Russ Alsobrook, ASC, was born in Hollywood and mainly raised in San Diego. He became a classic and new wave movie buff in high school and also began shooting 8mm films. Alsobrook majored in English literature and minored in philosophy at Cal Western University in San Diego, San Diego State College and the University of California, Santa Barbara.
A chance encounter with a Wonderful World of Disney crew on a California beach led to an opportunity to enter the industry as a “gofer.” He began his career as a PA in 1969, and spent the next three years working on nature films. From 1972-79, Alsobrook was a staff cinematographer for a company that produced industrial films and commercials for Chrysler. He likens that experience to boot camp for a cinematographer.
In 1979, Alsobrook segued into shooting documentaries for PBS, ABC
Television and private foundations. That work took him to some 40
countries, including China, Russia and ancient ruins in Jordan.
Alsobrook transitioned into narrative storytelling in 1989, when he
lensed a low budget feature called The Dark Side of The Moon. His subsequent narrative film credits include The Shaggy Dog, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Escape to Witch Mountain, Encino Woman, The Love Bug, Romy and Michele: In the Beginning, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Role Models, and Paul Blart: Mall Cop. His episodic TV credits include The Ben Stiller Show, Lizzie McGuire, L.A. Dragnet, Big Love, Freaks and Geeks, Grosse Point and The Mind of the Married Man.
(Published January 18, 2003)
(Updated August 17, 2010)
By Bob Fisher
Russ Alsobrook, ASC was born in Hollywood and mainly raised in San Diego. He became a classic and new wave movie buff in high school and also began shooting 8 mm films. Alsobrook majored in English literature and minored in philosophy at Cal Western University in San Diego, San Diego State and the University of California, Santa Barbara. A chance encounter with a Wonderful World of Disney crew on a California beach led to an opportunity to enter the industry as a “ gofer.” He began his career as a P.A. in 1969, and spent the next three years working on nature films. From 1972 to ’79, Alsobrook was a staff cinematographer for a company that produced industrial films and commercials for Chrysler. He likens that experience to boot camp for a cinematographer. In 1979, Alsobrook segued into shooting documentaries for PBS, ABC Television and private foundations. That work took him to some 40 countries, including China, Russia and ancient ruins in Jordan. Alsobrook transitioned into narrative storytelling in 1989, when he lensed a low budget feature called The Dark Side of The Moon. His subsequent narrative film credits include such telefilm remakes of The Shaggy Dog, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Escape to Witch Mountain, Encino Woman and The Love Bug. His episodic TV credits include The Ben Stiller Show, Freaks and Geeks, Grosse Point and The Mind of the Married Man. Alsobrook recently shot a telefilm, Romy and Michele: Behind the Velvet Rope, which will air in 2003. Following are excerpts of a conversation:
ICG: Let’s start with an easy question. Where you were born and raised?
ALSOBROOK: I was born in Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital. My family moved to San Diego when I was six months old. That’s where I grew up. My father was an aerospace engineer and executive. My mother had been a big band singer, but she gave it up to be a housewife and mom. I had no connections whatsoever, to the motion picture business.
ICG: Were you a movie buff growing up?
ALSOBROOK: I became a movie buff during the early 1960s, while I was going to school in San Diego. Some of my bohemian friends and I happened to find a folk music club and underground cinema called The Sign of the Sun. They showed classic and new wave films. They were usually 16 mm images projected on a wall. That’s where I discovered the cinema. I remember seeing Metropolis and Citizen Kane, and films by Bergman, Fellini, Truffant, Welles, Cocteau and Stan Brahkage. That was during my late high school and early college years. I began reading about movies and directors and got an 8 mm camera and started shooting.
ICG: What did you shoot?
ALSOBROOK: Little semi-documentaries that I edited and put to music using a record player synched to the 8 mm projector. I bought a 16 mm Bolex when I was in college.
ICG: Where did you go to school?
ALSOBROOK: I went to Cal Western University in San Diego, San Diego State and also the University of California, Santa Barbara. I majored in English literature and minored in philosophy, intending to become an English professor.
ICG: How did you get on this career path?
ALSOBROOK: We didn’t have a film department at UC Santa Barbara, but there were a lot of kids interested in making films. I was their cinematographer. I enjoyed it so much that I became less and less interested in pursuing English literature, and more interested in working in the movie industry. I just didn’t know how to get started.
ICG: Why did you choose cinematography rather than directing or writing?
ALSOBROOK: I’ve always been an outsider, an observer, so it was natural for me to gravitate to that side of the camera. Being an introvert is probably a quality shared by many cinematographers.
ICG: Did you change your field of study at some point?
ALSOBROOK: No. I was totally self-educated about film. I happened upon a couple of boxes of old American Cinematographer magazines at a garage sale. They were from the 1950s and ‘60s. I studied those magazines and memorized every word. That was my film school. I went to the beach one morning to check the surf. I was a surfer at the time. I saw a small crew shooting on the beach. It turned out they were a Disney crew shooting tests for an upcoming episode of Wonderful World of Disney. I introduced myself to the director, Frank Zuniga, and started talking about my interest in movies and asking questions about what they were doing. A few weeks later, I wrote him a letter saying I would do anything to work on his show. To my surprise, he hired me. I moved to Hollywood in September1969 and began working as a gofer on Three Without Fear, a Wonderful World of Disney show. I was basically a P.A. In those days they called us gofers.
ICG: What did you learn from that experience?
ALSOBROOK: I worked on that show for about six months. I learned how to drive a truck and deliver film to the lab and pick up equipment. I also got to shoot some B camera, and learned how to load magazines, change lenses, record a little sound, hold a boom mike and a reflector, set up a light, and do just about every job that needed to be done on the set. In those days, I was going to some 250 movies a year, sometimes three, four or five a day.
ICG: Were you aware of any cinematographers?
ALSOBROOK: I was really impressed with Conrad Hall …I’m still impressed... Lucien Ballard and Haskell Wexler. I enjoyed the work of the new wave guys who were working in Hollywood, and certainly Laszlo Kovacs. I thought Easy Rider was one of the greatest films ever made. I could see what Laszlo was doing, because I understood shooting into the sun and getting lens flare. I understood using the zoom. I understood handheld cameras, because those were all the kinds of things we were doing. The polished studio films of those days were so technically advanced that I didn’t know how to achieve the effects that they were getting, so they weren’t as interesting to me, esthetically. When I look at those same studio films today, I find them fascinating, because they are so unbelievably polished. They were shot by guys who started in the business in the ‘teens’ handcranking Pathe and Bell and Howell 2709 cameras. Guys like Charley Lang, William Daniels, Burnett Guffey and Lee Garmes were pioneers who were still shooting major features in the sixtys and seventies.
ICG: You obviously weren’t a gofer for life. What did you do next?
ALSOBROOK: I worked on a couple of industrial films, assisting and shoo some second unit. Milas Hinshaw, the cameraman on the first Disney show I worked on had the opportunity to direct one of the shows the next year, and he gave me a chance to be the cameraman. He was out of the Bill Burrud documentary world. I went to San Francisco with him to shoot a film called Salty the Hijacked Harbor Seal. That was my first show as a cinematographer. It was 16 mm Ektachrome commercial film, an ASA 25 reversal stock with about as much latitude as today’s 24 P cameras….I think it was about four stops. The following year, I worked on another film with Frank Zuniga. It was a two-part Disney show in New Mexico called Mustang. I did some second unit work and pick-up shots, recorded the location sound and did B camera. Mike Lonzo was the DP.
ICG: Do you recall your aspirations at that time during the 1970s?
ALSOBROOK: I wanted to be a cinematographer for guys like Coppola, working with a handheld Éclair camera on location, shooting groovy, ‘60s style movies. Medium Cool was a big influence. It was an awesome groundbreaking film. We’re still trying to catch up with what Haskell (Wexler) and some of those other guys did 30 years ago.
ICG: I take it that you weren’t in the Guild at that time?
ALSOBROOK: No, it was a long time before I got in the Guild, but it wasn’t an issue for me. I always expected to rise up through the ranks from the outside like Laszlo and Vilmos did. I wasn’t in any real rush. I didn’t realize how little I knew about the craft, and how much you can learn in the Guild mentoring system that has worked so well for more than 70 years. I was young, naïve and gung-ho. I just wanted a camera on my shoulder. I was happy doing industrial, documentary, commercials and educational films.
ICG: Give us some examples of what types of films you were shooting.
ALSOBROOK: I did a lot of automotive films for Gene McCabe Productions. We shot literally hundreds of films for the Chrysler Corporation. We would do training films and new car films. Once a year we’d shoot a wide-screen 35 mm film of all their new products for a convention, and we also shot commercials every once in a while. I learned how to shoot fast, and with no resources. Usually, I had a 16 mm ARRIFLEX camera and a Lowell lighting kit. There was often no assistant. You would go out and do it yourself. We shot training films for the salesmen, including running footage of new cars. We would go to the factories where the cars were being manufactured. They were real nuts and bolts industrial films. It was 16mm color reversal until probably the mid-70s when we started using negative.
ICG: Did you ever have a chance to shoot black and white film?
ALSOBROOK: Not very often. We would only shoot black and white if it was for a specific effect, like trying to show a historical aspect of a car.
ICG: What was your next step?
ALSOBROOK: The next step really didn’t come until the late ‘80s. By then, I was shooting documentaries for PBS, ABC, and a lot for the Ambassador Foundation, which was the philanthropic arm of the Worldwide Church of God. I would travel all around the world with them shooting documentaries of their leader Herbert Armstrong interacting with heads of state. It was a fabulous experience. I traveled to 35 or 40 countries and learned how to shoot fast with no crew and very little equipment. We tried to capture the moment and make it look fantastic.
ICG: What kind of documentaries were you shooting for PBS and ABC?
ALSOBROOK: For PBS, I did a mini-series called The Women of Russia. We went to Moscow in 1979 and interviewed several prominent women from all walks of life. We filmed their lifestyles while they revealed their thoughts and histories. I also did a documentary starring Katharine Hepburn, which was basically her biography based on interviews with people who had worked with her. So I had the opportunity to film George Cukor, John Houseman, Pandro S. Berman, Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda and others.
ICG: Was it the Frederick Wiseman style of fly-on-the- wall style of documentary shooting, or more like the interpretive approach taken by Ken Burns?
ALSOBROOK: It was more like Ken Burns. We would find an appropriate location in their house and then light it to bring out the best qualities of the individuals we were interviewing. One of my greatest compliments came from Henry Fonda, who we interviewed for that show. As he left, he said, thank you very much, you made it easy for me. I think is very important to make people feel comfortable and at ease, and you can do that with non-obtrusive but flattering lighting.
ICG: That raises an interesting question. There has been so much hype about using digital cameras to get rid of lighting, because it gets in the way of the relationship between the actors and directors. That mainly comes from a few directors like Mike Figgis, and several others, who operate their own cameras. Do you have a comment?
ALSOBROOK: That’s like asking a painter to give up lighting, or asking a novelist to give up describing a scene where light filters through the windows, or the way the light on an autumn day can paint the scene for his characters. How can an artist give up lighting? I still remember Mr. Fonda on his veranda. We positioned him so he was backlit, and used a 4x4 piece of white foam core to direct a little soft bounce light.
ICG: Where does that come from? Is it instinct or experience or both?
ALSOBROOK: It’s instinct, but it is also something that you learn from experience. I didn’t go to film school and I wasn’t on the sets of other cinematographers working with crews very much, so it was definitely a trial and error education as I went along. I picked up little hints from other guys who had worked on sets, but being in this small non-union world, where we didn’t have a lot of contact with what was going on in the major motion picture sets in town, we weren’t privy to all the tricks. I learned slowly through my own mistakes more than anything else.
ICG: Can we talk some more about your experiences in Russia?
ALSOBROOK: It was a fantastic experience. We got to interview some of the most prominent women in Moscow, including a doctor, a judge, a poet, a construction worker and a ballet dancer. They opened their homes and their hearts to us. Even though we had interpreters, and usually a representative of the KGB, these people were so happy to express themselves that it was really an emotional experience. I recall shooting in a park with this poet, and after the interview she recited one of her poems. As she was reciting it, and I was rolling, she started crying, because she was so touched. By the end, everybody was crying. I’ll remember that beautiful moment forever.
ICG: What else do you recall?
ALSOBROOK: I learned that the more you travel, the more you realize that people around the world are all exactly the same. They just want to be free to live their lives the best way they can, whether it’s in Russia, China, Jordan, Israel or the Philippines. They just want to raise their families, do their work, and be left alone. I recall hiking up the Great Wall of China in the dark at 4 a.m. to get a sunrise shot. We couldn’t see anything because it was pitch dark, and there was only one bare bulb at the entrance to light our way up the steps. I still recall watching the sunrise over the Great Wall and revealing it piece by piece. It was an amazing sight. I also recall riding horseback through the sandstone canyons of Jordan to get to the ancient city of Petra. It was thousands of years old. It was like stepping back in time.
ICG: How much film do you think you shot during that period?
ALSOBROOK: We probably shot millions of feet of film. We slowly transitioned into videotape toward the late ‘80s. We would take both 16mm and video packages for a while. We would use the 16 mm camera in the field and use the video for interviews. It was one-inch tape at first, and then it was three-fourth inch machines, and toward the late 1980s we used Betacams. It was never quite the same. It just wasn’t quite as magical for me after the film was gone.
ICG: Why do you suppose that is?
ALSOBROOK: I’ve been thinking about that question for 20 years. I think that film has a certain magic that will never be replaced or duplicated with videotape, whether you call it digital or something else, and that saddens me greatly. Even if 10 or 20 years from now there is some incredible image capture machine that can download directly into a computer or download directly into your mind, I think we will have lost an art form.
ICG: That takes you up until the late 1980s.
ALSOBROOK: That’s when I realized it was time to make that leap from the industrial-documentary-miscellaneous world into shooting narrative films. Through a mutual friend, I met Kees Van Oostrum. He was one of the up and coming cinematographers at the time. Kees was shooting a lot of television movies. He gave me some invaluable advice. He had been shooting some music videos for a director who was going to do a little feature film, basically with no money. Kees wasn’t available to do this movie, and so he introduced me to the director, D. J. Webster, who hired me. It was about an hour-long film, but I considered it a feature because it was my first foray into narrative film, and we shot in 35 mm. We had a very small crew, which rotated day to day, because everybody was working for free, so they could only give a day or two here and there.
ICG: What was it about?
ALSOBROOK: It was a beautiful story called Skeeter’s Wings. D J. wrote the script. It was about the rights of passage of a young man who was in a wheelchair. It was shot in eight very short days, because we observed the child labor laws. I was very proud of that film. I was able to prove to myself that I could do it. That was the turning point. I enjoyed the experience so much, and I felt like the 20 years of shooting before that were all leading up to being able to do narrative films.
ICG: What did you do next?
ALSOBROOK: I made a reel from Skeeter’s Wings and took it around. It really didn’t get me anywhere. Fortunately, D. J., the director, was doing music videos and I shot several with him. He did a feature the following year. It was a little science fiction/ horror movie called The Dark Side of the Moon. We shot it on a stage. I tried to make the inside of a spaceship interesting with very minimal resources. I think the whole movie was budgeted for about a $1.2 million. There were some of visual effects, including some of the exteriors of the spaceships and docking and landing on the moon, but everything else was in-camera. It was supposed to be a very funky, down-and-dirty spaceship, and that made it much more interesting. It had a very short release and right to video.
ICG: This was 1889? What happened next?
ALSOBROOK: I was still filming documentaries, industrial films and commercials, because opportunities to shoot narrative films were few and far between. In 1990, I worked with Kees as an operator on Never Forget, a TV movie. He used a jib arm a lot. That was his trademark at the time. It was the first time I actually watched a real cinematographer working on the set with a full crew. I stole every idea I could from him. I took copious notes and drew diagrams of all his lighting.
ICG: Were you in the Guild by then?
ALSOBROOK: I got into the Guild in 1989. If you could prove you had 100 days of experience with call sheets and time cards, and if you had letters of recommendation, you could get in. I always thought that everybody should be in the union because no one should be denied the right to work in their chosen field. The timing was right, because by the time I actually did get in the union, I had some inkling of what I was doing. I’ll never forget that day. It was a proud moment because all of a sudden it felt like I had finally arrived in Hollywood. It only took twenty years.
ICG: Did you ever operate for anybody else again?
ALSOBROOK: Never. I shot The Ben Stiller Show for Fox. We did 13 episodes in 1992. It was 16mm, 8mm, and various video formats, because it was a sketch comedy show that did parodies of movies, TV commercials and shows and music videos. The pieces we were parodying determined the format. It was a fantastic experience that allowed me to experiment with different lighting styles and formats. The show only lasted for one season, but it’s become a cult favorite and bootleg tapes still circulate all over the place. In fact, it’s coming out on DVD.
ICG: What happened next?
ALSOBROOK: In 1993, I did a couple of pilots, and a low-budget movie called Mona Must Die, which was a mystery thriller. I shot it in 15 days. 1994 was a very slow year for me. I had doubts whether I would be able to continue. I made a promise to myself that if I didn’t get a substantial job by my birth date, which would also mark the 25th year of being in this business in one form or another, I would find something else to do.
ICG: Was that a serious consideration?
ALSOBROOK: Yes, I was serious about it. As luck would have it, my agent set up a meeting at Disney. They were doing a series of four television movies. All of them were remakes of classic movies. They wanted to do it like an anthology series, keeping the same crew with different directors and cast. I interviewed for the job and the producers were impressed with my work on The Ben Stiller Show, because of the variety of looks, techniques and styles.
ICG: What were the movies?
ALSOBROOK: The Shaggy Dog, Freaky Friday, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and Escape to Witch Mountain.
ICG: Was that your first real experience working with a Guild crew?
ALSOBROOK: Yes. At times, it was frustrating not being my own operator after all of those years, but it was also liberating, because I had time to concentrate on lighting, and I could work with the director and set up shots with the operator. I had another set of eyes to help me out. I worked with some very experienced operators, including Dan Gold, Case Hotchkiss and Tommy Yatsko, who is now doing a lot of shooting himself, including second unit on Alias. It was a great experience. I had a wonderful crew and we brought all of our shows in under budget and on time. Disney called us back the next year to do The Love Bug, Encino Woman, and The Barefoot Executive. After 25 years, I finally felt like I was making movies Hollywood style, on the back lot of a studio, and on locations.
ICG: What did you learn during that period?
ALSOBROOK: I learned that there’s a lot more to this job than photography. I learned about managing a crew, dealing with directors and producers, and the art of diplomacy. I learned that you have to be a mind-reader, because directors often don’t express what they really want you to do. You have to look past what they’re talking about and discover what they really want in terms of setting up a shot or designing a lighting scheme, or getting the coverage that’s necessary to make a scene work. That’s an art within itself.
ICG: How do you do that?
ALSOBROOK: You have to get to know the director very quickly, and discover what they really feel is important about a scene; and then you try to design the photography and capture that feeling. It’s different every time. They (the director) can tell you one thing on the scout and do something totally different when you are shooting. How many times have I heard a director say when we are scouting a location, we will never look in this direction; and when you have it lit, the first thing they want is to shoot in the opposite direction. I was doing some pick-up shots on a Western movie. The shot one day was following a horse across the desert. It was just a little transition piece that the editors needed. I asked the director, okay, so we start tight on the horse’s head and pull back to reveal where he is and follow him across the desert? He said, ‘No, no, no, no. Listen, we’re going to start tight on the horse’s head; we’re going to pull back to reveal where he is, and follow him across the desert. That’s the shot. Okay?’ That’s where your diplomacy kicks in. Another time, I was shooting a TV movie, which shall remain unnamed. The assistant and I were setting up the shot for what we thought was the perfect master shot. We marked it on the floor and had it all set up. The director comes in and looks through the lens. He says, ‘No, no, no, no, babe, that’s not the shot. Let’s put the camera over here. No, let’s put it over here. No, let’s bring it – no, let’s try this. No, bring it over here. Now, that’s the shot, babe.’ We looked down and the camera’s right over the X. That happens all the time, but you just move on. You can’t get upset. That’s the art of diplomacy.
ICG: How did you get into episodic TV?
ALSOBROOK: In 1996, Disney decided to take almost all their TV movies to Canada. I sat out most of the year, because I had put all my eggs in the Disney basket for the previous two years, and you get out of the loop very quickly. I just did a couple of pilots, including one for an MTV series called Austin Stories, which I wound up shooting in Austin, Texas, the following year,. There were 12 episodes. It was a half-hour, semi-sit-com that had the feeling of reality. It was about three kids in Austin, Texas, and their adventures. We shot it 16mm, all handheld with Aaton cameras. It was fun because it sort of got me back to the roots of what can you do with minimum lighting.
ICG: Why was it handheld?
ALSOBROOK: It didn’t have the look of a traditional handheld show. It just created a different kind of energy with a slight movement of the camera on the shoulder hinting at reality. It also precluded doing a lot of elaborate camera moves. We would do long master takes with no cuts, because it was all about the characters and the dialogues and the relationships.
ICG: Do you believe the audience knows how to read those nuances?
ALSOBROOK: I think they do whether they realize it or not. Every different cinematic technique creates an emotional response, whether it’s a handheld 16 mm camera or an anamorphic mise-en-scene shot, and everything in-between. It all has psychological and emotional affects that influence how the audience responds to the story and characters. The same is true of lighting, choice of camera angles and lenses. All those things can have a profound affect on the audience, even if they don’t consciously realize it.
ICG: What were those two words you said after anomorphic?
ALSOBROOK: Mise-en-scene is a style where the actors move within a tableau and there is very little cutting. A great example would be Vincent Minelli’s Some Came Running. There are some amazing shots like that in that movie, where he uses the wide screen to its maximum advantage and lets the action play out within the frame.
ICG: Are you still a film fan?
ICG: What do you go to see?
ALSOBROOK: I like to go see classic films that are re-released. I honestly think I was born 30 or 40 years too late. Recently, they showed Lawrence of Arabia in 70 mm at the Cinerama Dome. It was like entering the gates of heaven. It was an incredibly profound experience. It was almost as good as the first time I saw it when it was first released.
ICG: How do you keep from getting down on yourself when things are slow?
ALSOBROOK: It’s very difficult, because you always think it’s got to be your fault. It’s very easy to spiral down and down and get depressed. When a project is over, you think to yourself, well, that’s probably the last one. The phone is never going to ring again and sometimes it feels like that. I was at a Guild a lighting workshop, and started talking to other people and I realized I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. It’s human nature. We talked and it became obvious that the current sense of doom and gloom was created by the Canadian situation. All of a sudden so many movies and TV movies were going to Canada that had been bread and butter for a lot of people. George (Dibie) wrote an editorial about that, which was an eye-opener for me, because I hadn’t realized exactly what was happening. I knew that Disney was doing it, but I didn’t know that so many other studios were following the same pattern. I decided that I was going to make a concerted effort to go to every screening, demonstration and seminar, where I could mix with my peers and other people in the industry. I also put together a new resume, reel and got a new agent.
ICG: Was that how you got the next job?
ALSOBROOK: What happened was that I went to a special screening of The Ben Stiller Show at the DGA and ran into one of the producers I had worked with before. He was shooting a pilot for NBC. He said, why don’t you visit the set, because if this goes to series, it looks like Russ ALSOBROOK territory to me. So, I watched them shoot and a couple of months later, he called and said, we have an order for Freaks and Geeks. The series was critically acclaimed, but it had low ratings. We shot 18 episodes before NBC pulled the plug. But, Freaks and Geeks helped to establish me in episodic television. It had a very high profile in the industry, and the critics loved it. From that point on it’s been fairly non-stop in terms of doing episodic television.
ICG: Why was Grosse Pointe shot in Super 16 format format?
ALSOBROOK I think it was economics, although when you really run the numbers, there’s not that much difference between shooting three-perf 35 mm and Super 16. I think whether you shoot Super 16 or 35 mm, or film or 24P has a lot to do with the perceptions of producers who are budget minded. Fortunately, there are esthetically minded producers who feel that the look of their product and the filmic quality of their shows are important. Freaks and Geeks was 35 mm three perf. Grosse Pointe, was Super 16, and the next show after that, Undeclared, was Super 16, which was probably a good move because the producers wanted to shoot an awful lot of footage. We would shoot 15,000 to 20,000 feet a day. I shot 10 episodes of Lizzie McGuire in 16, and then went back to Undeclared. This season, I shot HBO’s The Mind of the Married Man in 35 mm format, three perf. Going back to 35 after a couple of years of 16 was a revelation. You get used to 16 looking pretty damn good, especially if you use medium-speed stocks and have a great telecine operator. But, then when you shoot 35 again and you realize the richness that can be achieved with that negative, and the latitude is just amazing. It constantly surprises me every day how much film can see. Sometimes it sees more than my eyes saw on the set. There are details in the shadows that I didn’t expect, or it will hold highlights beyond what I thought was possible. It is a combination of the beautiful stocks and the amazing digital telecine technology we have today.
