A Conversation With Gerald Hirschfeld , ASC
October 25, 2006
When and how did you become interested in photography?
I was born and raised in New York City, and became interested in photography when I was very young. My sister gave me a home developing kit when I was about 12 years old. It was really primitive. The trays were made out of wax-coated cardboard. You developed pictures in the tray by moving the film up and down. My sister was an oral hygienist. One of her patients was a professional photographer who mentioned that he was looking for a darkroom assistant. I interviewed and got the job. I went to Stuyvesant High School, which at that time was so crowded that they went to two sessions, morning and afternoon. As a result, my afternoons were free. I studied physics in high school, and learned a lot about light and color, lenses, mechanical movements, and leverage. All of that knowledge was useful in filmmaking. After a few years, I got a job with a professional fashion photographer on Fifth Avenue. I learned how to develop and retouch pictures, and that served me well over the years.
You enlisted in the Army during World War II when you were 19 or 20. What did you do in the service?
Due to my photographic experience I was stationed at the Signal Corps Photographic Center in Astoria, New York, where they made training films. A number of top Hollywood cameramen who were members of the ASC were there. I had gone into the army not knowing which end of a motion picture camera to look into, but I knew how to properly expose film, and I knew about composition, filters and lab processing, so I had a good jump on most of the other assistants. Leo Tover (ASC, The Journey to the Center of the Earth, Misty, etc.) took a liking to me. I started out assisting Leo on training films, and eventually he made me his operator. He taught me how to photograph women. Years later, Leo sponsored my membership in the ASC. Stanley Cortez (ASC, The Three Faces of Eve, The Night of the Hunter, etc.) was also working there. We made training films and Hollywood celebrities would donate a day of their time at no charge to the government to shoot short entertainment films for the Army-Navy Screen Magazine, which went out to the U.S. bases and overseas troops.
Were you there for your entire time in the military service?
Leo was always looking for a chance to get back to the West Coast. He got himself transferred to Frank Capra’s film unit at the old Fox Studios in Hollywood and was allowed to take one G.I. with him. He took me. One of my jobs was driving around to the various studios to see what sets were standing that might be used for some of our films. Leo was sent to England on an assignment. He was in the middle of a training film, and told the camera department to let me take over because I knew his lighting. I had a short sojourn on Okinawa to film the evacuation of the wounded from the battlefront for a morale film for the Army Air Transit Command.
What did you do after the war ended?
I was 24 years old. Leo was very honest with me. He told me that he was reuniting with his old camera crew and didn’t have a job for me. I went back to New York, where I kept making films as a civilian for the same Signal Corp Photographic Center. While there I shot an emotionally moving documentary called Shades of Gray, about neurological problems in the army. It was nominated for an Oscar in the documentary category. There was a director, Joseph Lerner, with whom I had worked in the army who managed to get a feature film project that had to be shot in 11 days. Although I was an assistant cameraman in the Guild, there was a clause in the by-laws that after being in a category for one year, you could request a temporary change of classification, and you could change back within a year. Having the gall of a young punk, I said I could do his film in 11 days and do it better than anyone else. The film was called C-Man. The stars were Dean Jagger and John Carradine. I never looked back. I never worked as an assistant cameraman again. Forty years later, I shot a commercial with John Carradine and he remembered me.
What happened after C-Man?
I was shooting about one feature film a year and my name was getting around. I shot a documentary feature called With These Hands for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. We recreated the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which caused the death of about 50 young girls who couldn’t escape the flames because all the doors of the work rooms had been locked to keep out union organizers. That event ultimately served as the basis for forming the union, and the film was nominated for an Oscar in 1951.
You became a member of ASC in February 1951. That was nearly 56 years ago. It’s the longest tenure of any current member.
I was 29 years old. Leo Tover was one of my sponsors as was Stanley Cortez.
Because I lived and worked in New York, I never attended any ASC meetings. I finally got to Hollywood and attended my first ASC meeting in 1976. Stanley was acting president for that meeting, and he said, ‘We’re giving out two 25-year bronze cards today.’ I saw jaws dropping when I came up to accept one of them. Seeing me for the first time, many of the regular members thought I must have been a new member. Stanley and I shared a good laugh that night.
You shot a television show called Johnny Jupiter during the early 1950s, followed by an 11-year hiatus from narrative projects. What’s the story behind that?
