The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry

A Conversation with Don McAlpine, ASC, ACS

October 28, 2008

Where you were born and raised?

I was born in Quandialla, which is a little town about 300 miles west of Sydney, Australia. My father worked for a bank which moved him around a lot. We lived in many small company towns in New South Wales. Eventually we settled in Temora, where I finished high school.

What was it like growing up in that part of Australia?

It was fantastic. When I was only 10 or 11 years old, my buddy and I would go camping on weekends. It was a total feeling of freedom.

We understand that you were a still photography hobbyist.

It is kind of a sad story. My father took pictures with an old Kodak folding camera. I inherited his camera when he got tuberculosis and was sent to a sanitarium. I started taking still pictures with his camera. I had difficulty paying for processing, which was done at a local pharmacy, so I went to work processing black-and-white film for them. After a while, I built my own darkroom with a home-made enlarger in a little shed.

What types of pictures did you take?

Girls and nature. I took pictures of landscapes and was intrigued by the shapes of trees. I also remember taking photos of snake eggs which formed a very interesting pattern. I exhibited my photos in shows organized by local photographic societies.

Do you think that experience helped you later as a cinematographer?

Every experience helps you. I remember having intellectual discussions about composition with friends who were also interested in photography. We got photography magazines mainly from England with articles analyzing why some pictures were successful and others failed. I think my early experiences with still photography helped me to intuitively use composition to help tell stories.

What was the next chapter in your life?

I worked on a farm harvesting wheat during summer vacations while I was in school. I graduated from high school when I was 17 years old and was offered a contract as a sharecropper. In addition to my weekly salary, I was paid a small percentage of the money earned from selling the harvested wheat. We had a bumper crop that year. I earned enough money to pay for a four week boat tour from Australia to Europe. After I arrived in Europe, I spent around a year traveling and working at odd jobs, mostly in England, but also in France, Belgium and other countries. It was a wonderful experience which opened my mind to a broader world than the one I had grown up in.

What did you do next?

I went home to Australia and enrolled in the university where I studied physical education and science. In those post-World War II days, the government paid you to go to college in exchange for you teaching for five years after graduation. They did that because there was a desperate need for teachers. I initially was a teacher at a high school in Sydney. That was when I explored the possibilities of cinematography.

Why and how did that happen?

When I was studying at the university during the mid-1950s, several of my teachers were coaches for the Australian 1956 Olympics team. They had me shoot slow-motion analysis films of Australian athletes who were competing in the games in various sports. That was the first time I used a motion picture camera. When I was teaching, I shot 8mm sports training films for students in gym classes. After a while, I transferred to a school in a rural city called Park, where I also worked as a stringer news cameraman for the national television network.

How did you connect with the national television network?

We took students who participated in school sports on a three-day excursion to Sydney. While we were there, we decided to take the kids to a new television station that was the Australian version of the BBC in England. I saw a sign on a door that said National News Supervisor, so I broke off from the group, knocked on the door, went inside and had the audacity to ask if they needed a news cameraman. I told them I had a camera. When they asked me how good I was, I said I had no idea. They gave me four 100-foot rolls of black and white film and told me to cover a news story in my home town. There was a big railroad center that was converting from steam to diesel engines. There were magnificent steam engines on turntables being decommissioned as well as shiny new aluminum diesels. There were many people whose careers were destroyed or drastically changed. I shot about seven minutes of film.

What happened?

They must have liked what they saw. They cut it as a four-minute story and made me a stringer on the news photography staff. I used to get up at dawn to shoot stories. There was an endless range of possibilities, including fires, floods, and kids catching crayfish and snakes that were in the area. People are fascinated by snakes. I would get the film to the airport at 8:30 a.m. and would get to school in time to teach my 9 o’clock class.

What happened next?

A friend suggested that I read [Leslie J.] Wheeler’s book, Principals of Cinematography. I also read a book about optics. I got a lot of pleasure out of filming news, and I was making as much money from the freelance work as I was from teaching. After a while, I became a full-time cinematographer for a government agency that was named the Australian Broadcasting Channel. I was shooting news and some documentaries. After a while, I was offered a job as a cameraman for a new government agency that was called Film Australia. They were shooting 35mm documentaries for various government agencies. We also shot short dramas and tourism films.

How did you transition to narrative filmmaking?