ICG: Have you ever shot or tested 24P?
ALSOBROOK: I shot video for 20-some odd years on various types projects in every format from 2-inch to High 8. I shot a 24P HD project for the Academy Awards last year. It was a bit with Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson. To me, it seemed like just another video camera, with all the limitations that are built into any electronic system.
ICG: I take it that you don’t put 24P at the top of your list of technological breakthroughs that have affected what you can do as a cinematographer? What do you consider the most important advances during say these last 10 years?
ALSOBROOK: Aside from an improvement in film stocks, which is a constant evolutionary process, I think the most important technological advancement has been in digital post production, especially for those of us who are working in television. With the combination of a well-photographed negative and a great telecine machine/operator, you can do wonders. There are little enhancements that we can do to help scenes today that were impossible just a few years ago.
ICG: Can you give us an example?
ALSOBROOK: I was shooting an interior scene with a translight of a seascape outside the window. Obviously, the translight didn’t move, so we had to be very careful about blocking, so we don’t give away the fact that the background wasn’t real. We added a little bit of water sparkle to the translight in post production, and it created the illusion of just enough movement to sell the idea that the seascape was real… and that was just a tiny fix. Another example is poor man’s process , which involves shooting people in cars on a stage. You don’t have to go out on the streets with a car on a tow trailer and go through the hassle of shooting two actors talking in the front seat. You just do some lighting gags and shoot close enough so that you don’t see too much background. So ninety-nine percent of the time it really sells. On one show, we added reflections on the windshield of a car in post. It was just a very simple overlay with lights and colors changing to help to sell the idea that you are watching real characters in a real car driving down a real street.
ICG: In your experience, have you been able to maintain some control over what happens in the telecine suite?
ALSOBROOK: The only time we lose control is when we’re shooting so much footage every day that the telecine is working three shifts with different colorists, so it’s almost impossible to maintain a look. But when you’re shooting a reasonable amount of film, and you have one telecine guy dedicated to your show, you can develop a good working relationship. It starts with testing at the beginning of the show when you set up a look, and after that you work with the colorist so they understand your intentions.
ICG: How do you communicate with your colorists?
ALSOBROOK: I use notes on the camera reports and put messages in their voice mail, because usually they start about one or two in the morning. I speak with them when I get up in the morning, usually at 4:30 a.m. I’ll ask, how did we do yesterday? Did you get that note about the warm light streaming through the window in this scene? In a sense, your telecine operator becomes an invisible member of your camera crew, but it can be a double-edged sword The bells and whistles in the post production world are so amazing today that they can change your look pretty easily if someone else is playing at being the cinematographer. You have to make sure the colorist is on the same page with you esthetically. If the telecine operator thinks he’s transferring a different movie than what you had in mind, then obviously you have a big problem.
ICG: Do you have any influence on selecting the telecine facility?
ALSOBROOK: Unfortunately, most of those decisions are made before I come onboard. I’ve been very fortunate that my last two shows were posted at Riot, in Santa Monica, because both HBO and Disney have relationships with them, and they’ve done a superb job. I’ve had some of the best post production work that I’ve ever seen. I’ve been very pleased with The Mind of the Married Man this year. I don’t believe that comedy should look bright and flat. In fact, I don’t know of anybody who believes that anymore. I think that whole paradigm came out of early television. Where you had to make it bright and flat just to satisfy the tubes of the video cameras and that just carried on for generations. I like to work way down in the bottom of the scale and make things as dark and rich as I can, which sometimes can come back and bite you if the network thinks it should be otherwise. You can do a comedy and make it dark and moody, and then when they broadcast it, they say, wait a minute, this is supposed to be a comedy, let’s brighten it up. You always have to realize what your final venue is going to be, and understand that you can’t use dark shadows in a comedy and expect it to look that way when it is broadcast by certain networks.
ICG: Didn’t you also recently shoot a TV movie?
ALSOBROOK: I shot a Disney film called Romy and Michele: Behind the Velvet Rope. It’s an original story and a prequel to the feature, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. It was written by Robin Schiff, who also wrote the feature She also produced and directed this TV movie. That was a great experience, because it was her script, and she was directing and producing her vision. The story takes place in Hollywood, and we shot it there mainly at practical locations with five days on a sound stage for some interiors. I’d characterize it as a screwball comedy that is kind of a throwback to the 1930s style of making that type of film. We all watched The Wizard of Oz before production started Because Romy and Michele lost in Hollywood echoes Dorothy’s trip through Oz. One thing I noticed was that the blocking was very simple, probably because of the Technicolor three-strip camera, which was the size of a meat locker. We decided on very simple blocking and a high key, richly saturated look in discussions between Robin, the production designer and myself. Robin is a collaborative director who is open to accepting ideas.
ICG: Who was the production designer?
ALSOBROOK: Tom Walsh is an Emmy-winning production designer who came in with some fantastic ideas for sets and locations, which fit the movie perfectly.
ICG: How much time did you have for preproduction and shooting?
ALSOBROOK: I had two weeks. The production designer had an incredible cache of tearsheets from magazines and photography books. We looked at those and then he put together several montages for each set and location, which gave us a template for how to approach those scenes. It was going to be shot in 35 mm and then about a week and a half before production started they cut the budget by a substantial amount, so we went from 35 to Super 16. Our original shooting schedule was 23 days. It got cut to 21 days, and we finished a day early.
ICG: How did you approach shooting in Super 16 format?
ALSOBROOK: I tested just about all the 16mm stocks, including some of the new, low-contrast, high-speed films. The (Kodak Vision) 7274 (200-speed film) just popped off the screen. It was brilliant in terms of its richness and saturation and grain-free look. After seeing a transfer on a Spirit telecine machine at Riot, I chose that stock for everything, including interiors, exteriors, day and night. I like using one film stock, because it’s more efficient, and it saves money because you don’t have a lot of short ends. The loader doesn’t have to anticipate you when you’re switching stocks and be caught short with the wrong negative in the magazine.
ICG: Did shooting in Super 16 format affect your to lighting?
ALSOBROOK: We had some very big night exteriors, including one where we lit three blocks on Hollywood Boulevard. I don’t know whether or not we would have used smaller units if we’d shot in 35 mm format. That’s questionable. It seems like the higher the speed of the film, the bigger the lights and the bigger the sets. A few years ago, who would have thought of using 20Ks? We use them all the time now. In fact, sometimes 20Ks aren’t big enough, so we use Dino and Musco lights. With a 200-speed film, especially in Super 16, there is much less margin for error. The exposure’s got to be right on, so you need the firepower available to give you the stop you need. I don’t really like to work wide open at T-1.3. You can, but it makes the assistant’s job a hellish experience. You need to give them a decent stop to work with.
ICG: How about the size of your crew?
ALSOBROOK: The crew is the same whether it’s 65 mm, 35 mm or 16 mm film, or 24P video, because you still have all the same jobs. In fact, you have more jobs if it’s 24P HD. It takes a lot more work to make it look like film, because it has such a limited range of latitude. You need more lighting, and a lot more grip work. For example, if we were shooting in this room and you had this window to deal with, you could only allow the exterior to go 1-1/2 or maybe two stops over before it blows out to nothingness with no details, just a pure, raw, video white. You would either have to use heavy ND gels or nets on the windows to bring the exterior down or boost the interior so much that it would look unnatural. With 35 mm film, I probably wouldn’t put any gels on that window, depending on how hot I wanted it to be. In fact, I’m continually surprised at how much detail you can hold through a window to the exterior. I haven’t used hard gels on a window in years, because it’s just not necessary anymore.
ICG: Was this a multi-camera or a single-camera shoot?
ALSOBROOK: We used a B camera when we needed it, which was probably 30 percent of the time. We shot the master with a single camera, and when we went into coverage, we would do an over and a close-up at the same time with an A and B camera. I used ARRIFLEX SR3s, because I think are a little more rugged, more forgiving on location.
ICG: Was Robin Schiff directing from a video tap or by the camera with the actors?
ALSOBROOK: Robin did both. She liked to be on the floor with the actors and the camera crew. She would see the shot on the little on-board monitors that we put on the cameras. It’s very efficient, because Robin was right there and could see the shots, and she could also talk to the actors without yelling at them from video village. I think one of the least interesting technological developments in the last few years is the reliance on the video image by directors instead of being on the set with the actors. I think part of the problem is that a lot of new directors don’t understand what different lenses can do. The old-timers could watch the scene right next to the camera and mentally know what the shot was going to be if it was a 50 mm lens.
ICG: What was your lens selection?
ALSOBROOK: We had two 11.5 to 138 mm zooms, and a set of primes from 9.5 to 180 mm. We had the zooms on the A and B cameras virtually all the time, because it’s very efficient. For a lot of the night scenes, especially the exteriors, I used primes because I wanted to work on a T-2 stop instead of 2.5, the limit on the zooms. The primes are also sharper and crisper, which was especially important for the night scenes. I wanted the film to look as sharp and clean as possible, so there was no filtration. I did test some filters during make-up and hair tests, just to see what they would do for the women, but they really didn’t need them. They’re all young and gorgeous.
ICG: What was your approach to camera movement?
ALSOBROOK: We did a lot of Steadicam work, especially on exteriors, but when it comes right down to it, the film plays in two-shots, because it’s about two girls and their relationship. They’re almost Siamese twins in how close they are and how they react to things. I also think comedy plays best in two-shots, because you see the interactions of the two people. You see the body language in context. If everything is shot in close-up, then you don’t know who’s talking to who about what, where, or why. I think there are too many close-ups on television.
ICG: Did you frame for 16x9 or 4x3?
ALSOBROOK: We protected for 16x9, but composed for 4x3 with great difficulty and frustration. Even though 16x9 is not the most ideal frame, it’s better than 4x3 for most shots. Even close-ups generally play better in 16x9 because you can see more of the environment. I personally don’t like super extreme close-ups unless they’re really called for, because if you use them too much, then they have no power. You have given away an exclamation point you might need later on. I like a loose head and shoulders shot as your normal close-up, because you can still see some body language and save the choker shot for when it really means something.
ICG: Is that a generalization?
ALSOBROOK: You have to let the story determine all your choices, because in the end that’s what a cinematographer does. We tell stories with all the resources that we have available, including lighting, camera movement, film stock, post production, lenses, angles and a lot more. I read the script 10 or 20 or 30 times before we start, so it is second nature, and I know the director’s vision well enough so my instincts automatically take over. I make copious notes about lighting and camera angles and movement, but once we started shooting, I hardly refer to them. After a while, it just comes naturally, and it’s the story that is telling you what to do. I think that’s where cinematographers really shine… by finding the appropriate way to use their tools to tell the story.
ICG: Is this movie based in reality or fantasy?
ALSOBROOK: Robin wanted it grounded enough in reality for us to believe it, with a hint of it being a fairy tale. That feeling comes from the dialogue and the performances, but also the look. We tried to make it as beautiful as possible in just about every situation, because it was the dream of these two girls who came from Tucson to Hollywood to find the city that was portrayed in Pretty Woman. They expect to meet Richard Gear on Hollywood Boulevard, so we had to make it look exotic, enticing and glamorous.
ICG: Does the audience see this as a voyeur, an observer, or a participant?
ALSOBROOK: As a participant. A lot of it is seen through the eyes of the girls.
ICG: We never asked how you lit Hollywood Boulevard at night?
ALSOBROOK: We had a Bebe light, a couple of Dinos, 18Ks, 6K PARS, and a balloon-light over the corner where most of the action took place. It was well lit, in terms of footcandles. If we were shooting a gritty police drama, we could probably have gotten away with a Chimera over the camera for a little fill, and available light from street lamps and other available light.
ICG: What were some of the other locations?
ALSOBROOK: The location for the finale was in the lobby of a classic movie palace. There is a party scene with a band, a singer and dancing, so we used theatrical lighting. The choreography, blocking and lighting was no different than 35mm. We had two balloon lights on the ceiling because there’s no way to hang lights anywhere. We had PAR cans with different colored gels for backlight that you can actually see in the shot. We also had a couple of follow spots behind the camera on a platform to highlight the singer and the band, and we hid lights behind plants, fountains, columns and around corners which illuminated some of the architectural elements of the lobby. The camera moved freely through the lobby. We had it on a Lenny arm on a crane.
ICG: You mentioned earlier that you shot in a club, too. What was that set-up?
ALSOBROOK: We shot at Club Soho, which is a big downtown disco. We hung KinoFlo lamps on the grid over the dance floor to create an ambiance, and we used existing computerized light as much as we could to create a disco feeling. We also had colored KinoFlo tubes around the edges of the floor to define the space. For dialogue scenes, in the club we used our normal lighting package.
ICG: How has the experience you got shooting documentaries and industrial films helped you doing narrative work like this film?
ALSOBROOK: Everything I’ve done helps me every day. Every job I’ve ever been on helps me with the next job. Your experience and your body of knowledge are invaluable, and the longer you work at it, the more you realize that you need to know more. If anybody asks me what my favorite show is, I just have to say it’s going to be the next one, because that’s the one where I’ll really get it right. Every day, I say to myself, here’s an opportunity to finally get it right.
ICG: How do you envision the role of the cinematographer evolving?
ALSOBROOK: I have concerns that the role of the cinematographer is being diminished in the minds of some studio executives or producers. There are a lot of people making decisions in the industry who come from accounting or legal departments. They have been led to believe that new technology will save time and money. They see the gaffer lighting, and they see the operator handling the camera, and they wonder what the hell the cinematographer is doing. There have been some horribly biased, slanted articles in the press during the last year or so. After a while, if you hear a lie long enough, you’ll believe it to be the truth. Many times the cinematographer is the guardian at the gate protecting the vision for the story. Hopefully the modern-day barbarians will not be able to bring down this art form that’s taken a 110 years to come to fruition.
ICG: Last year, a magazine published for location managers ask me to write an article about what cinematographers are going to do now that fast films and digital cameras have made lighting unnecessary? Why are there so many misconceptions about why you light?
ALSOBROOK: It’s part of the digital camera propaganda that says you don’t need to light anymore, but we’ve gone through these things before. John Cassavettes’ movie Faces was shot in 1968 with handheld Éclair NPR 16 mm cameras and little or no lighting. Everybody said, now we can make movies with no lighting. It’ll be faster and cheaper, and it will be all about the actors. Yet, Faces didn’t change the way the vast majority of movies were shot during that period. That technique was right for that particular film. But, I can’t think of any examples of important movies where lighting wasn’t a key element in the story.
ICG: What’s your advice for today’s film school students?
ALSOBROOK: Every great movie has to start with a great script. If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage. All the technical bells and whistles available to us aren’t going to do anything to make a bad script into a good movie. Once you have a good script, you find the best actors available to portray the characters, and then you let the story determine how you’re going to film the script. It can be 8mm or 65 mm film or digital video, whatever’s appropriate for the story. If there’s a contemporary movie that speaks for the supremacy of film over video today, I think its Steven Soderbergh’s Full Frontal, because the digital video portions of the story look abysmal. You can’t see the actors’ eyes or expressions in the digital shots. It’s like there is some kind of a barrier that keeps the audience from experiencing the story. When he cuts to 35 mm, all of a sudden you’re in the movie. Maybe it’s a technique that helps to tell that story, but I found that it got in the way.
ICG: Anything else?
ALSOBROOK: I’d encourage schools to teach students who are future cinematographers that post production is an important part of their future. For those of us who have worked in TV, the revolution in digital post production has become second nature. For feature films, it’s a whole new world, because of the incredible control you have in digital timing. It’s very important for the cinematographer to be part of that process as the authors of the image. This isn’t an original concept. It’s just like a still photographer exposing a negative and then bringing it to life in the darkroom through dodging and burning the images. I happened to see an exhibit of Ansel Adams in Chicago this summer, and they showed several prints that he re-did over a period of years. It was amazing how different the images were based on how he manipulated the negative in the darkroom.
ICG: Do you think filmmaking is an art form, entertainment or both?
ALSOBROOK: It’s a very entertaining art form. As Bud Shulberg wrote in What Makes Sammy Run?, the greatest way ever invented to tell a story is with a motion picture camera.
ICG: Do you think the role of the Guild and ASC should be changing?
ALSOBROOK: I think the ASC and the Guild have to be more proactive in fighting for the rights of cinematographers, and, in essence, the rights of all filmmakers, because without the taste, sensibilities and artistry of cinematographers, I think this industry’s in big trouble.
ICG: I have another very tough question. You spoke about how you were affected by runaway production. Is there an answer or a partial answer?
ALSOBROOK: It all begins with respecting movies as a distinctive American art form as the Canadian government did for their industry. The whole system by which the Canadians offer subsidies was designed to protect their own industry and culture. We have not protected our industry. We just assume that it’s just going to be here forever, and yet with globalization, like any industry, it could be transferred to anywhere in the world. It would be a horrible loss for our country. I think we need to remind the public and our politicians that film is part of our culture.
ICG: At the beginning of our conversation, I asked who were the cinematographers whose work influenced you when you were beginning your career? How about today?
ALSOBROOK: There are so many. I still admire Connie Hall and, and, of course, Vittorio Storaro (ASC) is like a god to all of us. I think Roger Deakins (BSC, ASC) is just amazing, because he creates images that are so exactly appropriate for each story. His work becomes so integrated in the film that you hardly even notice it until you go back and look at it in more detail and realize what magic he is creating. To me, that’s the sign of the ultimate cinematographer. We always joke around the set, saying we’re technicians, not magicians, but you know what, he is a magician. He’s an alchemist who creates magic out of nothing. It is amazing what he can do with one light and a little piece of foam core. At seminars, I’ve seen him sculpt faces with nothing but one light. I think the level of cinematography is just about the highest that it has ever been. A generation of cinematographers who were part of the new wave has matured and achieved a new level of artistry. Their art shows a level of maturity, but they’re not afraid to experiment. How about John Toll’s work in Almost Famous? Some of the scenes in the kids’ bedroom are amazing. A lot of it has to do with the way he plays the light. It’s not flashy or showy. It doesn’t scream at you, saying look at what a genius I am. He brought the whole scene to a whole different level without you being aware of it.
ICG: I’m going to change the topic for one last question. I’ve enjoyed your historical articles in ICG magazine. When did you start researching and writing about film history?
ALSOBROOK: I’ve always been interested in the history of motion pictures. The heritage is fascinating to me, but I actually started writing about it two or three years ago at the suggestion of the editor. My research begins in my own library where I’ve collected books on cinema for years. I also use traditional libraries and the Internet searching for timelines and historical information.
* * * * * * * * * *
The following are audio excerpts from the interview with Russ Alsobrook conducted by Robert Fisher.
Clip 1 (171k)
Russ Alsobrook talks about getting his start in the business shooting 16mm films. This clip is approximately 3.5 minutes long.
Clip 2 (302k)
Russ Alsobrook talks about his work in documentaries for PBS, ABC and others. This clip is approximately 6 minutes long.
Clip 3 (170k)
Russ Alsobrook talks about enduring slow periods in your career, and how to find work. This clip is approximately 5 minutes long.
Clip 4 (178k)
Russ Alsobrook speaks about working with telecine, digital effects and the look of "The Mind of the Married Man." This clip is approximately 4 minutes long.
Live Chat / Transcripts
January 18, 2003
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:04:41 PM)
Good morning, everyone! Thanks for participating in our chat today.
bobf (Jan 18, 2003 1:04:48 PM)
I think we’re all still mourning Connie Hall. What influence did he have on you? Any favorites from his incomparable body of work?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:05:38 PM)
Yes, we are all still deeply saddened by the departure of our dear friend and brilliant cinematographer Connie Hall. It seemed like he would probably live forever, and he will in the incredible body of work he left behind.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:06:16 PM)
I was recently asked who were the cinematographers that I most admired at the beginning of my career, and Connie Hall was one of the first names that came to mind. And 33 years later, he is still at the top of the list of cinematographers I am inspired by.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:06:46 PM)
It's very difficult to choose a few films from his amazing career, but In Cold Blood has to be a standout. As well as his last movie The Road to Perdition. But Searching for Bobby Fisher is a movie I revisit time after time for lighting inspiration.
Monte (Jan 18, 2003 1:07:17 PM)
You had an interesting beginning of your career, getting to shoot a lot of 16 mm film on documentries and other things. Do you think it is important for students and recent graduates to have 16 mm film experience versus video or does it matter?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:07:58 PM)
I think it's wise to have as much experience in every possible format that you can. In the end it really doesn't matter what format you're shooting, whether it's 8mm, high 8, digital video, 16mm, 35mm or 70mm. The basic principles remain the same. It's all about lighting, composition, and using techniques to tell the story.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:09:12 PM)
I would suggest that 16mm is an important format to become familiar with because it remains a very vibrant and viable film format. In fact, I just shot a television movie on Super 16 and it looks fantastic.
Jorge (Jan 18, 2003 1:09:19 PM)
Is it possible for an outsider to gain entry into the industry today?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:09:34 PM)
Yes, absolutely. Based on my own experience, I was a total outsider when I started in this business. I had no connections whatsoever and yet somehow I've been able to shoot film and video for over 30 years.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:10:55 PM)
I was an English literature major in college and I was shooting 8mm and 16mm films on the side, when I happened to meet a director shooting screen tests for a Disney TV show on the beach in Santa Barbara in 1969. I asked him for a job doing anything on his crew. A couple of weeks later I received a letter from him saying, come on down to Hollywood and we'll put you to work. I started as a production assistant or, as we were called in those days, a gofer and worked my way up from there.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:12:07 PM)
So, yes, it's possible to get in the business if you're an "outsider." With the democratization of filmmaking that's taking place, I don't think you can consider anyone an outsider anymore.
lenscrafter (Jan 18, 2003 1:12:34 PM)
You mentioned that the Ben Stiller Show is coming out as a DVD in your interview. What has been your experience on DVDs? Do they typically invite you to supervise the transfer and to do a commentary?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:13:41 PM)
Since this is the first project of mine that I know of that is coming out on DVD, I really don't have any experience in that venue.
Tom Moore (Jan 18, 2003 1:13:50 PM)
I loved the Ben Stiller Show. Any chance you and he will collaborate on a film?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:14:35 PM)
I would hope so. We came very close to working together on Reality Bites, so I would certainly think we would work together sometime in the future.
Lonnie (Jan 18, 2003 1:14:43 PM)
How important is it to have an HD monitor on the set? Does it help the cinematographer see what the final image will look like or does it just encourage producers to jump in with their opinions?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:15:31 PM)
Lonnie, that's one of the most interesting and important questions we have to deal with in this new era of digital production.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:16:00 PM)
If the monitor is so important for judging the image that we create, how did cinematographers like Connie Hall create magnificent visual work without the damned monitor? What I'm saying is cinematographers see the image with their eye and shouldn't let the monitor become a crutch.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:17:06 PM)
The HD monitor does allow more people to comment on the image being created. But we must remember that in the end it is the cinematographer who is the author of the image. I could go on about this for hours, but since we have a limited time frame, we must move on.
dominic (Jan 18, 2003 1:17:28 PM)
Do most of the director's you've worked with have opinions about things like choosing lenses and things like that- and how do you deal with it ?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:18:39 PM)
Directors can run the gamut from being very specific about lenses and lighting styles and camera moves because they are visually very sophisticated – to directors who are primarily interested in the actors and leave all of the visual creation to the cinematographer.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:19:38 PM)
Because it is a collaborative medium we, as cinematographers, enjoy working with directors who are visually very sophisticated but who, at the same time, allow us to help realize their vision through our own means of interpretation.
Coriolanus (Jan 18, 2003 1:19:55 PM)
How do you know what to put on a reel, and do you have one reel or do you edit it depending on who is seeing it?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:20:57 PM)
Putting together a reel is one of the most difficult tasks that I face every year. Because doing a reel can be a fairly time-consuming and expensive proposition, I try to update it only about once a year. Or when I have some new material I think needs to be inserted in the current reel.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:22:11 PM)
It would be impossible for me to create a new reel every time I went in for an interview. I try to choose material that is most representative of what my current style is or the current level of my work. But it should also be a total reflection of who you are as an artist. In other words, don't try to create a reel that mimics what you perceive to be the current photographic style or what's in vogue at the moment, because then you'll be chasing a style all the time. It's better to create a reel that demonstrates your own style.
Sky (Jan 18, 2003 1:22:53 PM)
Is the cinematographer handicapped by the quality of the eyepiece monitor versus the optical monitor of a film camera. A friend recently worked on a HD production and was frustrated that the producers could see what he was doing better than he could. Would you consider using a higher quality monitor on the camera instead of looking at the eyepiece monitor?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:24:04 PM)
The tiny black and white eyepiece monitor on video cameras is one of the great limitations of that format. We, as filmmakers, often light through the viewfinder of the film camera and judge our contrast ratios by what we see in the viewfinder. Because it is a more direct connection with our eye than dealing with any kind of monitor situation, whether black and white or color.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:24:50 PM)
But, as I said before, it's really what you see that is important, as opposed to what the monitor sees. We as cinematographers are currently pushing the HD camera manufacturers to incorporate optical viewfinders in the next generation of HD cameras.