I got a call from producer George Justin saying he had a script for me to read, Twelve Angry Men. I was delighted, and I told him I was available. That weekend the Academy Awards were given and Boris Kaufman won for On the Waterfront. The powers that be said, ‘Why hire Hirschfeld when we have an Academy Award winner here in New York?’ I was so disappointed by that experience that I decided to concentrate on commercials. We made a lot of commercials. We didn’t have computer-generated images, or postproduction tools like we have today. Commercials were a great training ground for making movies because we encountered so many varied situations. We had limited equipment and many times we were working in available light. I was the busiest cinematographer in New York. After a while, I was written into the contract that the advertising agencies turned over to producers. It said, ‘If you win the bid on this, we want you to use Jerry Hirschfeld as the cameraman.’ In those days, you had to understand how filmed images translated to television. I was an avid reader of the SMPTE Journal and technical books. I read that the lightest-toned object recorded on a frame of film looked white on television. If the actor’s face is the lightest object, it’s going to look like it was dipped in flour. Knowing that, I always put a white reference in the scene, whether it was a picture on the wall, a window, or a tablecloth. The face then fell into a shade of gray in relation to the white. I also knew that the television images didn’t dig into the shadows like film, so I lit accordingly. The ad agencies liked the look of my commercials.
Can you share some of your experiences during that juncture.
About this time a new commercial film company was expanding and I was offered the position of vice president of MPO Videotronics in New York, the world’s largest television commercial company. We built six sound stages right in the middle of Manhattan in the middle of the advertising agencies. At times we had 13 camera crews working. Some of our cameramen, including Owen Roizman (ASC) and Gordon Willis (ASC), became great cinematographers, and we had the best experimental film facility in which to explore new techniques. It was also a time of working with and teaching a new director, Michael Cimino, whose commercials won prize after prize. He and I formed a great team. He left us to do his first feature film and went on to win an Academy Award for directing The Deer Hunter.
You came back to feature films in 1964, when you shot Fail-Safe, which is now considered a classic. How did that happen?
While Sidney Lumet was preparing to make Fail-Safe, he was planning to use rear projection. I was one of the New York cameramen who knew rear projection technology inside and out. I had worked with it in the Army, which had the Mitchell Camera company’s first rear projection equipment. There were large screens on the Fail-Safe set that housed the NORAD control room. I could see that it would require shooting at angles to the screen. Normally the projector would be 60 or 70 feet behind the screen to project the images. The screen used in the set was at about 40 feet wide. There was no studio large enough. I remembered a small newsreel room in Grand Central Station that had stuck in my mind. They projected from the front so you could sit anywhere in that room and see the image. Normally, with rear projection, you had to shoot squarely into the screen because that’s where the light was coming from. Off to the side, the screen would look dark. I decided to make a test. With Don Malkames (ASC), we rented a 35 mm Mitchell rear projector and set up a dolly track parallel to the screen, using the rear projector for front projection on a latex screen. I never lost a bit of brightness no matter what the camera angle was. I was asked by other cinematographers, ‘What about the actors’ shadows on the screen?’ I’d explain, ‘The projector was set 35 feet in the air projecting over the actors’ heads.’ For one 180-degree shot panning from the screen to where the projector would be seen, we rigged a section of the ceiling to open for projection and to close when the camera panned toward it. John Hubley did the animations that went on the screen, and he even put in scan lines so it looked like a large TV image.
In 1967, you shot The Incident, which was the first of seven films you made with director Larry Peerce. The story takes place on a train, but you shot it on a sound stage. How did you create believable train footage?
The City of New York did not want this picture made, and wouldn’t give us permission to shoot on an actual subway car. I knew we could make rear projection work for shots of arriving and leaving stations, and use light effects for the tunnel shots. The question was how to get the background plates because we had to ride the subway with a camera. Normally for background plates you want a pin-registered camera, but since the train was running anyway, I decided that a little movement wouldn’t hurt. We needed about six different background plates to cover each sequence – straight out the window, 45 degrees to the left, and 45 degrees to the right, on each side of the car. We brought a cardboard box on a subway car with a hole in it for the lens. Subway crime was bad at this time, so there were lots of transportation cops around. We had to reload every couple of stations. The camera was noisy and made the transit police gravitate right toward us. My son was a student at NYU film school and was also the assistant on that job. I told the police I was helping my son with his student film. I had to keep the camera rolling. The police asked for the permit and I feigned surprise, asked where one got such a permit, how long would that take, etc., and all the while the camera was rolling. Eventually word got around and they’d be watching for us, but over two nights, we got all the background plates
You shot Diary of a Mad Housewife with director Frank Perry in 1970.
There was an interesting technical challenge that we had to solve. Frank didn’t like to shoot scenes of someone walking out of a door and then picking them up on the other side in a separate shot. He wanted the camera to follow them. This was before there was a Steadicam or anything like it. The camera was a heavy BNC Mitchell, which you couldn’t put on your shoulder and shoot. I had just made a picture in Japan with Zero Mostel and noticed there was a device for invalids that was a kind of walker for someone who couldn’t use their hands to hold on to it. I thought if I could mount a camera on it, it might work. General Camera made a plate that held the BNC that mounted on the walker and allowed my operator to pan and tilt. Just by walking, the operator was able to move easily with the heavy sound camera. We used that rig several times on that picture.