The prime minister decided that Australia needed a film industry to show the world what our nation was like. The perception at that time was that Australia was just a big farm. The first film financed by the government was The Adventures of Barry McKenzie. Bruce Beresford was the director. They asked me for suggestions about who should shoot this film. I showed them films shot by three of the top cameramen at Film Australia, but Bruce had seen a couple of short dramas that I had shot and asked for me. That was in 1972. The Adventures of Barry McKenzie was a comedy about an Australian during a visit to England. I flew to England with Bruce and we shot our first film together.

That wasn’t a bad way to launch a new phase of your career. Ten of your first 50 films, so far, were directed by Bruce Beresford. Did you know when you shot The Adventures of Barry McKenzie that narrative feature cinematography was going to be the next phase of your life and career?

Absolutely. I felt like I had come home.

In 1979, you shot My Brilliant Career in Australia, and then you went on to shoot two other memorable and very different genre films in 1980, The Earthling and Breaker Morant. Please share some memories about those projects.

The Earthling was a very interesting film, which featured Ricky Schroder. We shot it in Australia. Dean Semler [ASC, ACS] was my second unit cinematographer. Dean had worked with me as a staff cinematographer at ABC. Peter Collinson, the director of The Earthling, was very ill with cancer while we were shooting that film. It was his last project. The Earthling got the attention of American film producers. That wasn’t something that I planned, but it changed my life in ways I couldn’t have foreseen.

Please share some memories about Breaker Morant.

It was another Bruce Beresford film that we shot in the Australian outback. The story was about The Boer War and an attempt to cover up an atrocity. I think my news and documentary experience came into play, though we did dramatic lighting.

How did you hook up with Paul Mazursky?

I was actually lying in my bed sleeping at 3 a.m. when my phone rang. I answered and heard a voice say, “Hi, this is Paul Mazursky.” I told him that I was thrilled that he called, but it was 3 a.m. and asked if he could ring me back in 10 minutes. I jumped out of bed and checked Paul Mazursky in a film reference book that I had. He called me back and told me that three of my films had hit New York within about a two-week period, My Brilliant Career, The Getting of Wisdom and Breaker Morant. Paul said that it was the talk of the town that these interesting new films came out of Australia at around the same time. He noticed that there were three different directors, but I was the cinematographer on all three films. Paul offered me two weeks pay and expenses to fly to Greece and look at locations they were scouting for Tempest. I collaborated with Paul on that project, which we filmed in Greece, Italy, New York and New Jersey. John Cassavetes was one of the actors. That began a new phase of my career, shooting Hollywood-backed films. After that, I shot an American television movie called The Children of An Lac in the Philippines, and an independent feature called Harry & Son that was directed by and starred Paul Newman.

We promise not to ask about all of the films that you subsequently worked on, but will you share a couple of memories about Down and Out in Beverly Hills, which was an absolutely different type of film that you shot in 1986?

That was another great experience with Paul Mazursky. It was both a comedy and a drama that had a great cast, including Bette Midler, Nick Nolte and Richard Dreyfuss. That film was produced at locations in Beverly Hills and on stages at Disney Studios. Paul is a great motivator. He brought out the best that the actors and everyone else had to offer. I have a vivid memory of him saying, “Show me the magic.” That was my first experience working on a major studio film in Hollywood. It wouldn’t have happened if Paul hadn’t insisted that he wanted me to shoot his film.

About a year later, you shot Predator in New York. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find two more different films than Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Predator. Do you have some memories worth sharing about that experience?

Predator was another wonderful experience. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the star. He had a great sense of humor and was fun to work with, though there were times when I played the role of moderating discussions between him and (director) John McTiernan. We also got a glimpse of the coming age of digital effects created and composited with computers. I remember thinking that this was going to be a tool that we would use a lot in the future. When we completed production, I invested in a computer and taught myself how to use it.

You mentioned earlier that Dean Semler was on your crew. Were there other future cinematographers who worked on your crews?

John Seale [ASC, ACS] and Andrew Lesnie [ASC, ACS] come to mind. Andrew was a student when he first began working with me and John operated on a couple of my movies. My former focus puller David Burr is also getting opportunities to shoot.

Let’s jump forward to Patriot Games, another movie that made a great impression. That was a 1992 release. How about sharing a memory or two?

The director was Phil Noyce. He is a great storyteller. I really loved working with him. Phil has a great sense of how to use the camera to dramatize moments in the story in ways that the audience feels rather than notices consciously. Patriot Games was a good example of how you can work with director to help make a complicated plot clear and accessible to the audience so it looks and feels real.