Gino (Jan 18, 2003 1:25:29 PM)
You spoke a bit about how important digital post is in television, and how that is now happening in movies. One of the big issues is whether the cinematographer is there controlling the process, and if they are there, are they going to be paid for their time? What's your take on these issues? Is this an issue for the Guild or for agents?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:26:40 PM)
Yes, Gino, the digital intermediate process will become more and more prevalent in theatrical motion picture post-production as that system becomes more refined and people have more experience with it.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:26:59 PM)
At the present time, only a few cinematographers that I know of have clauses in their contracts that allow them to be paid for their post-production time. However, I think that will change in the future as producers realize how important a role the cinematographer can play in the final post-production process for television and motion picture productions.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:28:01 PM)
It is very important for the cinematographer to be involved in the color timing of their work because, as Ansel Adams always said, it's in the darkroom where you really bring out the essential elements of the negative. And with the amazing power of color correction tools available in the digital world, it's important that the cinematographer is there to use those tools to realize the vision that he or she put on film on the set.
Op-Ed (Jan 18, 2003 1:28:44 PM)
Have you ever used 24P on any of your shows? What do you think of it?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:29:30 PM)
I have been shooting various video formats in many different kinds of projects, probably since around 1981. I did shoot a 24P project for the Academy Awards show last year, and to me, it was just another form of video, although it was very, very good video.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:29:55 PM)
Let's don't forget that all these formats are still some kind of a video format, with all the limitations the format comes with. I would certainly like to try the 24P/HD format on a longer project to explore the potential that lies within that format.
filmstudent (Jan 18, 2003 1:30:17 PM)
What's your experience with widescreen formats? Do you prefer anamorpic or 35mm? Why?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:31:21 PM)
I have shot a few projects in anamorphic 35mm Panavision, but most of my widescreen work has been Super 35 for television wherein we protected the 16x9 format, but it was eventually broadcast in 3x4.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:32:03 PM)
If I were to do a widescreen motion picture, the story would tell me which format to choose, but I would certainly consider anamorphic 35mm because of the amazing quality that can be achieved because it uses the full frame of the 35mm film.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:32:25 PM)
Although some people prefer Super 35, which then goes through an optical blow-up to widescreen simply because they can use the wide range of spherical lenses that are available.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:33:00 PM)
There are cinematographers who are adamant about the advantages of both formats and, in the end, it comes down to personal preference, experience, and taste.
Lonnie (Jan 18, 2003 1:33:00 PM)
It seems like a lot of great cinematographers begin their careers in documentaries. With the changing programming landscape, would you advise a student to pursue work in traditional documentaries or could someone gain the same sort of experience working on reality shows?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:33:51 PM)
Lonnie, that's a great question!
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:34:34 PM)
First of all, let's make sure that when we talk about so-called reality shows, we realize that they are NOT reality, they are NOT cinema verite, they are NOT really documentaries. They may be unscripted, but they are totally set-up, controlled, contrived, and designed with a specific end in mind. This is diametrically opposed to the spirit of true documentary shooting, where you do not attempt to control the environment but you attempt to find the truth within the situation yhou are shooting.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:35:18 PM)
That being said however, I believe there are lessons that could be learned from working on reality shows. And, as we all know, work is work. But, we should just remember the context that we're working in and whether we want to be part of that manipulated reality or would we rather be shooting "real" reality.
Julianna (Jan 18, 2003 1:35:50 PM)
Were you frustrated by the network's refusal to support a great TV series like Freaks and Geeks? I was!
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:36:28 PM)
Yes, Julianna, we were all very frustrated by the lack of support and the lack of understanding the network seemed to have for Freaks and Geeks.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:37:19 PM)
I wish Freaks and Geeks would come out on DVD, but I think there's a problem with the music licensing because there were so many great songs in the shows. Perhaps someday they'll work out that problem and we can watch Freaks and Geeks at home anytime we want to.
sbdp (Jan 18, 2003 1:37:23 PM)
Why didn't the studio agree to using three-perf 35 mm film on Romy and Michelle? Are the costs that much higher than Super 16 and was 24P an option?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:38:26 PM)
The decision by the studio to shoot 16mm was strictly based on economics. We had to cut X dollars from the overall budget and, apparently, they were able to save about $100,000 by switching to 16.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:39:19 PM)
As far as I know, 24P was never raised as an option. I'm not sure that the $100,000 figure is accurate in terms of the difference between 16 and 3-perf 35; I think it's probably less. However, I would rather shoot Super 16 than HD 24P. And the cost comparison between those two formats is very little. Whereas the quality difference is amazing.
dominic (Jan 18, 2003 1:40:00 PM)
You spoke about some of the differences between super 16 and 35 mm film. What are some of the advances in technology needed to make super 16 more viable for television?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:41:05 PM)
The first thing we need in Super 16 is a very fine-grained, high-speed film stock, which Kodak has just introduced. Their new 7218 stock is rated at 500 but has the grain structure of a much lower ASA stock.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:41:28 PM)
I was able to test this stock several months ago, and I was very impressed. If it had been available when we shot Romy and Michelle, I probably would have used it.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:42:16 PM)
But for Romy and Michelle, I used the ASA 200 stock for every situation, whether it was daylight interiors or night exteriors. I also think that the advances in telecine and digital color correction will continue to support Super 16 as a viable television production format.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:43:39 PM)
In Europe, Super 16 is used for hundreds of theatrical motion pictures that go through a digital intermediate process, and it seems to be a very successful marrying of film and digital technologies.
Sky (Jan 18, 2003 1:43:44 PM)
I've had a sense that HD is being shoved down our throats because the corporations that own the studios think they can maximize profits by electronically delivering films to theaters. I started getting a couple of magazines that are pure HD propaganda. People seem to think anything "digital" is some kind of magic. How much control do you as a DP have over what system gets used for acquisition? Did you find any advantages to working with HD?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:44:49 PM)
Well, Sky, if we had a few hours I would certainly love to answer all your questions, but let's give it a go in the limited time we have.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:45:45 PM)
I agree there is a huge marketing juggernaut that has been pushing HD not only in the production media but also in the popular media. And as we all know, sometimes these articles stretch the truth just a little bit.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:47:02 PM)
There are several cinematographer organizations now attempting to bring the truth to the viewing and reading public regarding this purportedly magical format which will be the panacea for all cinematographic problems. There are many difficulties involved in the transition from film projected theatrical motion pictures to digital projection. And the most obvious one is who will pay for this very expensive transition?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:48:09 PM)
Until that is determined, I think you will be watching films projected from print in your theaters for the foreseeable future.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:49:00 PM)
As to your question about the input of the cinematographer on the image acquisition device, yes, it is possible to exert some influence on that decision making process. But sometimes those decisions are made for strictly economic reasons. And we have to make the most of what we're given and still create the best images possible.
Tre (Jan 18, 2003 1:49:17 PM)
Do you think art and commerce can co-exist?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:49:47 PM)
Yes, but not on the same planet.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:50:08 PM)
Actually, ask Michelangelo – he had a few problems with his patrons.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:51:00 PM)
All joking aside though, as we all know, there's a reason they call it show "business." But I still believe that the invention of the motion picture created the most fantastic art form the world has ever experienced. Unfortunately, it's a rather expensive art form and needs the support of commerce to allow it to exist.
1st Assistant (Jan 18, 2003 1:51:34 PM)
What are some of your favorite films? Did they stand out for their beautiful cinematography or did you fall in love with the story?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:52:16 PM)
My favorite films always start with a beautiful story that is supported and embellished by beautiful cinematography. And by that I don't mean that the cinematography always necessarily has to be "beautiful," but it has to be appropriate for the story.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:53:26 PM)
Some of my favorite films where the cinematography is obviously a great part of the story would be Lawrence of Arabia, To Kill A Mockingbird. And dozens of others.
Gino (Jan 18, 2003 1:53:45 PM)
What do you think of the recent flurry of war-themed movies? Do you expect it to continue? How does it compare to the wave of films inspired by WWII?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:54:58 PM)
Hollywood always goes through cycles of subject matter and styles. I don't think we can compare this cycle of war films with WWII because that conflict was so all-encompassing that literally hundreds of war-themed movies were churned out by Hollywood during that period. Some of them merely propaganda; some of them have remained as great works of cinema. For example, The Best Years of Our Lives, Mrs. Miniver, 30 Seconds Over Tokyo.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:56:03 PM)
And in the end, the best war films are always anti-war films. And have significance no matter what war we may be involved in at the moment. But perhaps, if people would go back and watch some of these great war films, they would have second thoughts about supporting wars in the immediate and distant future.
sbdp (Jan 18, 2003 1:56:33 PM)
Is there a particular time period in the history of filmmaking that you wish you could have worked in?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:57:10 PM)
Absolutely. I think I was born about 30 years too late.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 1:57:45 PM)
I would love to have been involved in Hollywood's Golden Age of the '30s and '40s, but I also wish that I had been able to shoot theatrical motion pictures during the last Golden Age of Hollywood, which was in the late '60s through the mid-'70s, a time before the blockbuster mentality took over the corporate boardrooms.
Sky (Jan 18, 2003 1:59:35 PM)
Do you actually get work with a demo reel or is it more of a showpiece? Lately I've been learning people get most of their work through connections. What ways could you suggest an operator could build connections with DPs? Do you always work with the same operators? Do you look at operators reels?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 2:01:02 PM)
Sky, am I to infer from your question that you want to send me a reel? Ha ha! No, actually, you're right, most jobs are really obtained through connections and referrals. Oftentimes the reel is just there to confirm that you actually know how to shoot. I have never gotten a job from a cold call or an unsolicited submission of a reel.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 2:02:03 PM)
I try to work with the same operators as much as I can because we have built a relationship and a kind of shorthand style of communication on the set, which helps make things more efficient.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 2:02:54 PM)
I can only say it's best to work with as many DPs as you can. Go to industry gatherings like seminars, workshops and screenings, and mix with your peer group so that people can put a face to the reel and the resume. Because in the end, it's the human relationships that further your career.
Kris P. (Jan 18, 2003 2:03:00 PM)
Can you explain about the tests you use in deciding how to light faces? What do you actually do?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 2:04:29 PM)
When I do have time to shoot tests with the actors on a particular project, I set up a very simple shot in the studio or on set and see how each face accepts the light from different angles and different degrees of diffusion, and see if there are any problem areas to deal with like deep-set eyes, a slightly crooked nose, a fair complexion or a very dark complexion or perhaps a more "experienced" actress who might need a little help with soft lighting or diffusion on the lens.
lenscrafter (Jan 18, 2003 2:05:28 PM)
I agree with your comments about attempts being made to diminish the role of the cinematographer and in the minds of studio executives and producers. What do you think we should be doing as individuals and as a Guild?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 2:06:45 PM)
I think the power and prestige of the cinematographer has certainly diminished since the time gentlemen like James Wong Howe, Leon Shamroy, and Robert Surtees literally ruled the set. It's very difficult for cinematographers in the current economic climate to wield the same kind of power that these DPs had in their day. I've often thought that the ability to say "no" can make the difference between a weak cinematographer and a strong cinematographer.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 2:07:37 PM)
By that I mean being able to say with some conviction, no, we're not ready yet, the lighting is not finished. Or, no, we can't continue shooting because it's dark outside. But, unfortunately, sometimes when you're shooting a schedule and not a script, we do not have that kind of luxury.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 2:09:21 PM)
I think we have to demonstrate the importance of the cinematographer by not only creating the best images possible no matter what the economic or time limitations we are dealing with, but also prove that we can be fiscally responsible and true partners in the filmmaking process.
bobf (Jan 18, 2003 2:09:36 PM)
how do you pick an agent, and what do they do or you?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 2:10:21 PM)
You have to pick an agent who is truly interested in you as a person and believes in you as a cinematographer. It's better to choose an agent with passion for your work than to go with a big agency where you might get lost in the shuffle.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 2:11:33 PM)
An agent can open many doors and send you on interviews that you may not have been able to obtain on your own. An agent also deals with the process of putting together contracts and setting pay scales. An agent can also help steer your career in the right direction. And hopefully, can provide encouragement during those times when the phone stops ringing.
Lenser (Jan 18, 2003 2:12:07 PM)
Is there still a mentoring system in place for cinematographers in Hollywood? Where? How?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 2:13:37 PM)
I think one of the casualties of the demise of the great studio system was the built-in mentoring system in all of the guilds and unions, whereby people went through years of on-the-job training by slowly moving up the ranks from loader to assistant to operator and, ultimately, DP.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 2:14:14 PM)
During that long period of apprenticeship, people learned the craft from the bottom up and inside out. And were also able to work with a number of DPs who could impart their knowledge, experience, and skills. Now it seems nobody wants to spend any time on the different rungs of the ladder as they quickly move up to the top spot. It was not uncommon in the old days for a DP to have had 20 or 25 years of experience on the film crew before moving up to first cameraman.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 2:15:50 PM)
The Camera Guild currently has a mentoring program, if you're in the union, I would certainly take advantage of it.
The Doctor (Jan 18, 2003 2:15:53 PM)
Is there any quality cinematographers you admire all share? What is it?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 2:17:34 PM)
Yes. I think the great cinematographers are all true to the story they're telling, and design their approach to the cinematography based on that criteria. And they may change their style with each picture, but they are always bold and decisive in the execution of their visuals.
1st Assistant (Jan 18, 2003 2:18:30 PM)
You seem to be at a mid-point in your career. What do you hope to accomplish in the coming decades? Will you focus on TV or film?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 2:19:57 PM)
I hope this is the mid-point and not the final act. LOL My plan is to keep working as long as I can, whether it's TV or films. I just want to tell stories.
filmstudent (Jan 18, 2003 2:20:02 PM)
Do you ever teach at film schools and if so where and when?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 2:20:33 PM)
I have not taught at film school yet, but I do participate in the annual Lighting Workshop sponsored by the Camera Guild.
Monte (Jan 18, 2003 2:20:37 PM)
For all us film buffs, can you distill the history of filmmaking into a sentence or two?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 2:22:05 PM)
No. There are literally thousands of books written about the history of the movies. Which is still a very young art, only about 100 years old, compared to all the other arts. It took me five articles in the Guild magazine to do a cursory survey of the history of the motion picture camera.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 2:22:31 PM)
If I could summarize all of this in a sentence or two, it would be doing a disservice to the rich history of this amazing art form.
Gino (Jan 18, 2003 2:22:35 PM)
Have you started writing part 6 of the Machines that Made the Movies series? What topics can we expect you to cover?
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 2:23:05 PM)
I haven't started part 6; I'm still considering what that might be.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 2:23:44 PM)
I did write an article about the history of motion pictures shot on video which, in a way, could be part 6; however, I would like to continue this series and when I come up with an appropriate subject matter, you, Gino, will be the first to know.
Russ Alsobrook (Jan 18, 2003 2:24:10 PM)
Thank you all for these interesting and provocative and very significant questions. Good shooting! We'll see you on the set!
Machines that Made the Movies: Part 1 - Chronicling the history of the motion picture camera
by Russ T. Alsobrook
(This article originally appeared in ICG Magazine in July 2000.)
Ten thousand soldiers draw nervous lines of blue and gray across the valley. A soft mist hangs in the air, lending an ethereal quality to the morning light. Cavalry horses struggle against their reins, anticipating the coming charge. Bugles sound the attack. Cannons belch smoke into the swirling, thickening haze. From a vantage high above the fray, the general and his staff observe the battles’ progress with approval — it is a victorious charge. The general calls out “Cut!” — the altercation also happened to be a pretty good take. The Army of the Potomac has won the Battle of Antietam for a second time. But this time the General’s stalwart second-in-command has recorded the bloodless onslaught on 35mm motion picture film. At the center of the action, surrounded by clouds of gun smoke and stampeding horses, stands a lone cameraman, calmly hand-cranking his trusty Pathé Camera.
Staged in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley, this reenactment of The War Between the States was directed by D.W. Griffith and photographed by his longtime associate G.W. “Billy” Bitzer. The film in question, The Clansmen (retitled The Birth of a Nation for its release in 1915), changed film history. After the first box office blockbuster hit the theaters, President Woodrow Wilson described the experience as if “it was like history written with lightning.” In 1915, the nation’s memory of the Civil War remained fresh; the release of The Birth of a Nation came barely two generations after the conflict it dramatized. (About the same time-span connected Saving Private Ryan with World War II.) The motion picture’s pioneer era had ended, leading to a new “Golden Age” of cinema. The Birth of a Nation was the first successful feature-length movie and it was shot by one man with one camera, each and every frame, cranked by hand.
On this epic, Bitzer employed the Pathé Studio camera, first developed in 1903 by the Lumière Brothers in association with Pathé Frères Studios in France. Bitzer’s 1914 camera is a technological leap from the crude, unwieldy machines that only 20 years earlier photographed the first moving pictures which flickered in peep shows and on scraps of canvas hastily set up in storefronts. The turn-of-the-century working class audience found themselves mesmerized by simple one or two minute vignettes: a locomotive chugging into a depot; a man sneezing; or waves crashing on the beach. These pieces of time became captured forever by heavy, ponderous contraptions predating what we now know as movie cameras. Still cameras captured moments in time, forever freezing slivers of life in one image. But the motion picture camera preserved the flow of time, reliving a fragment of actual reality each time a projector spun long strips of celluloid through its flickering lamp and wondrous images flashed on screen.
The basic mechanism for moving celluloid through a light tight box with a lens attached to it was developed almost simultaneously: by the Lumière Brothers in France, and Thomas Edison and his chief engineer, W.K.L. Dickson, in the United States. Edison actually commissioned Dickson to design the moving picture camera as early as 1887, but cameras and the means to view their magic moving images were not demonstrated publicly until 1895. The Edison Kinetograph and the Lumière Cinematographe (the latter being a combination camera and projector) were the first viable “movie cameras.” They combined elements of the machine age — gears, cams, sprockets and motors — with the cabinetmaker’s art. Edison/Dickson’s Bioscope camera was often acquired in modular form. The intermittent movement could be ordered from Alfred Darling in England along with plans for a cabinet to encase the mechanism. A local cabinetmaker was commissioned to build the camera body. The finished product did not look very much like a movie camera — it appeared more like a piece of Victorian furniture with a strangely protruding lens, which was sold separately!
Dickson left Edison to co-found the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Their first camera design was similar to the Edison camera developed by Dickson, but with enough changes to avoid patent infringements. The 350-pound Mutoscope used 2 3/4-inch unperforated film shot at 30 frames-per-second. One thousand-pound batteries powered the camera’s 2 1/2 horsepower motor drive. Thus, it is understandable why early works of cinema consisted of very simple, very static shots. Billy Bitzer, then an electrician working for Mutoscope, helped construct this camera. Using the monster machine to record newsworthy events, he ended up becoming a cinematographer. Bitzer was sent to Cuba during the Spanish American War with orders to photograph Teddy Roosevelt leading his Roughriders up San Juan Hill. Unfortunately, his camera gear was too heavy to transport to the battle scene in time: Bitzer missed the shot. The move toward smaller lighter cameras was quickly underway. In 1899, a patent was granted to the new, improved Mutoscope, which used 35mm film, had an optional hand crank and was light enough for one man to carry — no more half-ton batteries. By the time Bitzer partnered with Griffith in 1908, he had photographed more than 1,000 two-reel short films.
A watershed year for movies and the machine age’s technical advancements turned out to be 1903. The Lumière brothers sold their camera patents to Pathé, leading to the debut of Pathé’s Studio camera. The Wright Brothers achieved powered, manned flight over the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Edwin S. Porter, a cameraman under Edison’s employ, directed and photographed The Great Train Robbery. Up to that time, this twelve-minute movie was one of cinema’s longest works. But what set it apart from the Nickelodeon’s current fare was the story: one created not by gesticulating actors photographed on a stage in wide shot, but one made by editing different shots together to create a narrative flow. The Great Train Robbery ended with the famous medium close-up of a cowboy firing his pistol directly at the camera lens. The audience gasped in terror and some ran screaming from the theaters!
The Pathé Studio camera was the first to actually look like what we consider to be a movie camera. The body housed the intermittent movement, the sprockets moved the emulsion through the aperture, the film magazine sat on top and the lens pointed the way out front. Itwas beautifully constructed from fine mahogany, polished brass fittings and covered in Moroccan pigskin. By 1915, Pathé cameras were rigged with state-of-the-art accessories, some off-the-shelf, but many added by working cameramen. Fades and dissolves were accomplished by the touch of a button, along with careful rewinding and judiciously timed cranking! An adjustable iris diaphragm could be attached to the front of the lens to “zoom” in or out of a scene by means of a shrinking or widening black vignette, thus drawing the viewers’ eye to a particular subject in the frame — a precursor to the close-up. Precision pressure plates and film guides, anti-static heaters and through-the-film-plane focus tubes all led to the Pathé being one of the pioneer movie era’s most versatile cameras.
The Pathéwas a far cry from the days when cameras were so heavy that they had to be bolted to industrial strength tripods and nailed to the stage floor, never to move during a shot. Compact, lightweight and fitting easily on a thin wooden tripod, the Pathé could go anywhere. One man could swing the camera and tripod over his shoulder and discover camera angles to spice up any scene: hanging over cliffs for The Perils of Pauline (1914); strapped to racing Model T Fords on Mack Sennet comedies; or sweeping through Civil War battle scenes. The freedom to place a camera anywhere, and move it along with the action, was the important catalyst that allowed Bitzer, Griffith and their innovative colleagues to discover and develop the visual grammar and storytelling techniques still a part of today’s cinema. By 1912, cameramen and directors were utilizing combinations of the wide shot, medium shot and close-up to dramatize narratives. The close-up was a crucial discovery because it allowed the audience to “see” actors’ thoughts. Panning, tilting, tracking, slow motion, fades, dissolves and source-motivated mood lighting had become established tools in the cameraman’s bag of tricks. From then on, cinematographers merely had to refine the techniques.
A host of other cameras offered technical innovations and the always-beneficial attributes of being compact and lightweight. The first handheld camera with an integrated motor was the 35mm Moy Gyro. Of an English design, the camera featured a gyrostabilizer, pre-threaded quick-change magazines and a twin lens reflex viewing system — quite a modern make-up for 1911. Bell & Howell’s Eyemo offered a handheld camera with a spring wound motor that allocated 30 seconds of continuous filming — no batteries, no cranks. Handheld shooting and hand-cranking weremutually exclusive operations. Forgotten names like the “Gillon” by Éclair, the Debrie “Parvo,” Ernmann, Gennert and many others contributed to the progress of early movie cameras, each providing a particular technological advancement.
Software Standards Spur Hardware Progress
The Pathé did not have registration pins to lock the film in place during exposure, but was still considered steady enough to be the most popular camera until World War I made it impossible to obtain new cameras and replacement parts from France. Launched in 1912, the Bell and Howell model “2709” became the camera of choice. As the first all- metal camera, the “2709” came equipped with the most sophisticated, technically advanced film transport system, which featured dual pin-registration to ensure rock solid pictures and a ball-bearing crank for more precise speed control. The Bell & Howell Company had developed the standard for sprocket hole design, which the Society of Motion Picture Engineers accepted in 1909. The company’s experience in manufacturing film perforators and printing machines naturally continued in their camera design. The Bell & Howell “2709” was so steady that many were used in special effects work and optical printers for decades after leaving production’s rough-and-tumble world.
Standardized sprocket holes might seem an insignificant technological achievement, but it meant that all 35mm film would run smoothly in all cameras and projectors conformed to the convention. (This came after 1909’s international agreement that set 35mm as the recognizedfilm width.) Legend has it that George Eastman asked Thomas Edison what size his new motion picture film should be: the inventor supposedly held up his thumb and index finger and said “about so wide,” indicating an area around an inch and some change — a spacing size pretty close to that of 35mm film. Is this an apocryphal story? Probably, but it’s interesting to think that a worldwide standard lasting nearly 100 years could have been decided in such a casual manner. (Could HDTV’s 16 x 9 aspect ratio been hatched in a similar way?) Another standard settled on for the movie’s early development was shooting and projection speed. Scientists had discovered that the human eye could not discern “flicker” if a light source flashed on a screen at around 50 times per second. This, of course, is the theory of persistence of vision. The mind retains the previous image even during the period of black preceding the upcoming image. However, projecting film at 50 pictures per second proved unfeasible. Cameras and projectors did not have enough sophistication to run the film at such speed without tearing it to shreds. Experimentation uncovered that a rate of 16 frames of picture per second interspersed with a shutter that opened and closed three times during image projection created the minimum speed for workable persistence of vision. This particular frame rate also saved lots of money on raw stock.
