

As I was getting close to receiving my certificate from Brooks, one of my instructors got a call for an all-around person to work at KOLO, a TV station in Reno, Nevada. My instructor asked me if I wanted to go up to Reno for the interview, and I nearly fell over myself, telling him that of course I did. I didn’t have much money – I had sold my car for living expenses – but I got up there, and I was hired.

What kind of work did you do?

I worked for a photographer whose studio was above the television station. I was doing everything. Within two weeks of getting there, I shot a 16mm black-and-white documentary on the station’s new antennae building on Mount Rose. I learned a lot from that experience. I still have the film: my first effort as a professional cinematographer. We supplied film and motion pictures for UPI, INS, NBC, the Sacramento Bee, the San Francisco Examiner, et cetera. I developed the film and printed the still photos and sent them out. It was a very good learning experience, and it was good to be getting paid for doing photography, even though it wasn’t much pay.

What came next for you?

I was back in Chicago in 1958. I had been unemployed for four or five months. I had my Volkswagen packed to return to California when I got two job offers. I went to work for Stewart Warner Electronics as an industrial photographer. I did that for a while and then took a job as an apprentice editor at a general medical film company. Around that time, I was playing handball at the YMCA in Evanston, Illinois, with a gentleman named Jim McGuinn. He was a producer of educationals at Encyclopedia Britannica Films. He mentioned that they were looking for someone to go to Florida to shoot a series of films about chemistry, and he wondered whether I was interested. Again, I nearly fell over myself trying to say yes without appearing too anxious. During the next 13 months, I shot 161 half-hour films that depicted a full laboratory course in chemistry. I stayed with the company for nine years, and made hundreds of films on every imaginable subject.

The director of the Academic Film Archive of North America, Geoff Alexander, says that you may have been involved with more academic films than any other single filmmaker. He says that your work on these films is inventive and often extraordinary. What did you learn making all those Encyclopedia Britannica films?

I learned everything I know while making those films. I had to light the scenes myself. I didn’t have a crew. I learned to shoot fast, to operate, and to light fairly sizable sets, sometimes with six or eight lights. The film speed was 12, and it later went up to 16 and then 25. I learned how to be a cinematographer there. They didn’t ever put any pressure on us for anything. They would give the producer-director a script, and say ‘OK, make me a film,’ and we would go out – me, an assistant, the director, and a sound man. For $1,000 a minute we would give them a film. Somebody else would edit it. Never having worked with anyone else, I didn’t know how other people did things. I learned and evolved on my own into what I hope is a decent cinematographer.

How did you transition into narrative filmmaking?

A director, Larry Yust, had left Britannica long before I did, and was about to start a feature. We had worked on a bunch of films together, including a few narrative films. One of those films was called The Lottery (1969), based on the Shirley Jackson story. It’s one of the best-selling educational films ever. I still am asked about it, and it is still shown in classrooms. We made a series of short films based on stories by Ernest Hemingway, Jack London and others. We filmed a story that is located in Ireland called The Well of the Saints on a set in Los Angeles. The action was supposed to take place outside, but we were on stages. I took 6-by-12 bats and hung them above the stage. I shined big Maxilights through this large shower curtain diffusion material. At that time, that type of soft light was used very seldom, if ever. It’s very common today.  

How did you break into Hollywood?

It just seemed to mushroom. The fact that I wasn’t in the union cost me a lot of good jobs, but in spite of that, I kept working, being recommended and getting better films. I was fairly fast, having learned to shoot with a crew of one – myself and an assistant. I finally got into the union on a film for AIP called Scream Blacula Scream. Eventually, I got three major features in a row, The Muppet Movie, Somewhere in Time, and the 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer starring Neil Diamond.

What do you remember about Somewhere in Time?

I had been working pretty steadily at Universal, and I had filled in a couple of times for director Jeannot Szwarc. He told me he had a contemporary/period film that he wanted me to shoot. I said ‘Of course.’ I’d have worked for nothing. We shot the whole thing on Mackinac Island in Michigan. No vehicles are allowed on the island, but exceptions were made for the picture cars, so all our equipment was brought over on barges and moved to locations by horse-drawn drays. The cast was marvelous: Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour and Christopher Plummer. Jane has a wonderful face. She photographed better than any actress I’ve ever worked with. The film is still very popular and has a large fan fallowing. It was a wonderful film to work on; the cast, crew, director, and location, could not have been better.

You followed that with a string of television movies and miniseries.

Yes. My agent brought me a movie-of-the-week project, and faster than a mail carrier can put a letter in a mailbox, I was pigeonholed as a television cameraman. I got involved in a couple of series, but never for more than a few episodes. I shot almost exclusively movies of the week or miniseries, and occasionally a feature - in all, more than a hundred projects.

How did you become a member of the ASC?

I have to give credit to my agent for telling me that I ought to try to get into the ASC. I got letters of recommendation from Howard Schwartz and Harry Wolf. I had enough good credits to impress them, and I got in. That was nearly 30 years ago.

You earned Emmy nominations in 1989 for Polly, in 1991 for Love, Lies and Murder and in 1992 for Afterburn. You also won an ASC Outstanding Achievement Award for Love, Lies and Murder, and earned nominations in 1989 for Davy Crockett: Rainbow in the Thunder and in 1994 for the miniseries Trade Winds. You have more than 100 narrative credits in all. What are some of your thoughts as you look back on what you’ve accomplished?

When I decided to become a cinematographer, I had two career goals: to be a member of the ASC, and to win an Oscar. The pinnacle for me would be defined by those two things. I didn’t get the Oscar nomination, but I’ve gotten a hell of a lot more out of membership in the ASC than I would have gotten out of that. Membership was something I wanted my whole career, so it gave me a lot of satisfaction. It has meant a great deal to me, and not just for the prestige of having the letters behind my name. Recognition by one’s peers is a high tribute. Today, I am secretary, and on six committees, of which I chair four. I edit the newsletter. I’m the curator of the ASC photography collection. I put in a lot of time at the ASC. I also still do my photography. I started out as a still photographer, and I’ve never really stopped in 50 years. I was astounded when I was told I’d be receiving this award.