About a year later you shot Mrs. Doubtfire. That was another interesting and very different type of film that resonated with audiences. Can you tell us about that experience?

One of the challenges was working with (director) Chris Columbus to enhance the humor in great performances by Robin Williams and Sally Field. It was an exhausting venture for Robin. There were days when he spent five hours in makeup before we exposed the first frame of film.

How about Moulin Rouge!? Will you talk about the film that earned you an Oscar nomination?

That was another great experience. I worked on Moulin Rouge! for two years, including about a year in preproduction. We had to deal with a myriad of elements with the production designer and director (Baz Luhrman). Then, it took almost a year to shoot the film. Baz is a great motivator who gets the best of everyone around him.

You followed that film with The Time Machine, which was a faithful rendering of a classic H.G. Wells 1895 science-fiction novel that explored the dark side of humanity. Will you tell us about that?

The story unfolds at the same places in different periods of time. The main character travels to the past to try to alter history and then soars on a journey some 800,000 years into the future. We were asking the audience to make a leap of faith by believing that somebody can move through time. That’s why it had to look realistic. The early scenes were motivated by practical light from that period, including candles, lanterns and street lamps. When our character travels into the future, we tried to keep it from looking like a fantasy. It was a DreamWorks film, and they certainly lived up to their name. Their support was amazing. There were no compromises. We got everything we needed, and I had to draw on every lesson I had learned while shooting other films.

How about Peter Pan, which was a different type of fantasy film based on a fairytale written by a Scottish playwright in 1904? The story is about a mischievous fairy named Tinker Bell who visits an ordinary family. The legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe (ASC) shot a black-and-white version in 1924.

Peter Pan is a timeless story, which is among the most interesting films I have shot, from a cinematographer’s point of view. There were no animated characters, and I was given unrestricted license to interpret. We shot about 90 percent of this film with a single camera, because there is only one best dramatic angle for every shot. I probably used more color gels on Peter Pan than ever before in my career.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was another fairytale film that was a hit with audiences. You also have another, totally different genre picture slated to come out in May next year, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, isn’t that right?

I had a great time working on X-Men with (director) Gavin Hood. Hugh Jackman is one of the stars; he was always pleasant, outgoing and genuinely involved and interested in what everyone on the crew was doing.

That is one of the interesting things about filmmaking. It has got to be among the most collaborative forms of artistic expression. As cinematographer, you are collaborating with the director, production and costume designers, the makeup artist, the actors, your camera, electric and grip crews and more. Isn’t that right?

When I get to talk to students, I always tell them that mastering the craft, and their ability to light and compose images and move the camera, is only part of what they are paid to do. They also have to learn how to collaborate with the director and all of the people who you mentioned.

What do you tell young filmmakers when they ask for advice?

I tell them there is no clear-cut, sure-fire way to achieve success. I tell them to keep shooting and learning and to choose scripts that inspire them.

We understand that you occasionally talk with students at a school in Australia. What motivates you to spend time with students?

I enjoy it immensely. It is a two-way deal. I usually learn at least as much as I teach. So many times, students challenge my thinking about things that I haven’t thought about for years or maybe ever.

This is a totally unfair question. What role do you think film plays in our society? Do you think it is just entertainment or is it more than that?

The truth is that the public pays to be entertained. They don’t pay for us to educate them, but I think all art is a reflection of what is happening in our society. I think it is wonderful when you can get on a film that has a message that you care about.

We have another unfair How would you define cinematography?

I think cinematography is similar to composing music. You are born with an instinctive ability and accumulate knowledge and experience. It sounds pretentious, but I can often hear the music while I am shooting a film. There is a tonal quality that you feel. No two cinematographers would shoot any film exactly the same way. Sometimes the differences are radical, and other times they are subtle.

How do you feel about hybrid filmmaking, including integrating CGI and DI into production of films?

I love using computers as a tool as long as it supports the story. Films like Peter Pan and Narnia would have been impossible to create without computer images, but if the content you create with computers becomes the story, it tends to lose me.

We notice that your most recent films are going through digital intermediate (DI) timing. How do you feel about that technology?

Every film I’ve done recently has gone through a DI. I feel that if you shoot a 35mm film, push it through a 2K gate and squeeze it out the other end, something is inevitably lost. When we can routinely use 4K resolution, I believe it will be a step in the right direction. I also believe that when audiences see more films on IMAX screens with absolutely rock-steady projection with incredible clarity, it will be the next breath of air that the cinema needs.