Had 35mm not become the standard film size and 4 x 3 the accepted aspect ratio, today’s movies might be shot with a multitude of different cameras. Just imagine using film widths of 63mm, 60mm, 2 3/8”, 2 7/8”, 50mm, 28mm, 26mm, 24mm, 23mm, 22mm, or in amateur gauges going from 18mm to 8mm. Each of these formats was utilized at one time and some — like Biograph’s 2 7/8” film — had limited success. Motion picture’s evolution would have been stymied by the wide divergence of film sizes, sprocket holes and frame lines rampant in the pioneer era. Such irregularitybrings to mind the vast array of formats available in today’s ever-evolving digital, high-definition video world. Because of early standardization, any 35mm movie can be projected anywhere in the world. Try and do that with a piece of videotape. (More on this subject in upcoming installments.)
Thoroughly Modern Mitchell
The booming prosperity of the 1920’s swept America into the “Jazz Age.” Henry Ford put the country on wheels with the Model T — his car for “Everyman.” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lyrical tome The Great Gatsby was a bestseller of its day. The tunes“Bye Bye Blackbird” and “Makin’ Whoopee” danced across the radio waves. Glittering movie palaces showcased the finest works of a maturing, confident art form. Having survived the “war to end all wars,” a now full-flowering 20th century was ready to embrace all things “modern.” A feeling of optimism saturated the atmosphere: a sense that technology and the white wizard of science could solve any problems that beset mankind. Cars and airplanes could go anywhere, anytime; and the movies could go wherever the imagination roamed.
In 1922, the Mitchell Company introduced the Mitchell Standard, a camera that offered a new benchmark in precision crafted film transport. The Mitchell movement has been little improved over the last eight decades. (Open the door on a Panaflex and what you see is basically a highly refined Mitchell intermittent movement.) The Mitchell Standard allowed through the lens, non-parallax viewing (for exact framing and focusing) with the patented rack-over system. Thus, the camera body could slide laterally away from the film path so a viewfinder could look directly through the taking lens. However, the operator had to rack the camera back in order to roll film and view the scene through a side-mounted finder. A true, through-the-lens reflex viewing system had yet to be invented. The Mitchell camera reigned supreme in various models for the next 50 years.
Electric motors were available for the Mitchell and Bell & Howell cameras that photographed movies of Hollywood’s Golden Age. However, most cameramen still preferred to crank the film by hand because it gave a higher degree of artistic control over the pace of the action being shot. If a cowboy took too long to climb in the saddle and ride his horse off into the sunset, the cameraman could “ramp up” the speed by slowing the cranking a touch: the on-screen action would then speed up. He could also “ramp down” the action by cranking faster and the horse would gallop away in slow motion. To this day we refer to shooting slow motion as overcranking and accelerated motion as undercranking. As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
By this time, the motion picture camera had reached a high degree of technical perfection. Film was exposed with an unwavering registration. Rugged all-metal cameras could withstand the rigors of any location and were compact enough to be rigged to anything that moved — be it planes, trains or automobiles. Director William “Wild Bill” Wellman and his team of cameramen, led by Harry Perry, ASC marshaled an astonishing array of cameras to shoot the World War I flying epic Wings (1927). For the crucial battle scene with thousands of troops and dozens of airplanes, Perry and his crew cranked at least twelve cameras — Mitchell Standards, Bell & Howells, a couple of Ackelys (designed specifically for slow-motion action work) and 28 Eyemos positioned throughout the bomb-cratered battle field and mounted on dogfighting biplanes. In 1929, Wings won the first Academy Award for Best Picture.
Buster Keaton directed himself, two locomotives and a small army of actors and technicians in The General (1927). J. Devereux Jennings and Bert Haines shot this masterpiece of action comedy with long tracking shots that followed intricate scenes on speeding trains. In the movie, Keaton performs complicated sight gags on the moving locomotive while another train is in hot pursuit. All the action is framed and choreographed with perfect timing. Through the crystal clear shooting of Rollie Totherah, on countless shorts and numerous features, Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” became a movie icon with a global cachet. Walter Lundin, ASC hung his camera from precarious skyscraper ledges to record the heart stopping comedic stunts of Harold Lloyd in Safety Last (1923). Cecil B. DeMille followed in D.W. Griffith’s mighty footsteps and continued the “new” tradition of the epic film with The Ten Commandments (1923). Bert Glennon, ASC supervised photography on the first of “CB’s” many Biblical tales with color sequences photographed by Ray Rennahan, ASC.
Hollywood’s Golden Age of the Twenties is due in large part to the brilliant cinematographers who took a fledgling mechanical novelty from the Nickelodeon Age and in less than 30 years — through technical innovation, experimentation and damned hard work — turned it into an art form. One of the finest examples of silent film photography can be seen in the brilliant work of Charles Rosher, ASC and Karl Struss, ASC on F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927). In 1924, Murnau and Karl Freund, ASC had perfected the use of the fluid camera on the successful German UFA Studio production of The Last Laugh. Under contract to William Fox, Murnau came to Hollywood where he continued his directorial artistry on Sunrise. Murnau offered encouragement and, most importantly, freedom to his team of cameramen. (The director rarely looked through the camera). The naturalistic mood lighting, constantly moving cameras (Rosher’s Mitchell and Struss’ Bell & Howell were suspended on overhead tracks that expedited 360-degree shots) combined with forced perspective sets (inspired by German Expressionism) to create a sumptuous visual feast. In 1929, Sunrise won the first Academy Award for Best Cinematography.
The Icebox Cometh
The year 1927 witnessed Babe “the Sultan of Swat” Ruth as he smacked 60 home runs for the New York Yankees. Meanwhile, Charles “Lucky Lindy” Lindberg single-handedly flew his one-engine monoplane, The Spirit of St. Louis, non-stop across the Atlantic; after 33 hours in the air, he landed in Paris, an overnight hero of the Roaring Twenties. Back home, the movies were not the raging success that they had been a few years earlier: attendance was down and box-office receipts were dropping. Some pundits blamed the growing popularity of radio as the culprit for lackluster profits. (The same would be said of Television in the Fifties). Others saw the audience growing tired of the same old fare. Even so, a few big budget movies like Wellman’s Wings, DeMille’s King of Kings and the Greta Garbo /John Gilbert vehicle Love did do brisk business.
What audiences did respond to in droves — much to the surprise of almost everyone in the movie business — was a low- budget sleeper from Warner Brothers that contained one of the most famous lines in film history. Al Jolson spoke right from the movie screen and said, “Wait a minute, wait a minute you ain’t heard nothin yet, folks. Now listen to this.” The audience listened, the studios listened and the executives listened intently as The Jazz Singer (1927) became the surprise hit of the season. If The Birth of a Nation arrived like lightning only 12 years before, The Jazz Singer was like a thunderclap that stormed through Hollywood. By 1929, every studio was producing talking pictures.
This moment has often been characterized as the end of the “Silent Picture,” but movies were never really silent to begin with. Almost from their inception, films were shown with live musical accompaniment. Elaborate orchestral scores were written for road show pictures while even the smallest theater had a pianist adding musical moods to every scene. Recorded sound effects were also played back on phonograph disks to add realistic background sound. Wings felt stunningly real with the rat-tat-tat sounds of machine guns and the banshee wail of diving fighter planes. As early as 1902, Gaumont’s Chronophone in France and the Vivaphone system in England produced synch-sound short subjects. Technology to add synchronized speech to motion pictures had been in development from the earliest days. The invention of the vacuum tube, which produced sound amplification strong enough for theaters, was a crucial step. Three songs and a few lines of ad-libbed dialogue in The Jazz Singer had been made possible by the Bell Laboratory Vitaphone system. When Warner Brothers released their next “all-talking picture” — The Lights of New York(1927) — the long lines of theater patrons further convinced the studios that sound was not just a fad, but had become its future.
The new wave of sound technology brought the Golden Age of motion picture photography to a close. The microphone was king. Noisy cameras were yanked from their cranes and dollies, or anything else that moved, and unceremoniously locked up in soundproof booths, along with operators and assistants. Ironically, the padded rooms were dubbed “iceboxes” because the operators and assistants suffered from sweltering heat and lack of oxygen. Also referred to as “bungalows” (a hint as to their size and mobility) these camera enclosures were the newest editions to the hastily built soundstages that sprang up like mushrooms throughout Hollywood in the late-1920s. Because soundtracks couldn’t be edited, the dialogue had to be photographed and recorded with multiple cameras to cover all the angles in one continuous take. Three or four icebox-enclosed cameras would encircle the scene as the actors tried to make peace with the newly anointed “King Mike.” Silent film’s gorgeous mood lighting gave way to the flatter style of multiple camera production. The “cameraman” was now the “director of photography”— a new job title that described the supervisory aspects of his role in the new milieu of movie production. After soaring to incredible artistic heights, the camera found itself totally encumbered by the limits of a new technology. Once again, the camera was virtually nailed to the stage floor, a prisoner of sound. Will the camera break free from the constraints of “King Mike”? Will cinematographers regain their artistic freedom? The thrilling adventure continues in episode two of “Machines That Made the Movies.”
The author would like to offer special thanks to Kevin Brownlow and Sam Dodge. The history of the motion picture camera is, of course, the history of the cinema, which comprises an endless stream of books and articles. It is hoped that this briefest of surveys will inspire readers to delve more deeply into the history of the “liveliest art.” But, more importantly, to view and enjoy the great films of the silent era — the masterworks of our pioneering colleagues who carved out the glorious craft of cinematography that we are privileged to practice today.
Machines that Made the Movies: Part 2 - Chronicling the history of the motion picture camera
by Russ T. Alsobrook
(This article originally appeared in ICG Magazine in Aug. 2000.)
The end of the “Roaring Twenties” found Hollywood in a state of panic, fear and uncertainty. The stock market crash of 1929 hadn’t turned Tinseltown upside down, but rather the huge success of 1927’s The Jazz Singer. This Warner Brothers Vitaphone production not only revived a slumping box office, it also ushered in a new era of cinema. The novelty of an exciting new entertainment technology called radio had trimmed the profits of MGM, Paramount, Universal and every other studio from Gower Gulch to Burbank. Instead of going out to the Bijou or the Palace, movie fans gathered in living rooms, huddled around RCA consoles. One night in October of 1926, 50 million people tuned in the wireless to hear Gene Tunney defeat Jack Dempsey in the famous “long count battle” for the Heavyweight Boxing Championship. Why go to the movies when you could stay home and be entertained for free? The four Warner brothers were the first studio executives to see that marrying this wildly popular audio technology to the art of the motion picture could assure the future well-being, and even survival, of their business. Cecil B. DeMille predicted that “the movie and the radio will bring people together. They will make for unity and a certain great oneness in the world.” (C.B. certainly foreshadowed the digital age’s current rallying cry — “the Internet will change everything,” including the way movies are produced and exhibited).The success of Warner Brothers’ next “all talking” hit — The Lights of New York — sent every studio rushing to fill its theaters with “talkies.” Down in freshly built soundstages, great silent film cinematographers did battle with the new technology of sound as two divergent mediums tried to co-exist and forge a new artform.
Joe Walker, ASC was so frustrated with constraints placed on his photography by sound recording that he seriously considered leaving the film business. Thankfully, he decided to stay, because it’s hard to imagine Frank Capra’s classic films — such as Lost Horizon, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe — without Walker’s perfectly supportive imagery. In his memoirs, Walker noted that the unwieldy techniques of early sound pictures caused photography “to suffer. . .heretofore, I had freedom to create interesting effects with a moving camera. No more! Miserably ensconced in a soundproofed stationary booth, I shot through heavy plate glass at fixed scenes. . .Depression gripped me as I filmed long uninspiring scenes of talking stage actors from my stifling booth.” Such was the plight of every cinematographer on every soundstage from Hollywood to Astoria. Directors and cameramen were “mad as hell and weren’t going to take it anymore.” While shooting Applause in 1928, director Ruben Mamoulian and cameraman George Folsey, ASC added wheels to the soundproof camera booth and, with the help of six grips, pushed the whole contraption from a wide shot to a close-up in one long “dolly” move. William Wyler directed his first talking picture on location — in the Mojave Desert, no less. Hell’s Heroes was the picture in question and, according to Wyler, a mobile camera was necessary to relate the tale of three desperate cowboys riding roughshod across the desolate landscape. Wyler had his crew rig the camera booth with balloon-tired automobile wheels to follow the action through sand and sagebrush. The desert heat surged to 150 degrees inside the “Icebox.” Short takes became the order of the day, as the camera operator would often faint before Wyler called “cut”! Director “Wild Bill” Wellman was never one to obey the edicts of anyone, let alone a soundman. Stymied when he couldn’t shoot a simple “walk-and-talk” with Wallace Beery for a dialogue scene grafted to the silent Beggars of Life, Wellman grabbed the usually stationary microphone, hung it from a broomstick and walked along with his actor while the camera tracked in hot pursuit. The fish-pole mike boom was born! DeMille demanded that the camera come out of the “Icebox” so he could shoot a stairway scene during the production of his first talkie Dynamite (1929). The soundman declared this impossible because the camera simply made too much noise. Good old C.B. also never took “No” for an answer. He promptly ordered the new camera setup, and had the infernal machine shrouded in piles of horse blankets until the soundman agreed that silence had been attained. Of course, wrapping the camera in horse blankets hardly offered a long-term solution.
Striking upon a better idea, Arthur Edeson, ASC rebuilt his own Mitchell camera from the inside out. After the overhaul, the once clattering gears and sprockets ran so smoothly that the camera could be muffled with a single padded blanket. Without this “liberated” Mitchell, Edeson’s could never have achieved such brilliant, fluid location photography in Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Soon, the Mitchell Camera Company would modify most of its existing cameras for quieter operation, and introduce a new model dubbed the “NC” (for “Newsreel Camera.”) Along with many internal modifications, the NC used a compensating link movement employing eccentrics instead of cams, and sleeve bearings replaced ball bearings of the Mitchell Standard. The NC was often referred to as the “Noiseless Camera” but this moniker had a slightly optimistic bent: the camera still required some sort of barney or blimp to keep the sound department at bay, especially in the soundstage’s cathedral-quiet air.
“Barneys” tended to be thickly padded covers tailor made for the camera. These form-fitting quilts had their namesake in a sway-backed studio horse that donated his blanket to help a forgotten cameraman hush his grinding Bell & Howell. A blimp was required to completely muffle the whirring camera, and every studio camera department designed and built its own versions of the blimp. This evolutionary process began by shrinking the soundproof booth until just large enough to encase the camera. Some early blimps still hovered around the size of a Frigidaire, weighing 400 pounds. “It’s as big as a blimp,” exclaimed one jocular cameraman — the nickname stuck for 70 years. At least operators and assistants no longer had to endure imprisonment in “the icebox.” MGM devised a compact blimp that set the standard for the early Thirties. All Metro cameramen became “sound-certified” after attending a special class in the new technology. 20th Century Fox designed and constructed its own sound camera from scratch. The Fox self-blimped camera was a true marvel of engineering: an 85-pound compact machine that met acceptable sound levels without any extraneous housing. Being of proprietary design, the Fox camera saw little usage outside it’s own studio. However, George Mitchell’s innovative company finally fashioned a state-of-the-art motion picture camera for the rapidly maturing sound era.
A Good Year for Blimps
Barely five years after Wall Street’s infamous October meltdown, the Great Depression’s clutches still gripped America. The haunting restrain of “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” sung a bleak anthem for the country’s mood. FDR’s New Deal promised prosperity “just around the corner.” In August of 1934, the Mitchell Camera Corporation introduced the “Blimped Newsreel Camera” — the famous and long enduring “BNC.” The camera had its internal mechanism refined for silent running. Composite material replaced metal for certain gears and the camera “floated” on sound dampening pads within the integrated blimp. Hammered lead-foil lined the blimp’s innards for optimum sound insulation. It retained the rackover pre-view system from the original Mitchell “Standard,” and the shooting viewfinder was fully coupled to the lens for accurate, non-parallax framing while the camera rolled. Compared to the many “Rube Goldberg” blimps of the day, the Mitchell BNC was a technological dream — smaller, lighter, (about 75 pounds) and user-friendly for operators and assistants. Alas, many years passed before the “BNC” found its place in the front ranks of movie production: the period between 1934 and 1937, saw manufacture of only three new BNC cameras. Studio coffers contained little extra cash for the purchase of new camera equipment. Thanks to sound production’s added expense, shaky finances of an industry dependent on Wall Street’s house of cards and downturns in production, most cameramen were lucky to be employed, let alone have the latest gear. The movie business was not immune to the effects of the Depression, contrary to a long-standing myth. Production dropped from over 800 movies in 1927 to fewer than 550 in 1934. MGM cut employee salaries in half. Thousands of Hollywood’s finest lost jobs. America’s unemployment rate zoomed to 25 percent. Truth be told, people in breadlines do not go to the movies.
Glorious Technicolor Paints the Silver Screen
By late 1935, the moribund economy began to show some vital signs. Paramount Studios emerged from bankruptcy. MGM realized a $7 million profit. Every week 80 million people hit local theaters. On the runway of Santa Monica’s Clover Field, the Douglas DC-3 took off on its maiden flight, launching the modern era of airline travel. The sleek, all-metal, twin-engine transport remains an icon of Streamlined Moderne design. A few miles away in Hollywood, Pioneer Pictures utilized an up-to-the-minute, color motion picture camera to film an historic 18th century drama. Directed by Ruben Mamoulian and photographed by Ray Rennahan, ASC, Becky Sharp became the first feature film to use Technicolor’s three-strip process. Enclosed by a blimp of behemoth proportions, the three-strip Technicolor camera was hardly streamlined, but it employed the most modern method for producing “natural” color film. This process had been in development since 1915 when Herbert Kalmus, Daniel Comstock and Burton Wescott formed the Technicolor Corporation — named in honor of their alma mater, The Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Moviemakers have dabbled in color since the very origins of cinema. Thomas Edison experimented with hand-coloring prints but found it too expensive and tediously time-consuming. The French PathéColor system of the early 1900’s employed 300 women to meticulously produce tiny stencils for each frame of the negative. These stencils — lined up in perfect registration with the original negative — were used during the printing stage to add color dyes to specific areas of each frame. Recalling his photography for Erich Von Stroheim’s magnum opus Greed (1925), William Daniels, ASC noted that many scenes had been hand-painted for the release print. Unfortunately, most of the original eight-hour epic film was destroyed, including a scene in which every flickering candle flame had been painted — frame-by-frame — with a tiny camel hair brush. Film labs added overall tints and tones to individual scenes or entire movies but the quest for a natural color process (which achieved color in the original photography) was long and difficult. Among several dozen color processes that tried to make a mark were Kinemacolor from England, Chronochrome from France and UFAcolor from Germany. In the United States, Prizma, Multicolor, Magnicolor, Cinecolor, and even Sennett Color (from the Mack Sennet Studio) vied for the attention of producers and cinematographers.
Like early attempts to add synchronized sound to the movies, experiments in natural color ran the gamut from failed curiosities to the limited success of the two-color additive system used by Technicolor in its own production of The Gulf Between in 1916. Shot in Florida, the movie required that Technicolor build a complete laboratory in a railway car for the on-location processing and printing of celluloid. The men from M.I.T. soon abandoned the problem-plagued additive process and developed the two-color subtractive system with a modified Bell & Howell “2709” camera. Douglas Fairbanks produced the 1926 swashbuckler The Black Pirate with four of these hybrid cameras. The Ten Commandments (1923) and Ben Hur (1926) both exploited Technicolor’s primitive “Process Number Two” for a few scenes. The two-color process had limits in the spectrum it could reproduce. By exposing separate frames of black-and-white film through a red filter and a green filter, one could attain a semblance of natural color; without the blue record, certain key picture elements might not be rendered realistically — a bright blue sky, for instance.
Technicolor realized the goal of full spectrum color reproduction in 1932 with the three-strip process. The technique began on-set with a special camera designed by George Mitchell and Technicolor’s Joseph Ball. The three-strip camera looked like a Mitchell NC on steroids. The oversize magazine held three rolls of 35mm stock and the camera body contained a host of prisms, beam-splitters and filters. A specially designed intermittent movement pulled three black-and-white negatives through two separate gates — two negatives traveled in bi-pack, the other remained solo. Much has been written about the extremely slow speed of Technicolor “film”: Becky Sharp was photographed at a five ASA and Technicolor calibrated its light meters in hundreds of foot-candles. But it wasn’t just the specifically prepared black-and-white stock that registered slowly: substantial light loss from the filters and prisms kept the effective ASA down to a single-digit number. Technicolor eventually applied black-and-white negatives pre-treated with an ammonia solution that increased the film’s sensitivity, developed more efficient beam splitters and, consequently, raised its ASA to 50. After traveling through the taking lens, the light was divided by a beam splitter and aimed through a series of in-camera filters to ensure exposure of each negative with only one primary color record of the scene. Three separate negatives rendered three discrete records of Red, Green and Blue — all color combinations were blended from this “RGB menu.” It’s important to remember that actual color was not being recorded: color information was logged on the black-and-white film — a kind of algorithm for the process’s next step.
After development, the camera negatives were optically printed onto another set of three, black-and-white films. Silver was washed from these “matrix” films so that only a clear gelatin relief “map” of the original scene remained on the celluloid, depicting the amount of red, green or blue light present. Up to this point, no actual color had been put on the film. The three clear matrix prints were coated with a color dye complimentary to the original negative — cyan for red, magenta for green and yellow for blue. These color-coated strips were then printed onto a blank receiver film — in strict registration, one at a time — until the complete color palette came to life. The Technicolor system combined elements of photochemistry and lithographic printing. The matrix films were like rubber stamps that absorbed or “imbibed” the dye — hence the process being dubbed “Technicolor Imbibition Dye Transfer.” This complex method required incredible accuracy and quality control: the final print demanded a registration tolerance of 8/10,000 of an inch. The procedure was also very expensive — it could increase a movie’s budget by fifty percent.
Back on the set, under a blaze of arc lights, the Technicolor camera hummed in its massive blimp. Camera and film had been balanced for daylight. Powerful white flame, carbon arc lamps were needed to saturate the set with Technicolor’s preferred exposure level — 800 foot-candles. The assistant racked focus with a handheld remote unit that controlled a selsyn motor attached to the lens barrel. The lens compliment included focal lengths of 25, 35, 40, 50, 70, 100 and 140mm. High-speed photography was accomplished with a special Technicolor camera designed to run at 96 frames-per-second. When shooting action scenes or dangerous stunts with the giant three-strip camera was unfeasible, a standard Mitchell or Bell & Howell Eyemo would be pressed into service. Loaded with 35mm, color reversal film, these cameras could shoot exciting cutaways that blended quite well with the original Technicolor.
By 1940, Technicolor and Eastman Kodak were experimenting with monopack color negative film. Field tested in aerial scenes for 1941’s Dive Bomber (shot by Bert Glennon, ASC and Winton Hoch, ASC) and 1942’s Captains of the Clouds (Sol Polito, ASC), the single-strip color film proved acceptable for action shots. Ten more years would pass before monopack color emulsion would challenge Technicolor’s preeminence on the movie marquee.
Hollywood’s Golden Age – The Sequel
On Saturday night, December 10, 1938, the flame-ridden sky over Culver City glowed red-hot as Selznick International Studios’ backlot burned to the ground. Seven Technicolor cameras manned by 27 operators and assistants recorded this spectacular display of pyrotechnics. Thus began filming on the monumental Civil War epic Gone with the Wind. Production designer William Cameron Menzies orchestrated and directed the “Burning of Atlanta” while Technicolor cameraman Ray Rennahan, ASC supervised its photography. David O. Selznick brought a wealth of color experience to production of GWTW, having produced The Garden of Allah, A Star is Born, Nothing Sacred and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer — all in three-strip Technicolor. Selznick’s primary financial backer, Jock Whitney, was also heavily invested in the Technicolor Corporation, so it’s not surprising that Selznick chose Technicolor for most of his “event” movies.
Released in 1939 amid the greatest publicity campaign in movie history, Gone with the Wind attained success beyond every expectation. The picture earned unprecedented box-office receipts while winning almost every category in the Academy Awards. Ernie Haller, ASC and Ray Rennahan, ASC took home golden statuettes for their superb photography. Lee Garmes, ASC shot the first twelve weeks of GWTW, but was uncredited and unsung for his subtle, often moody manipulation of the sometimes garish Technicolor process.
Many film buffs consider 1939 to be the greatest single year in the history of Hollywood movies. The turbulent and difficult decade emerged with cinematographers forming a shaky alliance with a new technology that seemed to threaten their artistic freedom on every front. Yet, less than two years after the first “talkies,” sound and camera departments had become comrades in arms, together raising the motion picture art to unparalleled heights. Technical innovation liberated the camera from the soundproof booth. In describing his ideal of the flowing camera, director F.W. Murnau noted that it could once again “whirl and peep and move from place to place as swiftly as thought itself.” Cinematographers concentrated on lighting, mood and story instead of mechanics of multi-camera coverage. The shimmering black-and-white photography of the silent film’s “Golden Age” returned with even greater artistry.
