The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry

A Conversation With John C. Flinn, III

November 15, 2009

Your family has been in the industry for generations. What do you recall about their careers?

My grandfather, John C. Flinn, Sr., was at Pathé Studios in New York for a while very early in the industry. Later, he became a producer and vice president of Cecil B. DeMille Productions, the forerunner of Paramount Pictures in Hollywood. My father, John C. Flinn, Jr., started his career as a publicist at Warner Bros. He moved on to Allied Artists and Columbia Pictures, where he was director of advertising and publicity. My dad received a Special Award of Merit from the Publicists Guild in 1984. In 1985, he received the Les Mason Award from the guild, which is their highest recognition. I was so proud of my dad when he got that recognition.

Looking back, what did growing up in the industry teach you?

I always knew that I wanted to work in the industry. It was part of my life while I was growing up. Producers and directors would come to our house to talk with my father. I’d be quiet and listen. I remember people dressed in tuxedoes coming to pick up my parents up on their way to the Academy Awards. My dad was working six days a week. He would go off to locations, and come home with stories.

Where did you live?

We lived in Sherman Oaks, in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. A lot of the kids whom I grew up with ended up in the business. I had an 8mm camera. I made little movies with my friends. I also had a 16mm sound projector. My dad would get me prints of films and I would show them to my buddies.

Did you always know that you wanted to be a cinematographer?

I thought I wanted to be an actor, but once I got onto sets, I knew I wanted to be part of the camera department. I’d watch the actors rehearse and realized that someone was bringing it to life with lighting and how they used the camera. Bill Widmayer was head of the camera department at Columbia Pictures. I told him I wanted to be a cameraman when I was 20 years old, but I lied about my age.

What happened next?

A few days later, I got a call from Carolyn in the camera department. She told me to go to Columbia Ranch and report to Fred Jackman (ASC), who was shooting the TV series, The Wackiest Ship in the Army. That was my first day on a camera crew. My job as a second assistant was keeping the slate and marking the actors, carrying cameras, and doing the paperwork. It was tough getting started, because all the cinematographers had regular crews, but I worked with some great cameramen, including Conrad Hall [ASC], Bill Fraker [ASC], Bob Surtees [ASC], Harry Stradling [ASC], Richard Rawlings [ASC], Monroe Askins, [ASC], Matt Leonetti, [ASC], Chuck Wheeler [ASC], Robert Morrison, and Richard Kline [ASC]. I learned by watching and listening to them.

What were those experiences like?

It was like a dream come true. I was working with great cinematographers on sets with Cary Grant, William Holden, Marlon Brando and other legendary actors and actresses. I’d wake up every day feeling that I had the best job anyone could have. You have got to love what you’re doing to do what I do for as long as I have. I have fun every day. I also got jobs as an actor.

How did that happen?

I was observing Conrad Hall [ASC] shoot a scene for In Cold Blood, and it led to an opportunity to get my first bit part as an actor. I got my SAG card and eventually got roles in Get Smart, Gunsmoke, Babylon 5, and other TV series.

What other memories do you have to share?

I was working as a second assistant on a TV show called The Hero. They sent me over to the next stage to see if I could borrow some film. Bobby Wyckoff was shooting the Get Smart TV series. I had worked with him on Bewitched. Bobby said, ‘Hey kid. My second assistant is leaving. Can you start on Monday?’ I was on Get Smart for two and a half years. In addition to working on the crew, I did some stunt work and had occasional speaking parts as a Chaos agent.

How long did you work on camera crews?

I spent seven years as an assistant cameraman and eight as a camera operator.

I paid my dues, but felt I was the luckiest guy in the world. I had opportunities to work with some great people and learned a lot from them. I was one of, if not, the youngest assistants when I started and the youngest guy to become a Hollywood cinematographer.

What was your first film as a cinematographer?

It was a 1979 television movie called The Flame is Love that we shot in Ireland. I’ll never forget it. It was a period picture with horses and carriages. It was beautiful in Ireland — the sky, the wind, the natural light and colors. I think there were 1,000 shades of green that were constantly changing. I don’t think you can describe that in a script.

What happened next?

I got a phone call asking me to fly to Hawaii to shoot the last 12 episodes of Hawaii Five-0.

You started a run of hit television series, beginning with Hill Street Blues in 1981. How did that opportunity happen to come your way?

Bill Cronjager [ASC] shot the first season. He created a very original look. When he moved on to another project, I was asked to come onboard. We had a great ensemble cast, including Veronica Hamel, who could talk with her eyes. All the actors were easy to communicate with, and Steven Bochco is a terrific writer and producer.

How do you decide what’s the right look or visual grammar for a show?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I try to put myself into the story. I read the script and imagine myself acting and directing. Hill Street Blues was a lot of fun, but it was a hard show with eight or nine main characters in incredible areas to light and shoot, including Skid Row in Los Angeles. I took a lot of chances. There were times when I thought, ‘This could be my last day, but I have got to try it!’ We were shooting with a 200-speed film, and many times, I was rating it for 800. I lit for the words and the mood.

We’re not going to ask about all of your experiences shooting different films and TV series, because it’s a very long list. But can you share a memory or two about another Magnum P.I.?

Magnum P.I. was a joy to shoot. It was on the air for a couple of years before I came onboard, but it was a drama, so they gave me the freedom to try different looks. I used some diffusion, because we were shooting in Hawaii and wanted to show the beauty of the islands. I had a four-and-a-half year run on that show. Tom Selleck was a terrific leading man. He was also executive producer during the last couple of seasons. Tom had me direct a couple of episodes. That was an interesting new experience dealing with budgets and schedules as well as developing a vision and collaborating with the cast, crew and various other people. I basically applied my experience as a cinematographer.

You also worked on Jake and the Fatman, another successful series. What do you remember from that experience?

They brought me onboard when the show was moved from Los Angeles to Hawaii. After a while, the show moved back to Los Angeles. They were moodier stories in Los Angeles. It was about the relationship between two detectives who solved crimes. A lot of the drama was in the dialogue, in their eyes and in the subtle expressions that visually punctuates their wisecracking dialogue. I also directed four episodes.

How about Babylon 5—that had to be a different experience?

Babylon 5 was a pure science-fiction series. Part of the fun was that there are no rules in outer space. Nobody knows what it looks like, so I had the freedom to play with colors and looks. I spent five years on that show. We had interesting conversations about what characters and environments on different planets looked like, and then I did my best to transport audiences to those remote places, so it felt believable. In addition to cinematography, I directed 10 episodes.

A few years after Babylon 5 you shot The Gilmore Girls. Tell us a little about that series.

It was a bright, cheery series that we shot on stages at Warner Bros. We shot it in Super 16 format. I thought the film held up great on HDTV screens.

You are working on Saving Grace, another interesting episodic series about an angel who helps an interesting character, played by Holly Hunter, solve crimes. Can you tell us more about this experience?

I shot the last three episodes of the second season, the entire third season, and will shoot the upcoming episodes for the fourth season. Nancy Miller created the show and was a main script writer. She and her writing staff give every word a meaning. Holly Hunter plays Grace, and is also an executive producer. After we wrap 12 or 13 hours of shooting, she is in the editing room. One of the things that I love is that it is an obviously improbable theme, but it’s believable. It is a great experience.

Have you figured out how much television you have shot?

I have shot close to 500 hours of primetime television.

That’s the equivalent of shooting more than 250 movies for cinema screens, and you are still going strong.

I am going to be disappointed if I’m not shooting film 15 years from now.