How about Young Frankenstein, a comedy classic that you shot in 1974?
Mel Brooks is the consummate comedy director. It was not my decision to shoot it in black and white. He had to fight with Fox about that. They didn’t want to do it. He told them either we do it in black and white or we don’t do it. Mel and Gene Wilder arranged for me to watch a screening of the original Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein to remind me of the look of the originals. The problem to solve was recreating that look with different lenses, different film stocks and different lights than they had used in 1932. We started shooting scenes with Gene Wilder in the medical institute, before he gets to Transylvania. At the end of the first week of shooting, they asked me to stay after dailies, and told me they were not happy with the look. I asked, ‘What are you talking about? You showed me Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, and that’s what I’m giving you.’ Mel said, ‘That’s not what we want. We want to satirize that look. We want it to be more than that.’ I pointed out that nobody had told me that. Gene Wilder piped up and said, ‘Mel, he’s right, we never told him that.’ I told them I would try several things that night, and tomorrow they could tell me which they liked best. At the next day’s dailies, they said, ‘Oh, this is more like it.’ Then the next sequence came up and they said, ‘Oh this is even better.’ Halfway through the picture Mel said to me in the lunch line, ‘Jerry, I’m glad I didn’t fire you four weeks ago.’ I thought to myself, ‘Mel, you’re lucky I didn’t quit.’ But I didn’t say it.
What qualities make a good director, in your opinion?
I’ve worked with the whole gamut of directors, from those who were well experienced with lenses and camera moves and those who were about to make their first feature film. My Favorite Year was one of the most enjoyable films I worked on. I think that was Richard Benjamin’s first film as a director. I felt an obligation to help him as best I could. Dick was always open to suggestions and he would always evaluate an idea. We always found ourselves on the same page for the look of the film. I also liked working with Sidney Lumet, who came from television. He knew how he was going to cut a film and put it together, because in live television you do that on the spot. He could tell me that he wanted to dolly from here to there with a 50 mm lens. I was to do the lighting and he would design the shots. So be it. A good director must build rapport with the entire crew. With some directors, ego is a problem. It prevents them from asking for suggestions and seems to stifle creativity. You have to learn to be a diplomat with them, and in some cases I could have been a better diplomat. I always did the best I could even if I wasn’t always the best diplomat.
How do you communicate with your collaborators?
One of the first things that I do on a film during preproduction is to ask the director, ‘What do you see regarding the look of the film?’ Sometimes they’ll have a picture or a painting we can use as a jumping off point. On Neon Empire, Larry Peerce said, ‘I can’t tell you the look I want but I want it to feel hot.’ Some directors don’t say anything, or they may say, ‘Why don’t you come up with something and we’ll talk about it.’ The director’s job is mainly to get the best performance out of the actors. I enjoyed working on a picture when I wasn’t given too much information. I didn’t like working with storyboards, for instance. I didn’t want an artist’s concept of what a scene should look like to influence my vision of the film. It’s not necessary to have everything sketched out. I’d watch rehearsals, I’d watch what the actors did, how they moved, and decide how to light or move the camera. Some directors might simply ask, ‘How do you want to shoot this?’ That put the ball in my court and made me feel even more responsible to do the very best I could.
What motivated you to write your book, “Image Control - Motion Picture and Video Camera Filters and Lab Techniques?”
I was a guest instructor at the Lake Tahoe Film and Video workshop and I found I liked passing along information to the next generation of filmmakers. I felt it was important to talk about all the things that can be done to affect the quality of images in support of the story. Photography begins with understanding how to use the tools that affect the “look” and how to use filters to create visuals that are right for the story. I called it a non-technical technical book that tells what a technique will do, why it will do it, and what it won’t do, as well as when to use it and when not to use it. The book sold out and the ASC asked if I would write an update so they could publish a second edition. Martha Winterhalter and her staff produced the new book, which includes digital postproduction and added information about new emulsion, filters, processing techniques, and digital manipulation of images.
What was your reaction when you learned that you would receive the ASC Presidents Award?
Owen Roizman, who has been a close friend over the years, called me and gave me the news. I couldn’t believe I had heard correctly. It was a shock, but I felt very good. I was speechless, in a sense, but feeling so grateful. It’s a great thing to have happen after a lifetime of making films. I deeply appreciate the honor of receiving the Presidents Award, and I also appreciate everything the ASC has done for me and for all of us through the years.
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