Technicolor added the next important dimension to motion pictures. Directors of photography quickly tamed the boisterous hues and harnessed the dreadnought camera to create color motion pictures that still dazzle the eye. Just venture back to 1939 and the astounding slate of movies that remain classics to this day — Dark Victory, Gone with the Wind, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz and Wuthering Heights. That list only comprises the Academy nominees. (Gregg Toland, ASC won an Oscar for the black-and-white photography of Wuthering Heights, the first major feature photographed entirely with the Mitchell BNC. Toland, of course, went on to use BNC serial #2 to shoot Orson Welles’ landmark Citizen Kane.) Continue on with that year’s timeless movies, and one uncovers Beau Geste, Destry Rides Again, Gunga Din, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Intermezzo, The Shop Around the Corner, Only Angels Have Wings, The Roaring Twenties, Young Mr. Lincoln as well as two Technicolor films that tested the three-strip cameras with grueling locale shoots — Jesse James and Northwest Passage. The latter film (directed by King Vidor and photographed by Sidney Wagner and William V. Skall, ASC) saw the crew spend 12 weeks roughing it in the mountains, rivers and swamps of Idaho where a fully operational camera crane was built from trees felled on location. Its triumph proved that Technicolor was rugged enough to survive extremely demanding location work, thanks to the efforts of a very tough crew!
Cinematographers conquered technical and artistic challenges that sound and color pitched their way. As the halcyon list of 1939 attests, the late Thirties rank as a Renaissance period for motion pictures. Filmmakers approached their craft with a supreme confidence and skill that only comes from decades of experience. Movies’ progression from Porter’s The Great Train Robbery to Selznick’s Gone with the Wind in only 35 years is an astounding accomplishment.
The brave new winds of technological change swept through the New York World’s Fair of 1939. Fair-goers could experience the utopian promise that science and technology held for the future of mankind. RCA beamed live television to the 20,000 TV sets that dotted the busy boroughs of New York City. Polaroid projected 3-D movies to an enthralled audience. These two visual novelties would soon offer new hurdles to cinematographers and their colleagues in show business. In Europe, the world was primed to engage in the century’s greatest threat. On September 1st, Adolf Hitler’s’ Blitzkrieg slashed through Poland. Two days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany. World War II would question the future of any utopia — technological, or otherwise. In our next chapter, Hollywood enlists with the Allied campaign!
Machines that Made the Movies: Part 3 - Chronicling the history of the motion picture camera
by Russ T. Alsobrook
(This article originally appeared in ICG Magazine in Sept. 2000.)
December 7, 1941 — “a date which will live in infamy!” Thus did President Franklin Delano Roosevelt describe the Japanese’s infamous attack on Pearl Harbor. Within days, declarations of war reverberated around the world and the United States officially joined the Allies in a battle against the Axis powers — a conflict that would determine the destiny of humankind. The price of victory over tyranny was dreadfully high: the Second World War left 50 million people dead. The economic devastation was almost incalculable. In August of 1945, when the last gun was silenced, great cities in Europe and Asia were little more than gutted, smoldering ruins.
Hollywood answered the call to arms with patriotic dedication to the war effort — on the homefront and on the frontlines. In 1942, the studios released 80 war- themed movies and that number would increase as the war progressed. Most were forgettable, but a few films captured those desperate times perfectly and remain classics to this day. Arthur Edeson, ASC shot Bogey and Bergman in Casablanca (1942).Joe Ruttenberg, ASC photographed Greer Garson to perfection in Mrs. Miniver(1942); her close-ups were so powerful and moving that Britain’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, stated that the film’s inspirational value to be worth that of two battleships. A Guy Named Joe, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Since You Went Away, and even Swing Shift Maise (Rosie the Riveter falls in love with a test pilot!) brought the war to local movie theaters and sent box office receipts soaring. The weekly March of Time and Pathé newsreels were sobering reminders of the realities of war, even though the footage had been heavily censored and sanitized so as not to overly shock movie patrons. More than 8,000 men and women from the film industry wore uniforms of the armed forces. Dozens of Hollywood cameramen lent their talents to the Army Signal Corp and the photo branches of the Navy and Marines. When the photo groups were being formed early in the war, cameras suitable for combat were in short supply. Local camera stores quickly sold out their inventory of Bell & Howell Eyemos and Filmos as well as Kodak Cine Specials to help supply the freshly uniformed camera crews until Bell & Howell could ramp up production for the thousands of cameras needed for frontline filming.
The Bell & Howell “Bomb-Spotter” version of the 35mm Eyemo became the favorite camera for battle- hardened cinematographers. It held 100 feet of film wrapped in a daylight spool and ran for 30 seconds on its hand-wound spring motor. A single lens helped keep it small, lightweight and simple. Rugged enough to stop a bullet, it probably saved the lives of many cameramen. A saying resonated among the troops that “The brave ones were shooting the enemy. The crazy ones were shooting film.” Other models of the Eyemo sported a three-lens turret and some could hold a 400-foot magazine and battery-powered motor. But for “run-and-gun” on the battlefield, the little “Bomb-Spotter” was the camera of choice.
Mitchell “Newsreel Cameras” went to sea with the U.S. Navy. The “NC’s” were mounted on tripods secured to rolling decks of aircraft carriers, cruisers and battleships. Along with handheld Eyemos, the Mitchells recorded the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway, both crucial turning points in the clash for control of the vast Pacific Ocean. Every carrier landing by every plane was photographed for pilot review and Naval records. Often times, a Mitchell recorded the successful “traps” and the not-so-successful “arrivals” when battle-damaged Hellcats or Corsairs came in on “a- wing-and-a-prayer,” with their wounded or exhausted pilots barely able to fly. The disabled fighters were frequently filmed skidding across the pitching flight deck and careening into the bridge or over the side into the churning seas. A few Mitchells actually flew combat missions in the Army Air Corp. Cameraman John Craig rigged an NC from bungee cords in a B-17. Reloading Eyemos in the bone-numbing cold at 20,000 feet was no easy task, especially while buffeted by turbulence, flak and fighter attacks. With the Mitchells 1000-foot magazines, Craig could shoot much longer between reloads and, suspended from bungee cords, the camera could swing in any direction to capture the lightning fast and deadly aerial action. (Aerial photography is always dangerous, even in peacetime. But should cameramen and pilots continue to pay the ultimate price for exciting footage even when there is no enemy shooting back at them?)
Safely on the ground and back in the States, the armed forces utilized Mitchells and old Bell & Howell 2709s extensively for training films and publicity “photo-ops.” Wartime production of the Mitchell BNC ceased between 1941 and 1945. American industry had other priorities — the nation’s factories produced over 300,000 airplanes but only one BNC rolled off the line in June of 1941. Serial #18 was the last BNC built until the post-war boom restarted the BNC assembly line. Under the Lend Lease Plan, eight BNC’s were shipped to the Soviet Union during the war. The great Russian director, Sergie Eisenstein and his cameraman Edouard Tissé used several of these Mitchells to film Ivan The Terrible (1944/46). (German military cameramen in WW II wielded a highly advanced, ergonomically designed, handheld, light-weight, reflex camera. Future articles will discuss the Arriflex.)
Many of Hollywood’s finest cameramen and directors risked their lives to photograph the war in every theater of operations. Director John Huston used an Eyemo alongside cameraman Jules Buck to document “The Battle of San Pietro” 1944. John Ford (“a guy who did westerns”) and cameramen Bob Moreno, Jack Mackenzie and Kenneth Pier captured the “Battle of Midway” on film in 1942. Ford was wounded while filming the attack on Midway Island: his own camera recorded the incoming barrage of shrapnel that put him out of commission for several weeks. William Wyler’s camera team shot the dramatic final combat mission of The Memphis Belle. Bill Clothier, ASC served behind the camera with valor and, after the war, photographed such memorable John Wayne Westerns as The Alamo (1960) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), The War Wagon (1967) and Rio Lobo (1970). Joe Longo, a leading documentary cameraman during and after the war, served in the 13th Air Force. He and his cameras logged 35 combat missions in B-24s, B-25s and Bristol Beaufighters while flying sorties across the Pacific from Guadalcanal to the Philippines. Joe Biroc, ASC and director George Stevens numbered among the first Americans to enter Dachau as the Allied Troops liberated Europe. In the Nuremberg war crimes trial, their chilling documentary film, Nazi Concentration Camps, was entered as evidence. Lester Shorr, ASC, David Quaid, ASC, Emmet Berkholtz, Stanley Cortez, ASC and many more dedicated cameramen served with honor during World War II. Many did not return. The images they committed to film live on as important historical documents. The campaigns, the battles, the victories and defeats, and even the day-to-day tedium of war’s “hurry-up-and-wait” boredom, were all recorded with skill and guts. But more importantly, their celluloid legacy reminds us of the courage of ordinary men and women placed in extraordinary circumstances — bravery, heroics and, finally, the ultimate horrors of war’s atrocities will haunt humanity as long as motion picture film exists to replay history.
The Best Years of Our Lives?
By 1946, Gregg Toland, ASC had hung up his Army uniform, and dusted off his Mitchell BNC. With the war over, the time had arrived to get back to work. In post-war America, the story of the returning veteran was told a million times over. The Hollywood version chronicled the experience perfectly in the classic Samuel Goldwyn production The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). William Wyler directed from a script by Mckinlay Kantor and Robert Sherwood, while Toland applied his deep-focus expertise to the story of three servicemen returning to their hometown, their families and a world forever changed by the six-year conflict. The euphoria of peace was tempered by an underlying feeling of dread — a kind of ennui brought on by the post-war era’s uncertainties. The film noir cycle — as finessed to near perfection in Double Indemnity (1944), The Blue Dahlia (1946), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and Out of the Past (1947) — mirrored its dark underbelly. MGM musicals like An American in Paris (1952) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952) spoke to the optimism of the New World Order.
Technological change accelerated during World War II. There’s nothing like survival to motivate scientific breakthroughs. In 1946, the world’s first true electronic digital computer went on-line at the University of Pennsylvania. The ENIAC weighed 30 tons, stood 18 feet high, and contained 18,000 vacuum tubes and 500 miles of wiring. Designed for ballistics calculations, it arrived too late for the Second World War but would be employed for classified nuclear weapons work for almost 10 years. The Manhattan Project came to apocalyptic fruition when mushroom clouds rose over Hiroshima and Nagasaki — dark harbingers of the nuclear arms race and the Cold War. On October 17, 1947, the jet age announced its arrival with a sonic boom resounding over Southern California’s Mojave desert as Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1. A less spectacular venue — one deep within Bell Laboratories — witnessed the birth of the transistor. In Glendale, California, the Mitchell Camera Corporation worked overtime to crank out new BNC cameras. Nineteen forty-seven saw 32 Mitchell BNC’s leave the plant, ready to take their place as the world’s premiere soundstage camera.
Hollywood had a spectacular comeback in the late 1940s. Theater attendance was the highest since 1930. In 1947, 90 million people went to the movies every week. A ticket cost 35 cents and purchased a double feature, short subject, cartoon, newsreel and on Saturday matinees, an exciting serial from Republic Studios. But the ride down easy street was about to get bumpy for the movie studios. A new entertainment technology was about to grab the attention of millions of Americans — television was coming of age. Like every technological development in the modern world of audio-visual arts, television can trace its roots back before the 20th century. (The movie camera, color film, widescreen, “talkies” and Charles Babbage’s “Analytical Machine” — a precursor to the modern computer — were all invented in the 19th century. It seems that nothing new sits under the sun, and please don’t say digital.) Television was first discussed as a scientific possibility in the 1881 book titled The Electric Telescope. The Cathode Ray Tube, that instrument which makes TV possible, was actually invented in 1897.
In 1927, Philo T. Farnsworth successfully demonstrated “electronic television” in his San Francisco lab. Fast-forward through brutal TV patent wars (not unlike those seen in the pioneer film era) and the crude broadcast experiments during the Twenties and Thirties and we land back in 1947, which turns out to be an interesting year for all sorts of technology). In that year, NBC and the Dumont Network first broadcast the World Series (the Yankees won) and Bob Hope appeared on air for the inauguration of Los Angeles “commercial” broadcast television. When Hope announced the new call letters for station KTLA, live from Paramount Studios, he flubbed the line and got the letters mixed up — the first L.A. blooper. That year, the United States had about 7,000 TV sets; three years later, that figure exploded to 10 million. Television’s proliferation was inversely proportional to the precipitous decline in movie attendance. By 1950, only 60 million movie patrons made the weekly trek to the theater; by the mid-Fifties, ticket sales dropped to half the peak set in 1947. Clearly something was rotten in the state of Hollywood. Some observers felt “déjà vu all over again”— a replay of the radio’s ascendancy in the Twenties. However, other forces were working to pull Americans away from the silver screen.
The 1949 opening of the sprawling cookie-cutter tract homes of Levittown, Long Island sparked mass migration to the suburbs. The population shift away from downtown theaters and the domestic responsibilities brought about by the post-war baby boom helped curtail the movie-going habit. The G.I. Bill helped veterans buy new homes and attend college in unprecedented numbers. Boosts in the post-war economy put cash in America’s pockets. Behold the new, highly educated, upwardly mobile middle class! But early television’s typical programming in no way indicated this new sophistication. The ghostly, snow-filled picture tubes emanated with basic scenarios that had entertained people for decades, if not centuries. Vaudeville made a comeback on The Ed Sullivan Show, Howdy Doody continued the puppet show tradition going back to the Middle Ages and Dick Lane’s wrestling shows featured “Gorgeous George” and “Mr. Moto” in outlandish parodies of Greco-Roman matches. Very old wine presented in new, inferior wineskins. The quality of television improved — both technically and aesthetically — and like the movies, TV would soon create it’s own “Golden Age.”
Widescreen to the Rescue
A spectacular motion picture experience made its debut September 30, 1952 in New York City’s Broadway Theater. This is Cinerama played to a packed house for two years and opened in specially modified theaters to outstanding business all across the country. With deeply curved screens sweeping up to 96 feet wide in some venues, Cinerama certainly offered a thrilling alternative to the fuzzy TV images that had recently mesmerized Americans. Three interlocked projectors cast a glowing panorama 146 degrees wide and 55 degrees high. The original photography was accomplished by a set of three Mitchell cameras rolling six-perf 35mm film at 26 frames- per-second through a trio of matched 27mm lenses. A single shutter rotated in front of all three lenses to ensure perfect sync, and the lenses were interlocked and focused as one. The mechanical genius behind Cinerama was Fred Waller, a former engineer and special effects wizard from Paramount Studios. During World War II, Waller developed a “virtual reality” simulator for training aerial gunners. Five projectors filled a hemisphere with airplane footage shot by five interlocked 16mm cameras. Gunners could follow the attacking planes and shoot at the screen, which recorded their “hits” with an audible cue — a kind of giant video game, if you will. Waller refined his “Viterama” system into three camera, three projector Cinerama with the backing of Marian C. Cooper (“father” of King Kong and an early promoter of Technicolor), explorer-journalist Lowell Thomas and the redoubtable impresario, producer Mike Todd.
When Cinerama was abandoned in the early Sixties, only seven productions had been filmed with “the three-eyed monster.” Only two of those were narrative films, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and How the West Was Won (both 1962). The remaining films consisted of glorified travelogues or thrill rides like Cinerama Holiday (1955), The Seven Wonders of the World (1956) and Cinerama South Seas Adventure (1958). From the start, Cinerama was limited by it’s cumbersome cameras (the blimped version weighed 800 pounds) and the excessive cost of equipping theaters with screens, projectors and seven-channel-stereo-interlocked-mag-track sound systems. But the incredible success of This is Cinerama — even in it’s limited engagements — ushered in the modern widescreen era. However, to be universally accepted by exhibitors and easily adapted to current production procedures, a single camera/single projector system for widescreen movies would need to be developed quickly, because the audience hungered for more super-colossal productions.
When Hollywood needs a new technology to satisfy the audience’s cravings for novelty there is only one thing to do — go into the vaults, dust off the old technology and make it new again. Widescreen systems of every kind had been kicking around the movies since the days of Edison and Lumière. It’s been said that in 100 years of the motion picture, film has come in some 100 different sizes. In 1897, the Veriscope system used 63mm film to record the famous Corbett - Fitzsimmons boxing match. Biograph utilized 68mm and Lumière tried 75mm in an attempt to circumvent the Edison patents, which had settled on 35mm. Around 1930, widescreen came very close to a major resurgence with the Fox 70mm Grandeur format, Warner Brothers 65mm Vitascope, RKO’s 63mm Natural Vision, and Paramount’s Magnascope (put to use to stunning effect in certain presentations of Howard Hughes’ 1930 World War I flying epic Hell’s Angels). Brilliant and visionary French director Abel Gance probably plied widescreen to its greatest early artistic success in his grand triple-screen “Polyvision” film of Napoleon (1927). Polyvision used three Debrie cameras mounted on top of one another, presaging Waller’s three-camera Cinerama by 25 years. In 1930, studios and exhibitors dished out a fortune on the massive conversion to sound, and audiences seemed quite content with the standard screen size. Widescreen would wait in the wings until the moguls deemed it time for a revival.
Cinerama proved that widescreen meant big box office so the race was on to find a system that could be swiftly grafted to standard production and exhibition methods. Fox and Warners sent executives racing to France in hopes of securing the widescreen process invented by optics professor Henri Chrétien. Fox won the race by a few hours, purchasing the small inventory of anamorphic lenses first developed by Chrétien in 1927. The Frenchman based his “Hypergonar” lens on the concept that an anamorphic (Greek for “controlled distortion”) lens systematically distorts an image on film that is restored to normal during projection by a complimentary lens. “Anamorphoscope” created a 100 percent horizontal squeeze, resulting in a picture twice as wide as that projected by standard 35mm film. A pair of lens attachments could be used on existing cameras and projectors to create a motion picture aspect ratio of 2.66:1. (After magnetic soundtracks had been added to the print, the proportion dropped to 2.55:1. Optical tracks further reduced the ratio to 2.35:1). Not quite Cinerama, but the concept was so simple (at least in theory) that Fox immediately announced that it would use their new “Cinemascope” on all future productions. Photographed by Leon Shamroy, ASC, 1953’s The Robe was the first feature produced in Cinemascope. The Biblical epic proved a tremendous hit and shortly MGM, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers and Columbia all licensed the Cinemascope process for their own widescreen ventures. Leon Shamroy, ASC recalled some of the problems encountered during the “terrible days of early Cinemascope. Those early lenses were hell and the films became very granulated. We never had the sharpness of the old three-strip Technicolor days. You couldn’t even do close-ups because the lenses would distort so horribly. It was like photographing a stage play again. The widescreen revolution wrecked the art of film for a decade, but it saved the picture business!”
To combat the grain that became apparent when 35mm was stretched to twice its size by the anamorphic lens and projected on screens over 50 feet wide meant that larger negatives became needed in the contest for widescreen superiority. Fox resurrected one of their 1929 70mm “Grandeur” cameras, converting it to handle specially manufactured 55.62mm negative film. Fitted with a Bausch & Lomb anamorphic lens, the system was titled “Cinemascope 55” and used on only two features – Carousel (Charlie Clarke, ASC) and The King and I (Leon Shamroy, ASC). Both films saw release in 1956 on 35mm reduction prints. (The rushes were screened in 55mm with even Darryl Zanuck reportedly impressed beyond words at the depth and clarity of “55”.) Paramount — the only major studio not to license Cinemascope — instead conceived its own widescreen, non-squeezed process, christening it “VistaVision.” Using a “Natural Color” camera from the late 1920’s, the Paramount camera department modified the double-frame, two-color relic into the first VistaVision camera by first, rotating the camera on its side and machining out a horizontal aperture eight perforations wide. Much like a 35mm still camera, the film was pulled sideways across the enlarged gate yielding a negative over 2 1/2 times the size of standard 35mm movie film. In fact, Leica still camera lenses had to be used in order to cover the expanded frame. Quite a technological coup, because the Paramount engineers managed to come up with a large format negative while using standard 35mm film! The new camera was nicknamed the “Lazy-8” for it’s 8-perf frame and unusual repose. Two “Natural Color” cameras were modified and put to work on White Christmas (1954), the first VistaVision feature with photography by Loyal Griggs, ASC. The second VistaVision film — DeMille’s Ten Commandments (1956) — used totally new silent studio cameras designed and built by the Mitchell Camera Corporation. The Mitchell cameras were dubbed “Elephant Ears” because of the drooping coaxial magazines, which were mounted vertically while the film made a 90-degree turn to approach the gate. Originally intended for projection in the horizontal format, VistaVision achieved superb results when shown in standard 35mm Technicolor reduction prints. A handful of films were actually projected from eight-perf horizontal contact prints. White Christmas, Anthony Mann’s Strategic Air Command (William Daniels, ASC) and Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (Robert Burks, ASC) received limited runs in glorious widescreen VistaVision.
Many contend VistaVision as having been the best of the widescreen formats. The flat negative did not contain the distortion anomalies that anamorphic systems were prone to, and Paramount’s preferred 1.66:1 aspect ratio was considered more pleasing than the “ribbon-thin” Cinemascope frame. Alfred Hitchcock used VistaVision for several of his finest films — Vertigo (1958) and North by Northwest (1959) being two excellent examples, both photographed by Hitch’s favorite cinematographer, Robert Burks, ASC. John Ford took VistaVision to Monument Valley for The Searchers (1956), and the director’s signature locale never looked better as shot by Winton Hoch, ASC. Even Elvis Presley received the VistaVision treatment in what could be his best movie, King Creole (1958), directed by veteran Michael Curtiz and recorded in black-and-white by Russell Harlan, ASC. Paramount retired the process after Marlon Brando’s One Eyed Jacks in 1961. (The system actually found its demise on 1963’s forgettable My Six Loves. But Brando’s directorial debut, with artful camerawork by Charlie Lang, ASC would have been a better official finale for VistaVision.) The early Sixties found the studios in one of their perennial cost-cutting modes. Since VistaVision was a little more expensive (running at 180 feet per minute to feed the eight-perf gate, it consumed double the stock of a standard production). In its accounting wisdom, Paramount decided VistaVision to no longer be cost-effective and sold off their cameras. But it wasn’t long before Vistavision made a comeback in the special effects world. The horizontal cameras currently contribute crisp, fat negatives for optical shots in today’s FX-laden blockbusters.
65mm or Mike Todd’s Cinerama in One Hole
Mike Todd sold his interest in Cinerama and invested the windfall in a system that could emulate the spectacle of the three-camera process with the simplicity of single camera photography. Enlisting the services of the American Optical Company, Todd and his engineers decided that an unsqueezed 65mm negative running at 30 frames-per-second would be the basis of their new system. They obtained a 1930-era Fearless Superfilm 65mm camera and (with the help of the Mitchell Camera Corporation) began modifications that would result in the “Todd-AO” system. A 12.7mm “Bug-Eye” lens was mounted on the Fearless camera and recorded a vista of 128 degrees. The 90-pound, wide-angle lens became permanently attached to the Fearless, as swapping lenses was quite an interesting task. Mitchell provided up-graded versions of their 1930’s 65mm cameras and later built the new 65mm “BFC,” which outwardly resembled an overweight BNC (many components were interchangeable). The Mitchells were used with the standard compliment of lenses that covered 37, 48 and 64 degrees. Robert Surtees, ASC inaugurated the Todd-AO cameras on Oklahoma (1955). Like other Todd-AO movies, the popular Broadway musical was printed on 70mm film to allow extra room for the stereo sound tracks. Other musicals used Todd-AO and Leon Shamroy, ASC received one of his 18 Academy Award nominations for his glossy, color-washed photography of South Pacific (1958).
While MGM provided the studio and technical services for the Todd-AO production of Oklahoma, (including the loan out of Bob Surtees, ASC) they were developing their own 65mm system. During the early Fifties, Leo’s camera department chief, John Arnold, ASC devised and tested “ArnoldScope,” a 10-perferation horizontal camera similar in concept to VistaVision. Arnold may have gotten the idea from the 1929 Fearless Superpicture system or from an Italian process that used horizontal cameras and projectors as early as 1909. Perhaps Arnold stumbled on this latter process while MGM filmed Ben Hur on Italian locations in 1925. By the mid-Fifties, MGM was planning a remake of Ben Hur, for a spectacular widescreen roadshow release. Though impressed by the results of Todd-AO, MGM went one step further. The studio commissioned Panavision’s Robert Gottschalk to design a new widescreen process that would not have the distortion of current anamorphic lenses, and could be printed in several formats including Cinerama, 70mm, 35mm reduction (both flat and squeezed) and 16mm. Panavision had been primarily involved in building high-quality anamorphic projection lenses, but their sights had been set on entering the production arena for some time. Gottschalk and his team first used converted Mitchell cameras from the MGM inventory that went back to the 1930’s “Realife” 70mm process, but soon Mitchell was building fresh 65mm cameras housed in 300-pound magnesium blimps. Panavision enhanced the system (then still quite similar to Todd-AO) by using newly designed anamorphic lenses that created a compression of 1.25:1. The APO Panatar lenses used prisms rather than cylindrical elements and virtually eliminated distortion, especially in close-ups. Named “Ultra Panavision” by Gottschalk, the Metro publicity department preferred their snappy label of “MGM CAMERA 65.”
