The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry

A Conversation With Francis Kenny, ASC

January 3, 2012

Francis Kenny, ASC is the recipient of the 2012 American Society of Cinematographers Presidents Award, which his peers in the ASC present annually to an individual who has made significant contributions to advancing the art and craft of filmmaking. He has been chairman of the ASC Membership Committee for 10 years and is also serving his second term on the ASC Board of Directors.

His interest in filmmaking was sparked by a professor, David Hoffman, during his final year in college. Kenny's career began when he and Hoffman started a documentary film company that was based in New York. He spent 10 years traveling to the most remote areas of the world making high-end documentaries/commercials for Exxon Mobil, IBM, and United Technologies. In 1985, Kenny was contacted by Edward Lachman, ASC to see if he would be interested in being the camera operator on the feature film Desperately Seeking Susan. After that experience, it seemed that all roads led to Hollywood, and Kenny decided to move to Los Angeles and shoot feature films as a director of photography. His first film was Heathers in 1987. His passion is still shooting documentaries.

Kenny's feature film credits include New Jack City, Jason's Lyric, Harriet the Spy, She's All That, Bean, Scary Movie, Night at the Roxbury, Cold Heaven, Sweet Bird of Youth and Coneheads. His documentary credits include the Academy Award winner He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’, Cousteau: Riders in the Wind (aboard the Calypso), The Creation of the Universe and Seeing in the Dark with Timothy Ferris, which included learning time lapse astro-photography and knowledge of particle physics.

Kenny has lectured on the art of cinematography and advanced digital cinema at AFI, UCLA and the Maine School of Photography. He also privately teaches Adobe Photoshop and Advanced Digital Printing. Kenny was the curator of the ASC photographic collection, which to date has traveled the world. He also designed the ASC membership card. He is a major proponent of digital cinematography and the future advances in digital technology such as the Adobe Light Field Camera, plenoptic lenses and the RED camera system. Kenny currently uses the Epic cameras on the television show Justified.

Kenny resides is Santa Monica, California, where he is a single dad to 10-year-old Kate Frances Kenny.

The following is a conversation with Kenny:

Where you were born and raised?

I was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. I went to 15 schools in different states, including high school in New Orleans. My father was a financial analyst that traveled. My family’s home base was Montgomery Field in Indianapolis because my grandfather was a test pilot for the Civil Aeronautics Administration (FAA) which was located in Indianapolis. As a young child I spent a lot of time flying with my grandfather. I recall beautiful airplanes. I also remember the Indianapolis 500 race track where we would watch the time trials and races.

Were you interested in photography when you were a kid?

I was visually oriented but no one was handing me a camera telling me to point it somewhere. The front view of a test plane was my light bulb memory or screen of motion and cinematography. I was also interested in astronomy. It was a fairly normal childhood except for all of the moving. I was a very good athlete and excelled in sports. I didn't become interested in filmmaking and cinematography until college. I was a good student. Part of the discipline of school had to do with attending parochial school where the concept of failure meant some form of torture.

Where did you go to college?

The University of Texas, Hofstra and Harvard were my schools. I was in college at 16 and would attend wherever they sent me. School was about honors programs and debating championships. I never felt as though I belonged nor had I found my bliss. My classmates were all several years older and that was enough to throw any child off balance. At that age they may have been 10 years older. I was playing Little League baseball while in high school. Eventually I got in to the music scene and recorded a few records for Alan Toussaint while in New Orleans. A Confederacy of Dunces is my favorite book because it defines New Orleans so well.

What was your major?

My major was reading many books that were heavy and kept me up all night. I loved reading and I wanted to study everything. The moment I would realize that I was not going to be the very best at a subject I would drop it. I was interested in medicine, astro physics, English literature, sociology, and communications. When I say communications, I mean communications with girls. I have a couple degrees from famous places. All are framed and collecting dust somewhere. My daughter was recently elected as a National Scholar. Now that I have framed! All of my learning seemed to be a prologue for me while in school. I believe in the term that we learn history in order to change it.

Did you have an idea of what you wanted to do?

I recall the guidance counselor asking me the same question and I would want to jump over the desk and ask him how many times did he repeat the question, and did he really give a crap. It was very painful to sit through. I would answer him whatever he wanted to hear because I did not have a clue. They would ask me, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ It sounded as though when I grew up I was going to be sentenced to a prison. I don't think kids have a clue what will bring them their bliss until they navigate their way through the labyrinth and discover what makes them happy. All of us need to take that journey before finding or knowing the answer. If a child knows what they want then I guess that would be terrific. I'm certainly not going to hold my daughter to whatever profession she has chosen as a 10 year old.

As a kid, all I was concerned about were my grades, whether I had the courage to call up a girlfriend, or whether or not I was wearing the correct clothes. Because each new city had a different style, different haircut, and my style was always the wrong one. I had no idea of what I would do as an adult until I fell in love with filmmaking. The love of film hit me like a ton of bricks. Only then did I understand what the term ‘flow’ meant. I would lose track of time because I so enjoyed what I was doing. Life truly became an adventure. I fell in love with Italian, French, Russian, Polish, English, Scandinavian, and Japanese cinema… even Indian film!