Ben Hur was to be Camera 65’s debut film, but production delays gave that honor to Raintree County in 1957 with Bob Surtees, ASC once again called on for the widescreen photography. He then segued into the filming of Ben Hur, which would be in production for more than a year and would earn 11 Academy Awards, including Best Photography for Surtees. Released on November 14, 1959, Ben Hur was presented in a stunning aspect ratio of 2.76:1 for it’s roadshow engagements and would play continuously in various sizes and theaters for two-and-a-half years. Sixty-five millimeter had finally become a mature, fully viable motion picture format. By the time MGM and Bob Surtees went to work on the 65mm re-make of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962),“Ultra Panavision” had officially replaced the “Camera 65” label on credits, posters and the cameras themselves. “Super Panavision” — the non-anamorphic version of Camera 65 — saw it’s initiation on The Big Fisherman in 1959, but found its first artistic and commercial success by filming Otto Preminger’s Exodus in 1960 (Sam Leavitt, ASC did the photography. After all, Surtees couldn’t be expected to shoot every 65mm film).
The widescreen revolution of the 1950s not only included the major players of Cinerama, Cinemascope, VistaVision, Camera 65, Ultra and Super Panavision, but many supporting characters auditioned for billing on mega-movie posters. The studios crafted some names for its licensed systems, others were short-lived experiments that lasted for one or two films and a few were nothing but “hoopla.” Maybe some of these publicity department trademarks will bring back memories: Warnerscope, Vistarama, Vectograph, Variascope, AmpoVision, Glamorama, Naturama, Megascope, Hammerscope, Panoramica, Technirama, Superscope and Cinemiracle. The Fifties began and ended with movie gimmicks designed to lure patrons away from their TV sets. Arch Obler’s 3-D, African escapade Bwana Devil (1952) sparked the short-lived craze that required audience members to look and feel ridiculous while wearing those goofy glasses with flimsy red and blue “lenses.” Mike Todd Jr. continued his father’s gift for showmanship and finished the decade with his “Todd 70” production of Scent of Mystery “in glorious Smell-O-Vision.” Advertisements proclaimed “First They Moved – 1893, Then They Talked – 1927, Now They Smell – 1959.” Apparently, the audience agreed with the last description, as the film quickly wafted into oblivion.
One major technical development made all these wide screen systems possible. In 1950, Eastman Kodak introduced a monopack color negative patented as “Eastmancolor.” Agfa’s color negative followed soon after. Both companies earned Academy Awards for their emulsion innovations. Not too many years later, three-strip Technicolor retired as a color origination medium. From 1950 onwards, motion picture cameras became colorblind. Just by changing its raw stock, a Mitchell BNC could be a black-and-white camera or a color camera. It seems obviously self-evident now, but after the reigning supremacy of three-strip Technicolor, this “software” revolution helped trigger the widescreen revolution. Imagine three giant Technicolor cameras in the Cinerama configuration (it was already big enough!), or three rolls of film hurtling through multiple gates of a VistaVision camera at 180 feet-per-minute. (Technicolor did convert several of their three-strip cameras to VistaVision. After extracting all the movements and gates and prisms and filters, plenty of room remained to bend the single roll of film around rollers and guides and pull it past the horizontal aperture. Built like the proverbial tank, Technicolor eight-perf “Blue Boxes” found their way into special effects work for a few more decades.) Engineering problems aside, the economics of three-strip would have probably stifled development of so many widescreen formats. Technicolor’s contribution to widescreen’s glory days lay in its extraordinary printing artistry that rendered all of these formats in vivid, saturated colors that jumped off the screen. Watching a mighty 65mm movie like Ben Hur projected through a lush Technicolor dye-transfer 70mm print is a breathtaking motion picture experience. Most of today’s moviegoers have no idea what they are missing. Sadly, that fact may be the irony that sets the stage for the future of cinema. Next episode takes a “trip” through the Sixties — new waves, old waves, “reflexology” and beyond!
The author would like to thank Joe Longo, Richard Bennett and Peter Anderson, ASC for their patience and invaluable help in preparing this series.
Machines that Made the Movies: Part 4 - Chronicling the history of the motion picture camera
by Russ T. Alsobrook
(This article originally appeared in ICG Magazine in Nov. 2000.)
To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, the turbulent, revolutionary decade of the Sixties began with a whimper, not a bang. Richard M. Nixon lost the 1960 presidential race to John F. Kennedy by the slimmest margin in modern political history. Television may have given JFK the winning edge as televised debates demonstrated a candidate’s image to be as important as his platform. The Boob-Tube” was a new cultural arena where the “medium was the message.” The dashing young President and his glamorous First Lady transformed the White House into a contemporary Camelot. Vietnam was a jungle outpost a dozen time zones removed from the hearts and minds of most Americans. Top 40 radio kept its listeners comfortably numb with “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” In 1960, Hollywood endured a crippling strike by the Actors and Writers Guilds and produced only 211 features – a new low. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, photographed by his Universal Studios television crew, shocked movie patrons out of their complacency and out of their showers. The Mitchell Camera Corporation could boast that 85 percent of the motion pictures shown around the world had been shot with their 35mm, 65mm and VistaVision cameras. The Mitchell Studio BNC still ranked as the Cadillac of movie cameras.
Exterior — Back Street, Paris — Night
Jean-Paul Belmondo skulks through pools of light cast by the pale glow of street lamps and shop windows. With Fedora hat tilted low across one eye and Lucky Strike stuck permanently in pursed, pouting lips, he gives his best Bogart imitation. Raoul Coutard records the scene with his Éclair 35mm Camerette. Loaded with Ilford high-speed black-and-white still film (the short still camera loads ran only 15 seconds per take) in order to shoot in the dim reality of available light, the handheld camera intimately follows Belmondo’s every mannered step. The director is Jean-Luc Godard and the film is A Bout de Souffle (Breathless). Part homage to the hard-boiled American gangster film (it is dedicated to “B” movie studio Monogram Pictures) and part gritty, handheld, improvisational, fragmented reportage, Breathless embodies many of the elements that launched the French New Wave. In the Fifties, Godard, François Truffaut (The 400 Blows), Claude Chabrol (The Cousins), Eric Rohmer (The Sign of the Lion) and Jacques Rivette (Paris Belongs to Us) wrote for the literary French film journal Cahiers du Cinema and all became directors of note around the turn of the decade.
Raoul Coutard photographed many of the seminal films of the Nouvelle Vague, such as Shoot the Piano Player (1961), Jules et Jim (1961) and Alphaville (1965). Hisliberated, mobile camerawork and soft, bounced lighting became hallmarks of this revolutionary style. According to Coutard, the style was often born of necessity rather than aesthetics. New Wave directors could not afford to work in the studio, so they shot on location instead. Color film was too expensive, so they used black-and-white, sometimes pushing it to grainy extremes because movie lights were unaffordable. Coutard developed use of Photoflood lamps bounced into the ceilings of actual locations, not only because he had no Fresnel fixtures but also because impulsive directors like Godard insisted on freeing the actors from rehearsed blocking, allowing them to play a scene where and how they chose. With no marks to hit and no key lights to worry about, actors and cinematographer could roam freely and shoot in any direction at any time.
Designed by A. Coutant and J. Mathot, Coutard’s Éclair camera featured a three-lens turret, quick-change 400’ magazine and most significantly, through-the-lens reflex viewing. In 1949, the Éclair Camerette won a technical Academy Award, the first reflex camera to be so honored. The camera only had one drawback: it was as noisy as a threshing machine. The freedom of reflex, handheld shooting came at the price of looping all the dialogue. (In Breathless, the Éclair’s grinding can be heard in the background of some scenes.) A blimp was available for the Camerette, but it was heavy, cumbersome and especially awkward for assistants as the lens was totally encased by the “Cameblimp,” which provided rudimentary follow focus and aperture controls. Coutard eventually adopted the Mitchell BNC for crucial dialogue scenes, but the Éclair always came in handy when mobility was required. Directors and cinematographers continue to emulate the freewheeling camera style of Coutard and the Nouvelle Vague, but now it’s labeled Dogma ‘95, DV-Cinema or whatever the current catch-phrase happens to be. Once again, the old waves become new waves for the latest generation of moviemakers.
In 1917, August Arnold and Robert Richter, high school friends who grew up in Munich, formed a film processing and printing business which they christened “ARRI” by combining the first two letters of their last names. By 1936, their business had expanded into the manufacture of professional motion picture camera equipment. Documentary director Leni Reifenstahl used prototypes of the newly developed “Arriflex” to shoot Olympia, her lionization of “the Fatherland” and the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The official debut of the mirror-shutter reflex camera took place in 1937 at the Leipzig Fair. Its breakthrough design eventually set the standard for all through-the lens reflex systems in use today. The concept posed an elegant solution to a problem that had vexed camera designers and camera operators for decades. The earliest hand-cranked Pathé camera came equipped with a focusing tube that allowed the operator to preview the scene directly through the film gate by way of a hole in the pressure plate — literally through the unexposed celluloid, which functioned as the “ground glass.” The image appeared rather dim, but adequate for a quick check of framing and focus. The introduction of anti-halation backing on film rendered the system obsolete, as the negative was now opaque.
The Mitchell rack-over system finally gave operators a clear view of the scene directly through the taking lens (with no parallax), but could only be used to line up the shot before the camera rolled. A beam-splitting prism could divide the light between the film and the viewfinder, giving the operator the same view as the taking lens but this subtracted a substantial amount of light needed for film exposure. (Remember shooting with a 16mm Bolex and opening up a half stop to compensate for the viewfinder?) Arnold and Richter built their camera’s rotating shutter from a solid piece of glass which was polished and mirrored on the front surface (facing the lens) and black on the rear (toward the film). With an open shutter, 100 percent of the light struck the film, when closed during the pull-down stroke, 100 percent of the light became reflected from the mirrored front surface to the viewfinder. The camera operator and the film could both see the shot simultaneously. This technical innovation, which cinematographers take for granted today, would not find it’s way into the mainstream of Hollywood production for at least 30 years! The Motion Picture Academy honored the Arriflex with a technical Oscar in 1967, but Mitchell would not build a reflex BNC for another two years.
The “Arriflex II” of 1938 sported a three-lens turret, 200’ displacement magazine and battery-powered motor, which formed the handgrip. It was an ideal lightweight handheld camera and served with German combat cameramen throughout World War II. After the war, the “Arri” found its way to America, debuting on Louisiana Story (1948), a feature docudrama directed by Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North, Man of Aran). Cinematographer Richard Leacock had the distinction of shooting the first American feature with a handheld reflex camera. (Leacock would later make his mark in the cinéma vérité movement, along with documentary pioneers Robert Drew (Primary), D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back) and the Maysles Brothers (Gimme Shelter). Future articles will cover their innovative modifications of 16mm cameras.)
Fast forward to September 1964 and the Sixties arrive in a smash-cut, pop-zoom, handheld, kook-angle, long-lens, wide-lens, slow-motion, fast-motion, semi-documentary full length music video feature titled A Hard Day’s Night. Directed with non-stop energy by Richard Lester with Gilbert Taylor’s black-and-white photography, this day-in-the-life of the Beatles is a cinematic potpourri of French New Wave (shades of Jules and Jim), Mack Sennet comedy (the chase scenes are pure Keystone Kops) and every TV commercial technique then available. (Lester had cut his directorial teeth in the wild wacky world of European commercials). At the center of the “Mop Top” Mayhem is the Arriflex camera, often operated by Lester himself, as is the style of so many English commercial directors (the Scott Brothers Ridley and Tony come to mind). Light, mobile and easy-to-run with through the hordes of fans chasing after the Fab Four, the Arri’s reflex viewing also allowed the use of telephoto and zoom lenses, by then de rigueur for hip shooters. The straight dialogue scenes seem a little stilted compared to the rest of the madcap film, owing to the need for a blimped camera which always seems to put a damper on the new cinema’s creative flow. (Is there a trend here?) Produced for less than $500,000, A Hard Day’s Night was conceived as a quicky film to exploit The Beatles’ incredible overnight success. (At the time, no one really knew how long the band would last.) Yet the movie — like the music it celebrates — has achieved classic status and still seems fresh today. The “music video” techniques have become iconic (if not cliches) of the genre and are still repeated endlessly, simply because they work so well. (The movie is slated for re-release later this year and it will be interesting to revisit this little landmark if only to see how the 1964’s avant-garde looks so much like today’s avant-garde.)
From Carnaby Street to Bleeker Street and on out to the Sunset Strip, the British Invasion opened the floodgates of Sixties pop culture. Suddenly, Hollywood was awash in youth movies designed to cash in on the latest trends of the Now Generation. American International Pictures (AIP) and their resident “auteur”— producer/director Roger Corman — churned out topical movies tapping into the trend-of-the-month. From the Beach Blanket flicks of the bikini-and-trunks duo of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello to The Trip with Peter Fonda and Bruce Dern, AIP could switch from surfing to psychedelia faster than Sam Arkoff could flick the ash off his cigar. The low-budget, film factory system of AIP, New World, Crown International and others proved a fertile training ground for the new generation of movie buffs, film school brats and expatriate artistes who had immigrated to Hollywood in search of cinematic dreams. Directors Peter Bogdanovich (Targets), Francis Ford Coppola (Dementia 13), Martin Scorsese (Boxcar Bertha), John Milius (Dillinger) — along with cinematographers Lazlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond (their combined talents brought us The Incredibly Strange Creatures who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies) and Allen Daviau (special FX and montage on The Trip) — were among those given an early opportunity to practice their craft. These budding cineastes actually got to make movies at a time when major studios were fortresses of tradition that barred entry to the new Hollywood cinema’s bearded barbarians.
In 1965 Dylan went electric, the Stones couldn’t “get no satisfaction,” a small incident in the Gulf of Tonkin precipitated an escalation in the Vietnam War. In movieland, John Ford was directing his 144th and final film (Seven Women) and Roger Corman was gearing up to shoot The Wild Angels. In this nihilistic trip, rebel-without-a-cause Heavenly Blues(Peter Fonda) eloquently and succinctly sums up the outlaw-biker philosophy:“We just want to be free to get high and ride our machines and not be hassled by the Man!” Richard Moore, ASC photographed Fonda along with actors Nancy Sinatra and Bruce Dern as the Biker Film became established as a new, youth market franchise. Laszlo Kovacs would take over cinematography chores on this popular “cycle” of road movies with credits on Hell’s Angels on Wheels (1967) and The Savage Seven (1968). The Arriflex was the natural choice for Kovacs, since he had grown up with the compact reflex camera during his film school days in Hungary. By now, the story of how he and fellow film student Zsigmond filmed the 1956 revolution on the streets of Budapest while Russian tanks rolled over the freedom fighters and crushed the rebellion is familiar to everyone passionate about modern cinematography history. The two friends barely escaped with their lives and a few mail sacks filled with exposed negative, which they bartered for food and lodging along their trek to liberty and eventually Hollywood’s land of milk-and-honey.
“Knockin’ on heaven’s door…”
While the new kids in town were “takin’ it to the streets” with their Arris and Eclairs, it should be remembered that Hollywood’s old guard still had plenty of spunk left. Pioneer cinematographers who began their careers hand-cranking Pathes, Bell & Howell 2709s and Mitchell Standards in the days before sound were still making pictures in the late Sixties and early Seventies. The roster of ASC greats still “cranking” amidst of this cultural revolution reads like an honor roll of movie legends: William Daniels, George Folsey, Lee Garmes, Burnett Guffey (with Bonnie and Clyde, he helped jump start the last “golden age” of Hollywood), James Wong Howe, Charles B. Lang, Hal Mohr, Joseph Ruttenberg, Harry Stradling Sr. and Karl Struss. Many of these iron men of the movies continued to push the edges of the photographic envelope, never satisfied with yesterday’s work. (After all, it does take character to survive in this business for 50 or 60 years.) George Folsey worked side-by-side with his son George Jr. on the independent film Glass Houses (1972). They shot on location with an Éclair Camerette, bathing the film entirely with reflected light, a style the senior Folsey had wanted to try ever since his MGM glory days when he photographed every star from the Marx Brothers to Katherine Hepburn.
Like the stalwart men behind the camera, the Mitchell BNC soldiered on — indomitable and seemingly immortal. However, a demand for a reflexed BNC arose to accommodate the increased use of the zoom lens, which was fast becoming a standard part of every camera package. Mitchell introduced the R-35 reflex camera in 1960, but sales lagged far behind the BNC and the camera never found its permanent place in production. Development of a Reflex BNC dragged on for so many years that the niche for a reflex studio camera became filled by other camera companies during the Sixties. Panavision and Mitchell discussed a joint venture whereby Panavision would design a new silent reflex 35mm camera to be manufactured by Mitchell. The partnership never came to pass so Panavision began a program to modify and upgrade the large inventory of cameras recently acquired from MGM in 1962 as part of the development of “MGM Camera-65.” Five years later, the PSR or Panavision Silent Reflex Camera was the result of an evolutionary series of modifications and upgrades that began on existing Mitchells and culminated in a new machine that featured improved film transport for quieter operation and reflex viewing. The PSR remained a big, blimped, heavy studio camera (140 pounds) — in essence, a souped-up BNC with a real groovy paint job.
In 1968, Ed DiGiulio formed Cinema Products Corporation after spending five years with Mitchell as its director, and later vice-president of engineering. He knew the Mitchell camera inside out. DiGiulio also knew that the vast number of BNCs currently in use throughout the world were ripe for modernization. His new company introduced the Silent Pellicle Reflex conversion of the BNC. The use of a thin, beam-splitting mirror instead of a rotating mirror shutter empoweredthe most efficient means to convert the BNC to a fully reflexed camera. In less than three years, Cinema Products converted over 60 BNCs to SPRs, winning a Technical Academy Award in the process. Camera Service Center of New York also produced a successful BNC reflex conversion. The CSC team opted for a variable, rotating mirror-shutter system and claimed to have the brightest ground-glass image of any camera available.
By early ’68, Mitchell was field testing the reflex version of their venerable BNC. According to its press release, the BNCR used a “segmented, stainless-steel mirror with 93 percent reflectivity that rotates at 720 rpm in precise sequence with the standard, single-opening, dissolving film shutter rotating at 1440 rpm.” The new BNCR achieved a noise reduction to 24 dB three feet from the film plane, which was about 30 percent quieter than the BNC. Outwardly, the new camera resembled the BNC in every way— minus the rackover feature. Still the most rugged camera around, Mitchell could rightfully claim that not one single BNC had retired from service in almost 35 years of constant use. With carefully kept records on every camera that went out the door, Mitchell could document that several BNCs had pulled eight million feet of film through their gates! Mitchell’s president, B.G. Tubbs, proclaimed that “we believe the BNCR will become a world standard for the next 30 years, just as the BNC had been a world standard for the past three decades.” Unfortunately, for the Mitchell Camera Corporation, the past is not always prologue.
“Born to be wild…”
The budget for Easy Rider was only $340,000. The crew consisted of a small band of Roger Corman alumni. Its cinematographer was, of course, Lazslo Kovacs, ASC and an Arriflex served as his camera of choice. The movie poster read “A man went looking for America, but couldn’t find it anywhere.” Ironically, it was Kovacs who found America through his searching zoom lens and mobile Arri as he tracked Wyatt, Billy and George Hansen in a “highway ballet” of Harleys wrapped in rainbow sun-flares. It was like seeing the American West’s rigged-and-rippled expanse for the first time. Indeed, it was the first time for Kovacs, who brought a fresh vision to this biker odyssey, creating a kaleidoscope of images that redefined how American movies would be photographed. Some contend that Easy Rider’s release on July 14, 1969 marked the beginning of a new wave in American movies — a mode of neo-realism demanding location shoots with compact cameras, lightweight equipment and small, dedicated crews. Most of all, this renaissance demanded authentic stories about real people in real settings, films about something and not the mind-numbing plastic-dreams of studio-bound, cotton-candy entertainment. Several other important movies saw release during in 1969-70, all pointing toward a new “Golden Age” of Hollywood – Midnight Cowboy, The Wild Bunch, Mash, Five Easy Pieces and Medium Cool. (Haskell Wexler’s verité look at politics, culture and our perceptions of reality and media is seen through the eyes — and 16mm Éclair NPR — of news cameraman John Cassellis (played by Robert Forster), who, in a moment of irony says, “God I love to shoot film.” Wexler and his blimped Éclair CM3 take center stage in the film’s final moments.)
Cinematographers called for a new generation of cameras in this exciting period of innovative cinema. Kovacs, quoted in a popular national magazine, expressed the thoughts of many working cameramen. “For the future, the motion-picture industry needs a research-and-development program that will drastically change the design of cameras. It took Mitchell 30 years to come out with a reflex camera by themselves. The engineers who are designing cameras don’t understand our problems. We’re still working with cameras that weigh 80 or 100 pounds, when we need a silent handheld one.” In the next episode —“answered prayers” — as we explore the Arriflex 35-BL and the Panaflex.
Machines that Made the Movies: Finalé
by Russ T. Alsobrook
(This article originally appeared in ICG Magazine in Jan. 2001.)
In 1970, Paris peace negotiators argued over the shape of the conference table while 400,000 American troops still slogged through the quagmire of the Vietnam War. The growing anti-war movement turned tragic when National Guard troops opened fire on a student demonstration at Kent State University. “Four dead in Ohio” sang Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in their anthem memorializing the slain students. The music died with Jimi and Janis, and the “Age of Aquarius” made way for a time of angst, alienation and absurdity. Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H used the Korean War as a stand-in for the insanity of Vietnam and indeed, all war. Francis Ford Coppola’s Oscar-winning script and George C. Scott’s brilliant portrayal of Patton presented a complex, flawed hero from the last “good war.” In Five Easy Pieces, Jack Nicholson’s Bobby Dupea battled his own demons of despair, culminating in a cathartic coffee shop scene that forever changed the meaning of “chicken salad sandwich.”
In a trend that began in 1955 when Howard Hughes sold RKO to General Tire and Rubber Company, business conglomerates that sold insurance and built hotels bought Hollywood studios like they were widget factories. Backlots were turned into condos and shopping malls, film libraries were sold for a song and much of the precious memorabilia of Hollywood’s golden age was lost forever, tossed into the fires of oblivion much like Charles Foster Kane’s childhood sleigh. Into this vacuum rushed the new wave of American filmmakers who turned their backs on the decaying studio system and preferred — indeed, insisted — on shooting their neo-realist movies on location without the impediments of heavy, archaic equipment, armies of technicians and the interference of the ever-present production office.
The Mitchell BNC, which had reigned supreme as Hollywood’s studio 35mm camera for more than 30 years, was fast becoming obsolete in the revolutionary decade of Seventies’ cinema. Mitchell added reflex viewing to their venerable workhorse, introducing the BNCR in late 1968. But the company met increasing competition from converted, updated and redesigned BNC cameras like Cinema Products SPR (Silent Pellicle Reflex) X-35 and Panavision’s PSR (Panavision Silent Reflex). In the minds of many “film school brats” now storming the last bastions of the crumbling studio fortress, these burdensome boat anchors (even the PSR still weighed in excess of 140 pounds) were not the right cameras for the freewheeling style of the new American cinema. The Arriflex and the Éclair CM3 were small and light, making them great for handheld shots in cramped locations but they were still “MOS” cameras that needed massive, cumbersome blimps for sync-sound.
The new generation of directors and cinematographers working in narrative theatrical films longed for the kind of freedom that practitioners of cinema-verité had finally achieved in the Sixties with the arrival of silent, handheld, reflex, zoom-lensed 16mm cameras. In 1963, Andre Coutant’s 16mm Éclair NPR (Noiseless Portable Reflex) arrived in the United States. It was a radical camera design from inside out. (Iconoclast director John Cassavetes utilized the NPR to film much of Faces,his 1968 “verité” feature which recounted the “painfully real study of middle-aged loneliness.”) Coutant’s work to develop miniature film systems integral to the telemetry of French guided missiles led directly to the development of the NPR’s sophisticated movement. The low-profile 400-foot coaxial quick-change magazine rested on the operator’s shoulder while the underslung sync motor could be cradled in one hand, leaving the other hand free to control the Angenieux zoom lens. The camera weighed less than 20 pounds and with the proper stance — a kind of backward lean with right elbow firmly braced on front of hip bone — the camera actually felt like it was part of your body. (The NPR was this author’s favorite camera during the halcyon days of his ancient and ever evolving film career.)
Before the Éclair NPR, there was Walter Bach’s Auricon, a 16mm camera for “sound- on-film Talking Pictures.” Used primarily for TV newsreels, the Auricon was a semi-self-blimped single system camera that recorded optical or magnetic sound right on the film. Many readers will no doubt recall Auricon’s magazine ads featuring the jaunty cameraman shooting a formation of fighter jets flying over the airbase as someone calls out “Here they come…!” In expanding the envelope of documentary filmmaking, Richard Leacock (Primary, 1960), Albert and David Maysles (Salesman, 1960 and Gimme Shelter, 1970), D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back, 1965 and Monterey Pop, 1968), Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies 1967) and America’s other cinema-verité pioneers wielded Auricons reworked into viable handheld cameras with reflex zoom lenses, lightweight DC batteries and 400-foot magazines. Leacock’s frustrating experience with blimped 35mm Arris while filming Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story in 1948 convinced him that a lightweight, easily maneuverable and quiet camera was essential for documentary shooting. Arriflex entered the field with its silent reflex 16mm BL in 1964, but for handheld, run-and-gun direct cinema, the Éclair NPR (in combination with Stefan Kudelski’s “Nagra” tape recorder) was the ultimate weapon.
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want…”
The long-awaited answer to the cinematographer’s prayer for a compact, silent 35mm camera came with the auspicious debut of the Arriflex 35-BL in Cologne, Germany at Photokina 1970, the world’s fair of photographic equipment. The design of the Arri BL was as revolutionary in the world of 35mm as the innovative Éclair NPR had been for 16mm. The BL was self-blimped, weighed about 21 pounds and mounted its double compartment coaxial magazine on the rear of the camera body to optimize shoulder balanced, handheld filming. The magazine contained the gear-driven film transport mechanism that held a constant sprocket-fed loop for rapid reloading with a minimum of threading. The famous Arriflex rotating mirror shutter lied at the heart of the 35-BL. There was only one flaw in the 35-BL — it wasn’t very quiet. With the lens “blimp” it registered 35dB and without the lens blimp the noise level increased to 39 dB. The Mitchell BNCR could boast of a noise level of 24 dB and since the dB scale increases exponentially, it becomes apparent how “un-quiet” the 35-BL was at this development stage.
Arriflex insisted that these were prototype models and promised to rework the camera until an acceptable dB level had been achieved. Even with this caveat, Arnold and Richter could have sold several hundred cameras right from their Photokina booth alone. Cinematographers waited patiently for the official unveiling of the production model set to coincide with the 1972 Munich Olympic games. During the interim, Arri’s engineers were faced with the daunting task of driving 35mm film (a plastic medium slapping against a metal gate 24 times-per-second) through a phalanx of gears, claws and pins at the rate of 90 feet per minute while also making the whole operation as quiet as a whisper. The problem had been solved in 16mm, because the speed of the film shuttling through the gate (only 36 feet per minute) and the mass of the celluloid were a fraction of 35mm. Like the decibel scale, the noise of the machine increases exponentially with the film size.
Arri takes the “A” train
The gritty action of Across 110th Street (1972) lifted the so-called “Blaxploitation” genre to a new level of “raw-gut realism.” Director Barry Shear’s look at a power struggle between Black and Italian Mafia in the numbers racket was filmed entirely on location in Harlem. Lt. Pope (Yaphet Kotto) and Captain Mattelli (Anthony Quinn) chased bad guys all over uptown — over rooftops, down fire escapes, through garbage strewn allies, in and out of tiny tenement apartments and across its menacing streets as cinematographer Jack Priestly and crew pursued the action with an Arriflex 35-BL. This against-all-the-odds flick was the production debut of the long-awaited Arri 35 BL and according to Priestly, the camera “passed its initial acid test with flying colors.” The camera was now “quiet as a church mouse” and allowed the crew to film handheld synch sound in the smallest practical locations. Fouad Said co-produced the film and brought his extensive location expertise to the production. Said had developed the CineMobile as a stripped-down, super efficient, go anywhere “studio on wheels” while shooting second-unit on TV’s landmark, globetrotting series I Spy. Said’s long relationship with Arriflex made Across 110th Street a natural choice for the 35-BL’s feature film shakedown. Priestly and camera operator Sol Negrin, ASC confirmed that no other sound camera would have given them the flexibility and mobility to shoot non-stop action in 60 difficult locations throughout the heart of Harlem.
Arriflex continually upgraded the 35-BL throughout its 20 years of production by introducing subsequent models — the BL2, BL3 and BL4. Each featured lowered noise levels, 1000-foot magazines, viewing systems with greater clarity and brightness, and built-in video tap prisms and all the other bells-and-whistles that made the 35-BL a standard production camera around the world. Over 2000 35-BLs were manufactured and there are more BLs in the field than all other competing sound cameras combined. It’s not unusual for young cinematographers to shoot their first movie with a vintage Arri 35-BL. Legions of top shooters, including many Oscar-winners have remained loyal to this rugged little camera throughout their careers. The Motion Picture Academy bestowed a technical Oscar on the Arriflex 35-BL in 1973.
The BL4s was the final iteration of the line and featured a state-of-the-art film movement that truly proved whisper quiet and virtually maintenance free. Transplanting this “silently beating heart” of the BL4s, Arri engineers morphed the camera into the next generation production tool — the Arriflex 535. Outwardly, the 535 bore a slight resemblance to its predecessors’ distinctive profile. Inside, “space age” microprocessors controlled all camera functions and provided a data stream that could be monitored and manipulated by a plug-in laptop computer. The electronic mirror shutter was fully programmable to facilitate totally transparent speed ramps. Frame lines were electronically projected on the ground glass and the fully rotating viewfinder could swing over to either side of the body — an ambidextrous camera, if you will! When the 35-BL was first introduced, video assist was barely a gleam in Jerry Lewis’ eye (more on this in future articles), but when the 535 made its debut in March 1990, video taps had proliferated like suckerfish on a school of sharks. Arri engineers factored this new reality into their design specs and provided a built-in video path for the 535, which would enable the usage of any video interface. Twenty years after the 35 BL made its first tentative appearance at Photokina, the Arriflex 535 fulfilled every promise that the modern synch-sound production camera could offer. In 1992, Arri unveiled the 535B as a lighter weight companion to its more sophisticated sibling.
Arriflex continues to explore the uncharted future of filmmaking. In partnership with Gabriel Bauer of Moviecam fame, Arri engineers have developed a new production camera that could prove as revolutionary as the 35-BL was almost thirty years ago. The “Arricam” will be unveiled in the spring of 2001 — a providential year for any hi-tech product launch (an upcoming issue of ICG Magazine will offer a full overview of the Arricam.) The Arricam-ST (Studio) and Arricam-LT (Lite) comprise the modular camera system that combines the best of Munich and Silicon Valley. “State-of-the-art” seems an empty cliché when describing this sophisticated motion picture marvel. Camera assistants will become “system’s managers” as they master the Lens Data System (LDS) that “shows relevant information from the lens in use, such as focus and iris settings, the focal length, as well as the resulting depth of field, all on a convenient display.” Gone are the Kelly Wheel and the carpenter’s tape as the LDS includes an Ultrasonic Tape Measure (UTM) that scans the set and records focus distance even if the assistant “cannot reach or touch the camera, such as in remote crane operations”. (Will talented focus pullers with their uncanny sense of “natural radar” be next on the “endangered species” list?)
“On the road again…” with Panavision
“May you live in interesting times.” So goes the ancient Chinese curse. That being the case, the years 1973 to 1974 proved very “interesting.” The Vietnam Peace Agreement was signed but the fighting would continue for two more years. The OPEC nations bullied the world into an energy crisis and “stagflation” entered the economic lexicon. The Dow Jones Industrial Average hit a low of 663, the Watergate scandal forced Richard M. Nixon to resign the American Presidency and the American League adopted the designated hitter rule (is nothing sacred?). Aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh died and in the sky trails he blazed — a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird flown from New York to London in less than two hours, merely a few miles short of “Lucky Lindy’s” 33-hour solo hop to Paris in 1927.
In spring 1973, deep in the heart of Floresville, Texas, Panavision’s president Robert Gottschalk hand-delivered the first production model of the Panaflex 35mm camera to the set of The Sugarland Express. (Certain crewmembers recall seeing the camera presented on a silver platter, but memories are often embellished with the passage of decades.) After four years in development and a year of very discrete field testing, the all-new Panaflex was ready for its feature debut. More than 130 movies had submitted requests for the Panaflex, but Gottschalk and company chose the Zanuck/Brown production for Universal because “this feature posed some unique photographic problems” that only the Panaflex could solve. Gottschalk’s choice couldn’t have been more propitious as Sugarland also ranked as the feature debut of a 25-year-old wunderkind named Steven Spielberg. The future Oscar-winner had recently directed the stunning television movie Duel, a neo-noir tale of road-rage, terror and revenge. Spielberg now helmed what might be called the ultimate road picture with a plot that required a caravan of 60 police and 200 civilian cars to pursue the feisty Lou-Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) as she flees across the blue highways of East Texas. The cinematographer on this epic of motorway mayhem was Vilmos Zsigmond ASC, who went on to score an Oscar on another Spielberg collaboration — 1977’s wondrous UFO epic Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He was already a legend in the new Hollywood of the Seventies for his groundbreaking work on The Hired Hand, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Deliverance, Images and The Long Goodbye.
A road movie like Sugarland had photographic requirements light-years away from the studio confines where the PSR and the BNCR held court. Spielberg noted that at least 50 percent of the action on Sugarland took place inside moving cars where a normal studio camera wouldn’t stand a chance. The Panaflex was the perfect camera for these scenes and allowed complex synch-sound shots where the operator, working in the back seat, could follow action inside the car and outside on the highway by executing “pretzel twisting pans of 480 degrees.” According to Gottschalk, the Panaflex (short for PANAvision reFLEX) was a cinematographer’s utopian dream — “the world’s most advanced motion picture camera.”
Its completely new design shared only the lens mount with the Panavision PSR. Albert Mayer, who had previously worked for Mitchell Camera, was hired in 1968 to oversee the design and manufacture of the first generation of Panaflex cameras. Robert Shea designed the new intermittent movement while master machinist Jurgen Sporn hand-built the prototypes. While still owing much to the time-tested Mitchell movement, this new film transport featured dual pilot-pin registration: double fork pull-down claws and super silent operation with separate pitch and strobe adjustments. What set the Panaflex apart from all other 35mm cameras was its self-blimped modular design, which allowed a multitude of configurations. Within minutes, the camera could be converted from full studio mode with top mounted 1000-foot magazine to a diminutive lightweight (less than 25 pounds) handheld mode with rear-mounted 250-foot magazine that posted a noise level of only 27 dB. Long or short eyepieces, behind the lens filter slot, LED footage and frame rate displays, reflex viewing with rotating shutter variable from 40 to 200 degrees and an ergonomic design made the Panaflex a professional 35mm camera that could be, as its press release touted, “all things to all people.”
The Panaflex family would expand over the next 18 years with each new model incorporating improvements requested by working cinematographers. The Gold Panaflex introduced in 1976 featured brighter, clearer viewing and a new motor drive. The Platinum Panaflex of 1987 integrated a host of new electronic features and brought operating noise down to 19dB. In the words of Panavision, the Panaflex was the most advanced handholdable motion picture camera in the world. The Panaflex X, the high-speed Panastar and the 16mm Elaine rounded out the Panaflex family. Panavision never rests on its laurels, or Oscars; in 1978, the Panaflex received an Academy Award of Merit for its concept, design and continuous development. In 1992, their crack design team began an intensive review of Gold and Platinum models with the intention of producing yet another “hi-tech, space age, state- of-the-art” motion picture camera that would usher in the new millennium of filmmaking.
The result of this multi-year program was, of course, “The Millennium.” There were no glitches in this Y2K machine and its list of technical innovations sound more like the specs of a new super computer than a movie camera. The Local Area Controller (LAC) offers programmable speed ramp changes in conjunction with the electronic focal plane shutter. The “electronics architecture” uses microprocessors, DSP (digital signal processing) chips, LAN (Local Area Network) and Wide Area Network buses to control myriad functions that hum together in the quest for the perfect transport of each frame of 35mm film. Virtually every aspect of the Millennium is new, from the magnesium magazines to the RGB component video tap. The Platinum-based movement was refined by way of a computer model that foretold “the lightening of all the pull-down arms, registration pins” and other key materials to decrease the operating noise to such an extent that even the keenest eared sound mixer will never know if the camera is rolling. “Quiet on the set” never sounded so good.
“Old soldiers never die…”
The early 1970s witnessed a renaissance in American cinema - aesthetically and technically. Flashback to the heart of this new “Golden Age” and recall a few of the films released between The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather II (1974).This distinguished roll call includes American Graffiti, Badlands, The Exorcist, The Last Detail, The Long Goodbye, Mean Streets, The Paper Chase, Paper Moon, Save the Tiger, Serpico, Sleeper, The Sting, The Way We Were, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Blazing Saddles, Chinatown, The Conversation, Harry and Tonto, Lenny, The Parallax View and Young Frankenstein. Each of these films told a great story (even the comedies!) and all were stamped with perfectly appropriate, inevitable and often stunning cinematography — from classic high-key glamour lighting to down-and-dirty realism. Three of these movies — Paper Moon, Lenny and Young Frankenstein — were even photographed in glorious black-and-white!
The cameras breathing life into these wonderful motion pictures were as diverse and interesting as the films themselves. Among their number were the ultra-modern Panaflex, the modern Arriflex BL, the transitional Panavision PSR, the French Éclair CM3 and various reflex models of the venerable Mitchell BNC. But this era would be the last hurrah for Mitchell as film production moved inexorably toward the newest generation of smaller, lighter, more efficient motion picture cameras. The last BNC (serial #365) left Mitchell’s Glendale, California plant in 1968. Only 32 BNCRs were built from 1968 into the early Seventies. Mitchell introduced the handheld Mark III 35mm camera in 1972, but success eluded its last attempt to enter the quickly evolving market place. Only nine Mark IIIs were built (it resembled a cross between the Arri BL 35 and the Bolex 16 Pro) and most were shipped overseas to become forgotten footnotes in the Mitchell archives.
The Mitchell Camera Company began producing state-of-the-art moviemaking machines in 1919. Their first model, the Mitchell Standard, became the benchmark for all movie cameras that followed. As late as 1968, Mitchell cameras photographed 85% of the world’s motion pictures. After the last camera went out the door, Mitchell continued providing parts and service, built the Mitchell gear head, and went through a series of owners including Panavision, Lee, and Flight Research. The company moved from Glendale to Sun Valley and finally wound up in Wilmington, North Carolina under the ownership of Joe Dutton Camera. George A. Mitchell’s grand and glorious company, for so many decades an integral part of Hollywood and the movies, is now relegated to the dusty chronicles of celluloid history.
To paraphrase General Douglas MacArthur, “Old cameras don’t fade away, they just keep shooting.” Currently, Mitchells are used everyday for special effects and high-speed photography, especially when rock-solid registration is required. Even silent era Bell & Howell 2709s — the first cameras with precision-built intermittent movements — can still be found “rolling steady” on optical benches and film scanners. Rumors persist that a Pathé Studio camera from the Bitzer-and-Griffith era is currently in the inventory of a Mexico City rental house. (Cinematographer Robert Elswit did utilize a Pathé to shoot footage supposedly set in 1911 on Paul Thomas Anderson’s multi-character opus Magnolia.) The Panavision PSR remains a staple of the multi-camera TV world, where until very recently, reflex Mitchells danced across the sitcom stage on many hit shows like Wings and Coach. There is a brisk market for used professional motion picture cameras from the “pre-Panaflex” generation. It is interesting to note that an array of tried and true 35mm movie cameras — Eclairs, Arris, Mitchells — are available for less than the price of many “semi-professional” DV-Cams. Take a 30- or 40-year-old film camera, stuff it with state-of-the-art emulsion, add talent and you still have the recipe for movie magic.
Twenty-first Century motion picture cameras like the “Millennium” and the “Arricam” are post-modern cinematography tools festooned with every hi-tech bell-and-whistle ever imagined. Strip away the computer chips, video taps, electronic data-stream modules, space age composite materials and all the other refinements of the last 100 years and the essence of the movie camera remains the same — a little machine in a box. The guts of the camera are basically unchanged since the early days of Pathé, Bell & Howell, and Mitchell. It is amazing that such a simple arrangement of gears, sprockets, cams and flywheels working to transport a thin strip of celluloid through a tiny window of light, one frame at a time, can create so much magic. “The most exciting way ever invented to tell a story is with a moving picture camera,” wrote Budd Schulberg in his 1942 Hollywood novel What Makes Sammy Run. Perhaps this magic 19th Century machine endures because no other machine can tell stories that connect so directly to the human heart. An unknown cameraman once wrote, “the camera is the invisible character in every film, the one who sees everything and never has a line.” As Norma Desmond intonesin the finale of Sunset Boulevard (1950), “There’s nothing else. Just us and the cameras and those wonderful people out there in the dark. . .”
The author would like to thank the following gentlemen for their help in preparing these articles: Bob Fisher (who has been writing about movie cameras for 30 years), Peter Anderson, ASC, Richard Bennett, Sam Dodge, David Dotson, Bill Russell, and Martin Hill (who owns, among other treasures, a Mitchell BNC #3). The 100-year history of cinema is merely a blink of the “kino-eye” when compared to the history of all other art forms. With the “digital age” looming on the millennial horizon, we might think of the “Machine Age” of the motion picture camera as simply Act One in the continuing saga of “The Movies.”
Back to the Future - Reflections on the brief history of video moviemaking
by Russ T. Alsobook
(This article originally appeared in ICG Magazine in Sept. 2001.)
Scan the pages of any popular film magazine, professional cinematography journal or even the entertainment section of the local newspaper and you see a flood of ink devoted to the hot, new trend of shooting theatrical motion pictures on video tape. All of a sudden, everyone and his brother’s dog is making a “digital film” — is this the ultimate oxymoron? Here are a few examples:
“Technological developments in the last two years have finally made the conversion of video into high quality professional motion picture film a reality. Motion picture photography with a totally electronic camera is here…TODAY!”
“The executive board of local 659 is urging its members to learn all they can about operating these electronic marvels.”
“This is just the beginning of the revolution in electronic motion pictures.”
“Sony has a 2000-line camera right here in Hollywood.”
“Videography’s appeal is not confined to the independent producers. Major studios are committing to tape production…”
“The future? Movies produced on tape.”
In the midst of this swirling maelstrom of propaganda for “Electronic-Cinema,” a group of distinguished cinematographers recently met in the friendly confines of the ASC clubhouse. During the spirited conversation about movies, jobs and the stock market, one revered and much honored DP mentioned that he had just finished shooting a feature on videotape and found the experience so satisfying that he “hoped never to see another piece of film.” No, this was not John Bailey, ASC discussing his digital photography of The Anniversary Party (see ICG Magazine, June 2000.) This gathering took place in 1972 and it was Lee Garmes, ASC who shocked his colleagues with this heretical announcement. The movie that caused Garmes to embrace video is a little known study of teenage suicide entitled Why? (Even the subject matter seems as relevant today as the discussion of film and tape.) The venerable Garmes was a master cinematographer with an Oscar on his mantle and over 100 feature films on his resume. His credits include such classics as Morocco (1930) and Shanghai Express (1932), both films highlighted by Josef Von Sternberg’s bravura direction of Marlene Deitrich. Garmes photographed the first 12 weeks of Gone with the Wind (1939), but remains uncredited for his artful and moody manipulation of the difficult Technicolor process. Mr. Lee Garmes was the ultimate “film-guy,” a “cameraman’s cameraman” who began his career hand cranking black-and-white nitrate film before movies learned how to talk. Yet, he was passionately advocating videotape as an “acquisition” medium for feature motion picture production. This little gathering took place almost 30 years ago — the same year the above quotes appeared in print. As the philosopher said, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
“The future ain’t what it used to be. . .”
By now everyone is familiar with the famous and often repeated 1955 Daily Variety headline proclaiming “Film is Dead” on the news that Ampex had introduced the first video tape recording machine. It wasn’t the first report of film’s imminent mortality. In 1947, legendary cinematographer Leon Shamroy, ASC (Cleopatra, South Pacific, The Robe, The Planet of the Apes) made the following prediction. “New engineering developments loom on the horizon…not far off is the ‘electronic camera’…that will place a more refined instrument in the hands of the cameraman, an instrument of greater sensitivity and mobility.” With the passing of every decade there seems to be a renewed interest in video as a recording medium for theatrical motion pictures. The mid-Sixties saw the first serious attempts to fulfill the predictions of the Forties and Fifties with a process called “Electronovision.” (The trend, at the time was to tack on the word “vision” to almost any new theatrical format from “VistaVision” to “Smellovision” in a desperate attempt to counter the growing popularity of Television). John Gielgud directed Richard Burton in the 1964 production of Hamlet using the Electronovision process. It was basically a multi-camera TV style recording of Shakespeare’s opus as performed in the Lunt-Fontanne Theater. Studio video cameras were positioned in the orchestra, boxes and balconies to mimic the audience point of view. A Kinescope film recording was made of the video image for theatrical release.
The “Theatrofilm” presentation of Hamlet preserved Richard Burton’s magnificent performance but did nothing for the advancement of videotape as a means to shoot motion pictures. (In the early days of TV, before videotape, the kinescope process was the only way to preserve and distribute programs shot on video. It was simply a film camera aimed at a monitor, re-recording the images fed from the TV camera. The results were less than satisfactory, which persuaded producer Desi Arnez to shoot I Love Lucy on 35mm film. The director of photography was the eminent Karl Freund, ASC (Dracula, A Guy Named Joe, The Good Earth, Key Largo). Thus, in 1951, the TV sitcom was born and because Lucy was shot on film, she lives forever in syndication.)
In 1965, two competing film biographies of Hollywood sex symbol Jean Harlow were racing through production, each attempting to be the first on the screen. Harlow, Paramount Studio’s version of the cinema siren’s tragic life and death was photographed in widescreen color by Joe Ruttenberg, ASC. The Magna Pictures rendition of Harlow was a black-and-white quickie, shot in eight days, live TV style, with Electron-o-vision’s vidicon cameras. This Kinescope saga hit the box office first, beating Paramount’s release by a few weeks, but the audience preferred to wait for the Technicolor portrait of the “Blond Bombshell.” The Electronovision Harlow was more of a curiosity than a movie and was pulled from its few bookings about as quickly as it had been shot. Along with a few dusty Kinescope prints, the Electronovision cameras were relegated to video-movie history.
“Those 70’s Shows”
Returning to 1972, we can recall some interesting scientific and cultural developments. American astronauts made two successful trips to the moon (it was almost routine by then) and sent back live TV coverage of their amazing driving skills. The off-road antics in their multi-million dollar priced space buggy were only eclipsed by their amazing zero-gravity golf swings. Earthlings tuned their boob tubes to All in the Family while their kids got hooked on “Pong,” the first video game. There was no need to search for Bobby Fischer; he was beating Boris Spasky in the ultimate chess championship. The Godfather made millions of moviegoers an “offer they couldn’t refuse” and set new box office records. Exile on Main Street reestablished the Rolling Stones as the “greatest rock-n-roll band in the world.” Returning from the Vietnam peace talks, Henry Kissenger promised “peace is at hand.” But peace was more than three years away.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Donald M. Morgan, ASC was shooting a western movie in the dusty badlands of New Mexico. Santee starred Glen Ford, Dana Wynter and Jay Silverheels. Gary Nelson directed the film that asked “How long can a man hunt for something that’s already dead?” The real question was whether a rough-and-tumble location picture could be successfully photographed on videotape. (I wonder what John Ford’s answer would have been?) Morgan and company (including camera operator Ken Lampkin, ASC) would put their state-of-the-art video package to the ultimate test. They used an array of EMI 2001c studio cameras augmented by a specially modified RCA TK-44B for handheld work. Two Ampex VR-1200 videotape machines would record the action. Almost as an afterthought, Morgan decided to bring along his trusty Arriflex IIC and a few rolls of 35mm color film for those situations where the cumbersome video cameras couldn’t make it into inaccessible terrain. It turned out to be a wise decision by the location-wise cinematographer. As the picture progressed, Morgan and the director relied more and more on the Arri to bring home the footage. The video cameras had trouble dealing with the high contrast of the harsh western locations, and night scenes lit by campfires and lanterns proved especially difficult for the limited latitude of the plumbicon tubes. Morgan recalls that the campfires blew out and even the smoking barrels of the old Winchesters looked like flame-throwers when recorded on video.
Morgan recounts that his lack of experience with video was a plus when hired for this assignment. When the producer asked what he knew about tape, Morgan answered “that’s what you wrap around film cans.” Not being predisposed to the limits of video allowed Morgan to try setups that most tape guys wouldn’t even consider. When the company needed shots of horsemen galloping across a rushing river, Morgan didn’t hesitate to mount the video cameras in a 4 x 4 truck and track with the cowboys through the swollen waters of the Rio Grande. Cable pullers became soaked as they struggled to drag the coaxial umbilical cord that connected cameras to land-locked video tape recorders. Shooting such a sequence would have been much more easily done on film and as the project continued it became more apparent that videotape and Westerns were not a match made in heaven. Morgan remembers that most of Santee as actually shot on film with less than one minute of the final picture transferred from the videotape original. As he says, “It was a grand experiment that fizzled.”