When and how did you get interested in cinematography?

I became interested in filmmaking during my senior year in college. I worked in the communications department at college where I met David Hoffman. David was a brilliant man who had recently won the Cannes Film Festival, then decided that he hated the film business. So he decided to teach. He taught for a year, the year I met him, where he then decided that he hated teaching more than the film business. So he decided to go back into the film business and take me with him. We formed a company called Varied Directions that specialized in documentary film type commercials for Mobil/Exxon, United Technologies, and other Fortune 500 companies. We traveled all over the world. David has lectured at TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) and The Aspen Institute. Basically he's brilliant at selling ‘family of man’ type concepts to non-biological corporations. I still remain in close contact with him. Our careers went separate ways when I decided to move to Los Angeles and pursue feature films as a cinematographer.

What were the next big steps on your career path?

First it was New York City, and then California. The company I worked for began shooting high-end commercials and documentaries for large corporations. I began traveling around the world to places like Iran, Afghanistan, the Middle East, the Far East, Scandinavia, Africa, South America, Australia, the South Pacific, and places like Point Barrow in February. One moment I would be sailing aboard The Calypso and then find myself skiing with the U.S. Marines on an arctic exercise north of the Arctic Circle in northern Norway. The adult work journey seemed like an unbroken thread from how I grew up. The work was based on documentaries. I used lightweight cameras like the Aaton LTR. I began to study the art of cinema verite, handholding the camera, from filmmakers like David Hoffman and Don Lenzer. I learned the importance of sound in documentaries. Then in 1985, Ed Lachman (ASC) asked me to be a camera operator on his film Desperately Seeking Susan. I enjoyed the experience and decided to go to Hollywood and shoot feature films. Heathers was my first movie that screened in theaters. Then, my journey took me to the ASC where I met my Yoda. Perhaps the most important career changing event to happen to me was to meet and later become close friends with Owen Roizman, ASC. Owen is the smartest person I've ever met. He is a great artist and defines what the ASC stands for. I always knew that being successful at any business, especially the film business, was the ability to solve problems quickly. Owen is someone that taught me things I'm still trying to comprehend.

You have earned more than 50 narrative and credits. When and how did you become a member of ASC?

When you arrive to Hollywood all you want is to get your first feature film to photograph. Before you know it you've shot 50 so it goes by very quickly. I'd known about the ASC but I always considered the ASC was where real professional cinematographers belonged. I never felt as though I was part of that group because I started with documentaries. Then William Fraker [ASC, BSC] was the first to entertain the notion of ASC membership in 1991 because I had been hired to shoot a television show called The Flash. Billy was directing the episode I was shooting. Then in 1996, Robert Stevens, Jr. [ASC] wrote me a sponsorship letter along with Sol Negrin [ASC] and Sandi Sissel [ASC]. It was one of the proudest days of my life to become an ASC member. I think one reason why I'm good at being the membership chair is because I recall my own interview. I remember smoking an entire package of Camels outside the clubhouse waiting for them to call me in. I was very nervous. I try to calm the nerves of candidates that come in for their interviews.

What were your feelings when you were told you will receive the ASC Presidents Award?

I thought someone had confused me with someone else or had made a mistake. When they told me I was to receive the Presidents Award I felt like the guy who was asked to give a eulogy and his reply was that he'd rather be in the box. It is a great honor and I'm thrilled to be honored by the ASC, but it's hard to believe an organization like the ASC would think of me as special. It's a very special honor and I will accept it graciously. You must understand that I have an Irish stoic thing going on inside. We have a hard time accepting a compliment. More importantly, I feel as though this award is more about me being the tip of the pencil as a representative of the ASC. I think of this award not so much as a reward about what I’ve done for the ASC but rather a tangible reminder of the importance of being involved. The ASC is a living breathing organization that is only as good as its membership. We must always ask ourselves how to make it better, how to make it grow? How can we protect the authors of the images which defines the ASC? The motto of loyalty, artistry, and progress are meaningful concepts once a member achieves that point in their life where they realize that the ASC is a collection of individual visionaries that combined create a collective genius.

You are currently in season three of the television series Justified, which airs on the FX channel. Tell us about it?

The series is an Elmore Leonard story of a federal marshal who returns to his hometown of Harlan, Kentucky. Harlan County is a coal mining community in the Black Mountains of Kentucky and West Virginia. Justified is one of the best shows on television. I'm extremely fortunate to be working with the best actors and writers in the business. I don't say these things to kiss ass because Justified is a wonderful collection of talent. Some very bright people have given me the responsibility of making the show look intelligent with a sense of reality. The show carries ‘the dirt under the fingernails, clothes worn, and faces of hardship’ look of what it must be to live in a coal mining community. Justified recently won a Peabody Award for excellence and was called one of the 10 best by Time magazine this year, so, oh boy, we'd better do a good job. All of this is easy when you work with directors like Jon Avnet, Michael Dinner, Peter Werner, Michael Watkins, Tony Goldwyn, and Dean Parisot.

Kenny portrait by Owen Roizman, ASC.