Thirty years later his resume lists over 60 top-notch feature film and TV movie credits including Starman, Christine, Geronimo and Murder in Mississippi. His photography has been honored with three Emmys and four ASC awards. When asked about the current hype surrounding “digital-video,” Morgan likes to put it all into perspective by telling the story of his first job in Hollywood — as an employee at CineColor Film Lab. One day, while barely into his first week on the job, a grizzled laboratory veteran asked why he would even consider pursuing a career in the film business because “film” would cease to exist in a couple of years. Morgan says that ever since that day he’s been “afraid for his career.” That day was 48 years ago and Morgan’s illustrious career shows no signs of winding down.
Far removed from the open spaces of New Mexico, another experiment in videotape production was taking place on location in Long Island, New York. The Joseph Papp production of David Rabe’s plays Sticks and Bones received its screen translation as a CBS movie-of-the-week by iconoclastic director Robert Downey (Putney Swope, Greaser’s Palace). Cinematographer Peter Powell used a Norelco PCP-90 video camera for the handheld, film-style, semi-documentary shoot. The crew combined film and video professionals and by most accounts it was a successful melding of techniques. According to first assistant director Robert J. Koster, “Sticks and Bones was an inkling of what the future had in store for us.”
The winds of video tend to blow hot and cold over the years. After a few experiments in the early Seventies, the idea of video as a replacement for film lay dormant for another decade. By 1982, the concept of an “Electronic Cinema” once again whipped through Hollywood like a Santa Ana wind in the dog days of summer. Bananarama sang about the “Cruel Summer” while the Clash “Rocked the Casbah” and the Pretenders were “Back on the Chain Gang.” Boy George and Tootsie were both having gender identification problems while E.T. found himself geographically challenged and needing an interplanetary cell phone. Actors from Hollywood’s “Golden Age” still had spunk as Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda won Oscars for their touching performances in On Golden Pond.
Francis Ford Coppola directed One from the Heart from inside his 28-foot Airstream trailer designed as a complete “Image and Sound Control Center” complete with editing suite, kitchen and Jacuzzi. Aside from the Jacuzzi, the most unusual new piece of equipment that found it’s way into virtually every aspect of production on One from the Heart was the computer. From word processors in the script phase, to budgeting, scheduling, storyboarding, sophisticated video taps with playback and instant editing, the newest in silicon technology was being integrated into the Hollywood system. Infatuated with the high-tech convergence of computers and video, visionary Coppola and some of his cohorts went so far as to make the following prediction. “In a few short years, high-definition video cameras and recorders with image quality superior to that of 35 millimeter film will eliminate film altogether from the moviemaking process.” Garrett Brown recalls that Coppola wanted to drag the medium into the 21st Century and looked forward to an “era when movies will be digitally recorded as high-resolution video; edited by computers juggling trillions of binary numbers, and distributed by…satellite to exhibitors.” Coppola’s master cinematographer on Heart was Vittorio Storaro, ASC who commented that “One of Francis’ first ideas was to shoot the entire picture on videotape and transfer to film, but I refused to do that because I don’t think that today the quality of the transfer…is good enough.” But, he added, “there is no question that in a few years the movie business will be totally changed, as the electronic system improves more and more.” Two decades later, it appears that Coppola’s dream is getting closer to reality everyday.
The interest in “Electronic Cinema” around 1982 spurred development of two video cameras that promised to put “film-less” moviemaking into the hands of filmmakers. Ikegami offered the EC-35 camera, which claimed to be the first “electronic cinematography camera that matches 35 millimeter quality.” Aimed primarily at cinematographers working in television, Ikegami claimed a contrast ratio of 100:1 as compared to only 20:1 for other video cameras and a fully automated set-up box, which aligned the camera in seconds and eliminated the need for a video engineer. The EC-35 did resemble a movie camera — from the focal plane forward with its prime lenses, follow-focus, matte box and other film-style accessories supplied by Cinema Products. CBS produced Kudzu, a half-hour, single camera comedy pilot with the EC-35. Kudzu’s producer-director had high praise for the “phenomenal camera” and claimed that “video production is here. Shows are going to be shot that way, and that’s all there is to it.” Even so, the little hybrid camera never found a niche in the film-dominated TV world.
Panavision, in a joint effort with Commercial Electronics Inc (CEI), introduced the Panacam Reflex, which promised to be “the first and only actual motion picture camera that photographs on tape instead of film.” The Panacam combined state-of-the-art video innards with all the bells-and-whistles of the world-renowned Panaflex line of 35mm film cameras. On first glance, it was impossible to tell if this was a video camera, since it looked more like a Panaflex than any tape camera then in use. The camera even offered an optical reflex viewing system, light years ahead of the fuzzy black-and-white TV-tube-mini-monitor eyepieces that video cameramen were forced to squint into. (When will Panavision design an optical viewfinder for their 24P camera?) However, the Panacam Reflex was an idea whose time had yet to come. For all its hype in the early Eighties, the video revolution did little to upset the status quo. On the occasion of the Panacam’s release in 1982, Panavision’s own visionary — the late Robert Gottschalk — provided what is probably the most accurate and eloquent assessment of the great film-video debate. “The Panacam Reflex,” he wrote, “is truly the film cinematographer’s video camera. But video is video and film is film and both have their distinctive and definite places.”
As the Eighties progressed, technology developed at a fevered pace. Time magazine’s “man of the year” was totally PC — the personal computer. The Apple Macintosh took a big bite out of the computer market when it debuted to rave press reviews in 1983. Ridley Scott made TV history with his “1984” commercial for Apple computers. Sony introduced the Betacam in 1983, quickly leaving it’s rivals in the dust. (Does anyone remember the Bosch Quartercam, Panasonic’s Recam, or the Ampex “portable” one-inch VTR/camera combo?) Component video was here and HDTV was again making waves.
Giuseppe Rotunno, ASC was the first cinematographer to shoot a full-length feature film on High-Definition TV. The 1987 film was Julia and Julia starring Kathleen Turner and Sting and was produced in Italy by Radiotelevisione Italiana. “I am not an electronic person” proclaimed the world- class cameraman who had photographed the Fellini classics Satyricon, Amarcord, Roma and Casanova. But “Pepino” wanted to try something new so he tackled this format with gusto. In many ways, he claims, it was a step backwards from current film technology; the ASA was only about 50, as compared to 400 for film, and the camera tubes were plagued by “comet-tailing” when bright lights were included in a moving shot. Lumbering cameras, bundles of cables and delicate tape recorders hampered the portability that filmmakers had become used to. He also found it more difficult to achieve rich blacks and clean whites, even though the final prints were treated with Technicolor Rome’s ENR process. Julia and Julia did not herald a new era of Electronic Cinema. Rotunno spoke for many film artists when he offered his opinion on HDTV, “I prefer the film and not the tape.”
Raising Kane – A Celebration
Jump cut to 1991 as Citizen Kane celebrates 50th birthday! The 1941 classic is often touted as the greatest movie ever made and seems to grow in stature with each passing decade. During a year that feted this masterwork by Orson Wells, Gregg Toland, ASC and all their brilliant collaborators, HDTV was once again in the news. The new decade saw another debut party for High-Def, although by now she was getting a little long in the tooth to be a debutante. But this was going to be the year of HDTV in all its glory. Every trade show from NAB to ShowBiz Expo found a High-Def camera trained on a beautiful bouquet of flowers. Steven Poster, ASC shot more tests and demo footage of HDTV than any cameraman in history. Sony opened their High-Definition Facilities, Inc. on the Columbia Pictures lot in Culver City. REBO of New York and Hollywood Center Studios combined forces for their Hollywood High-Definition Resource Center located in the heart of Hollywood. Only 10 years before — on this very same lot — One from the Heart director Francis Ford Coppola was building the studio of the future — a studio built around computer networks and video imaging. In 1991, Coppola’s enthusiasm for video remained undiminished. While engaged in the production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, hereiterated his belief that “film is a medium in the apogee of it’s development…the future of the cinema is going to be electronic.”
“Electronic Cinema” has certainly come a long way from 1964’s presentation of Hamlet in “Electronovision.” By the way, that was the same year that Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) began tinkering with HDTV prototypes. We have seen over 37 years of development, promise and evangelical hype while the world still awaits the second coming of television and a new era of motion picture production. Granted, a few geo-political-economic squabbles and some technical standard glitches have hindered the full flowering of High-Def, but somewhere, sometime a “Grand Alliance” will surely work things out. In the meantime, filmmakers wanting to splash the silver screen with video images decided to bypass the whole HD issue. The first shots of the new video revolution didn’t take place in Hollywood, but across the pond in Denmark. Director Thomas Vinterberg and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle grabbed a home video camera and stormed the bastions of traditional moviemaking with their unflinching gaze at one of the most dysfunctional families ever put on film or video (or is it both?) The Celebration (1998) threw out all the rules of cinema, except the very strict edicts of the “Dogme 95” manifesto, which proclaimed that a movie must be shot handheld, on location, with no artificial lighting, props, wardrobe, or music. This, now famous, “vow of chastity” was signed and promulgated by Danish directors Vintenberg, Lars Von Trier (The Idiots), Søren Kragh-Jacobsen (Mifune’s Last Song) and Kristian Levring (The King is Alive). Worldwide, the Dogme aesthetic has been furthered by filmmakers like Jean Marc-Barr (Lovers - France), Harmony Korine (Julian Donkey Boy - America), Daniel H. Byun (Interview - Korea) and José Luis Marquès (F**kland - Argentina). Originally not intended as a “digital-video” manifesto, it has become the call-to-arms for legions of young “filmmakers” armed with DV-Cams and home computer editing kits. Motion picture production has indeed entered a new era — the “garage band” studio system is here.
At the opposite end of the cinema spectrum, intergalactic producer/director George Lucas has completed principal photography on Attack of the Clones — Episode II of the Star Wars saga — using Panavision 24P Digital Video Cameras. He promptly announced that he would never shoot another film “on film.” Lee Garmes, ASC couldn’t have said it better — some 30 years ago, that is. The same pronouncements of celluloid’s demise have echoed throughout the halls of filmdom for at least 55 years, perhaps longer. Has the time come to “check the gate” and move on? Stay tuned, this show is about to get really interesting.
The Out-Crowd - Russ Alsobrook trudges through adolescent angst in Freaks and Geeks
by Pauline Rogers
This article originally appeared in ICG Magazine in Dec. 1999.
Reminiscing about the days of youth when social approval resided in one’s “class” often brings back painful memories. The “cool” kids — never named as such to their faces, of course — stuck crippling labels on their “inferior” counterparts without the slightest remorse. For those not in the know, “freaks” consisted of long-haired, pot-smoking burn-outs whose hot rod-driven exploits echoed forth with a thunderous heavy metal soundtrack. The gawky, socially unskilled “geeks” amounted to Star Trek-obsessed braincases who viewed their world through the distorted lens of celo-taped, Coke bottle-thick glasses. Condemnation to the scholastic caste system’s lower levels meant enduring a living hell.
At least, this is what the creators of NBC’s comedy/drama Freaks and Geeks recall. Writer Paul Fieg (Life Sold Separately), producer Judd Apatow (Liar, Liar; Happy Gilmore) and pilot director Jake Kasdan (Zero Effect) have painted an often painful, ultimately hilarious picture of sibling rivalry, freshman fears, and clique confines in small-town Michigan. At the center of this high-drama is Lindsay Weir, a brainy, wannabe freak and her younger brother, geek-to-the-max Sam, as well as their oddball gang of uncertain, overly ambitious, naïve, and often-frightened friends, all of whom are trying to navigate a 1980s pop culture existence.
“In 1992, I had worked with Judd Apatow on The Ben Stiller Show,” says cinematographer Russ Alsobrook whose credits include The Barefoot Executive, The Love Bug, Freaky Friday, The Shaggy Dog, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Escape to Witch Mountain along with numerous commercials and documentaries. “He called and asked if I would visit the set when Bill Pope was shooting the pilot. When I arrived, he told me Bill wasn’t going to do the series and asked if I would take a look at the script and view some of the dailies. Freaks and Geeks was the best television script I’d read in some time. The characters were real and driven by real problems and situations — they were all based on people I could relate to.”
After being brought on board, the immediate question posed to Alsobrook concerned the type of changes that he would like to make to the cinematography. Since everyone seemed to love the pilot, he opted against making many suggestions. The cinematographer did propose altering the look to appear dark and contrasty “but only when appropriate.”
The producers hoped to capitalize on Alsobrook’s extensive documentary background as seen on such productions as The Women of Russia. “The pilot had a semi-documentary feeling. — the look was extremely naturalistic. Bill seemed to be defiantly unglamorous in his lighting, and so were make-up and wardrobe. The hair was natural, even greasy, and make-up didn’t hide the zits. I knew that I would continue the series by designing the lighting to go with that feeling [of realism].”
Before proceeding with Freaks and Geeks, Alsobrook performed a few tests before deciding upon a complete package. He shoots in the three-perf, Super 35mm format using Kodak’s EXR 5298 (500T) on interiors and EXR 5248 (100T) on exteriors. For a thick negative, he rates the 98 at 320 ASA and forsakes the use of diffusion. The Panavision cameras – both Platinum and Gold — have a Steadicam built and ready to go. “We’ve got John Joyce on B-camera and Steadicam and Eyal Gordin on A-camera, with John Yirak as first and Steve Aguilino as second on A, and Steve Wagner as first and Erik Staplefeldt second on B, as well as Naomi Villanueva as loader,” the cinematographer explains. “That gives us a lot of flexibility – most of which means Steadicam and a lot, and I mean a lot, of handheld [filming]. We can shoot two cameras for extra coverage or jump to Steadicam at any time.”
Straightforward and effective is the style that production prefers for Freaks and Geeks. “For me, what’s most important is tailoring the lighting and the shots to what is appropriate for the story. I don’t like gratuitous camera moves or lighting. If the audience sees the camera moves or the lighting, then we’re not doing our jobs. Lately, I’ve seen too much of what I call ‘turbo-charged’ cinematography, and that bothers me — it takes me out of the story.
“I’m really enjoying making this as simple as possible for everyone,” says Alsobrook. “Our actors are young, new, very enthusiastic and cooperative. They work with camera and lighting, and are great at hitting their marks and understanding the fine details of a television shoot. When you do about 10 pages a day, it’s great to have professionalism in front of the camera. The questions that these young people ask are important. They want to know about marks, being in or out of focus, not shadowing their fellow actors, and so forth. They have picked things up very quickly. I wish, however, that camera technique was taught in acting schools, like in the great old studio days.”
To shoot in a high school’s familiar hallways, Alsobrook and longtime gaffer Curtiss Bradford designed a lighting schematic aimed at meeting several specific requirements. “We wanted to have the freedom to shoot in any direction at any time, especially, in the extensive high school set,” the cinematographer says. “I requested hard ceilings in the hallways and in many of the classrooms and offices as well. The art department installed period fluorescent fixtures throughout the set — the tubes are color corrected to 3200 degrees Kelvin. Twenty Ks and 10Ks surround the exterior windows and doors, so we can pour in sunlight.
“Every light is controlled through a dimmer board,” adds Alsobrook. “Curtiss carries the set lighting plot and he can adjust any light at any time through a walkie talkie, directly to the dimmer board operator [see lighting plot]. One bank of 10Ks outside the classroom set is suspended by chain motors, on a sliding truss, so we can easily change the angle and position of each light and create different times of day — this set up was designed by our brilliant key grip, Tom Harjo.”
There is even an outline for the lazy, late afternoon sunlight that streams through windows, raking across the classrooms. “We can do this [afternoon daylight] for one scene and in the next scene quickly change to midday with soft north light filtering through the glass brick above the classic sash windows. A typical scene in the school will be entire illumination by window light and overhead fluorescence, with only a floating eyelight to add sparkle to the actors.
“Because we use city power at Raleigh [Studios in Hollywood], and we have so many fluorescents in our set, Curtiss devised a computerized voltage monitoring system to make sure the lights are always in the flicker-free zone. On the complex ‘oners’ that snake through the corridors and classrooms of McKinley High School, Curtiss often uses a Dedo light in a small Chimera box, which he masterfully wields in concert with the Steadicam.”
For Alsobrook, the most popular part of the entire school happens to be a haven for those engaged in the age-old art of playing hooky. “There’s a sweet, tiny little area underneath one of the stairwells. It’s a secret area where the ‘freaks’ hang out when they cut class. We usually light it through one window using a 10K. We try to keep it contrasty and interesting, dark and moody — it’s too small to add fill light! Even when we start the shot down the hallway and follow one of the kids into this hiding place it is an opportunity for chiaroscuro [lighting], and is good counterpoint to the fluorescent hallways.”
Another of this series’ standard sets is the Weir home, which is done up in typical 1980s wood paneling décor along with the era’s period colors. “In the dining area, we have two Chimera balls over the table skirted with Duvateen for the classic ‘Godfather’ top light, which allows us to do a 360-degree move around the table whenever we want. We have similar lighting in the kitchen, but instead of a Chimera, we have a light box over the center and we augment that through the windows with a 20K.” Many poignant exchanges between siblings also take place in the younger Weir’s bedrooms. “For Sam’s room, we’ve covered the set with muslin and light from above. We have a single 20k slice through the window for a splash of sun.
Alsobrook subjects both the swing sets and actual locations to his spare approach. “We just did an episode where Lindsay is invited to a ‘bad’ girl’s house just to show the girl’s parents that she can have ‘good’ friends. Production Designer Jeff Sage [Mississippi Masala, Blink, The Bone Collector] did a wonderful job creating the house. Indicative of the relationship between the characters that live there, it was half-constructed. He added a lot of plastic sheeting and open beams. We simply covered the set with bleached muslin and put a couple of 10Ks through the top. With 20Ks aimed through the windows, we had our lighting. This allowed us to shoot with two handheld cameras in every direction.”
He and the director then took the tale into the streets where the two teens are driven to flee. “Caught lying about their friendship, the girl forces Lindsay to run with her, as she tries to hold onto the car that her parents are trying to take away from her. Using two handheld cameras, we did the ‘white trash run amok’ scene with natural light. The subtle movement of the cameras — as they anticipated something was going to happen — was the trick in keeping it real. As the sun crept in, we added a little silk and camo-net, but tried really hard not to take away from the ‘documentary’ feeling of chasing the moment. In true documentary style, we used a 29mm lens on one camera and a 50mm on the other, then ran the scene a few times, choosing shots in editing to keep the energy we wanted.”
On locations, Alsobrook and crew strive for simplicity as well, even though accompanied by a 48-foot lighting truck and ten-ton grip truck filled with essential tools. But as is often the case, plans often go awry with no one but fate to blame. “In this case, it was a San Fernando Valley location that is supposed to be an independently-owned sporting goods store in a small mid-western town — Mr. Weir’s place of business.
“On the scout, we were assured that we wouldn’t have to shoot toward the huge two story windows that faced the street. So, there was no pre-call. However, when we got there, our director wanted to shoot a 358-degree Steadicam shot — that to our two kids from outside up to the counter, through the store and back to the counter. There was screaming sunlight, and no time to gel. All we could do was pray for Eastman Kodak’s latitude, and the talent of the focus puller!
“To light the kids in close-up, I placed a KinoFlo Flathead 80 behind the counter wrapped in muslin. Then, when shooting towards the window, we tried to keep everything in semi-silhouette. That meant three stop changes on the Steadicam! As always, John Joyce [“JJ”] and Steve Wagner [“Wags”] did a fantastic job. The moves are fluid, and the stop changes are seamless — it worked great! The shot has texture, and really doesn’t show the amount of sweat we shed, trying to give the director what she wanted.”
Despite the occasional curve balls thrown at him every so often, Russ Alsobrook insists that Freaks and Geeks is rather uncomplicated in terms of its lighting demands. “We’ve done every kind of ‘baroque’ lighting set up you can imagine, but you can’t always do that in television — where less is more — because that’s all the time you have. I’m enjoying doing the kinds of shots we do on this show, because they fit the story. Plus, it’s a creative challenge to light as simply as possible.
“Now, that’s not to say that we aren’t going to have to get into the bizarre. It all depends on what writers give us, and what the directors want. After all, isn’t the job of the cinematographer to support and not overshadow the story — the style should be transparent.”
A Painterly Approach to Lighting Grosse Pointe
by Bob Fisher
Here’s a test. Tune in to a summer re-run of Grosse Pointe on the Warner Bros. Network. The episodic series, created by Darren Star and produced by Artists Television Group, is a tongue-in-check comedy with a dramatic texture that works on two levels. On one level, it's a soap opera, featuring five main characters, parodying shows like Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210. At other intervals, the actors portraying the soap opera characters strip off those identities and become themselves behind the scenes. Turn down the sound, concentrate on the images and see if you can identify the production format. Answer: Grosse Pointe, like The Gilmore Girls, The Sopranos, Sex in the City and other cable and alternate network episodic series with tight budget boundaries, is produced in Super 16 format. That trims film and related postproduction costs by as much as 50 percent without placing any limits on the ability to take a painterly approach to lighting.
Rune Erickson, a Swedish cinematographer, invented the Super 16 film format during the early 1970s. He envisioned using it to produce low budget movies in wide screen format. At that time, all 16 mm film was perforated on both edges of the frame. Erickson asked the manufacturers to eliminate the perforations from one side of the frame. By reclaiming that space, he created an image area that was 46 percent larger, resulting in a significant improvement in picture quality. The additional space on the edge of the frame also allowed for a wider (15:9) aspect ratio, a perfect match for the 1.66:1 aspect ratio commonplace with most European 35 mm movies.
The Super 16 format is now providing producers working in the narrative TV arena on restricted budgets with an intriguing option. Below-the-line costs can be lower than originating the same content in HD format. The advantages are more mobile cameras, a much wider choice of lenses, the superior archival stability of film and an extended range of contrast along with a wider palette of colors.
Russ Alsobrook, who photographed all but the pilot episode of Grosse Pointe, explains that advances in film, lens and telecine technologies have significantly enhanced the picture quality rendered in Super 16 format. He speaks from experience. Alsobrook launched his career shooting 16 mm “animal films” for The Wonderful World of Disney after attending the University of California in Santa Barbara. He subsequently compiled an array of TV commercial and 16 mm documentary credits including The Women of Russia PBS miniseries, before crossing over to narrative film during the late 1980s.
His narrative credits include such telefilms as Encino Woman, Escape to Witch Mountain, Freaky Friday, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and The Shaggy Dog.
“I shot 13 episodes of Austin Stories in Super 16 format for MTV in 1997,” he says. “It was all handheld, using the Aaton XRTprod camera, which I like because it has a bright, large viewfinder and is ergonomically designed for this type of use.”
It was also his camera of choice for Grosse Pointe. Panavision Hollywood provides the camera and lens package. Alsobrook generally shoots with one camera, though there’s a second body, occasionally used for additional coverage from different angles.
Grosse Pointe is photographed on three stages and the backlot at Sony Studios. “We have two different looks,” he says. “The Grosse Pointe soap opera sets are much more stylized and romantic. We designed sets with as many practicals as possible, and I asked for windows to motivate shafts of exterior light. The colors of costumes and props are rich on these sets. I use 75 mm to 135 mm lenses with heavy Pro-Mist or Gold diffusion on the glass, and sometimes a combination of the two. The camera is usually either static, tracking or being pushed on a crab dolly.”
Most of the sets for the show within the show have three walls. That gives Alsobrook room to maneuver the camera and set up lights on the ground. “While we try to motivate light with recognizable sources,” he says, “it's important for the actors, especially the women, to look good.”
Some of the lush soap opera look is created in digital post. “We really push the chroma in the telecine suite at LaserPacific (Media) to the max so the colors really pop,” Alsobrook says.
On the behind the scenes portions of the program, the colors are more sedate, and Alsobrook describes the look as “more naturalistic.” He uses 12 to 16 mm wide-angle lenses with no diffusion on the glass. Camera movement is much more aggressive. Most of these sequences are filmed off a Steadicam platform operated by Aaron Pazanti.
“The idea is to show the audience what it is like backstage on a TV show,” Alsobrook says. “David Knoller, our extremely creative line producer, listens to our suggestions, and he really understands the importance of aesthetics in our storytelling.”
Sets for the behind-the-scenes portions of the show have four walls for enhanced realism. Alsobrook creates soft sources by streaming light through 12x12 muslin diffusion, sometimes augmented with a 4x4 light grid.
The signature behind the scenes shot is a long, meandering walking and talking sequence with some of the characters who move through the back of the stage, onto the backlot and maybe continuing to the cast trailers. Later, he takes the audience on a journey in the other direction when the camera follows the characters back on stage.
“In the Super 16 format, we can shoot for up to 10 minutes without changing magazines, which is especially important with Steadicam shots,” he says.
The focal lengths of the Super 16 lenses are about half of an equivalent 35 mm lens. In other words, a 75 mm Super lens sees like a 150 mm lens in the larger format. Alsobrook composes shots in 16:9 format, protecting the image area for 4:3. LaserPacific processes the negative and converts it to DigiBeta format for offline editing. The show is finished in 16:9 format, and a 4:3 version is extracted for airing.
Alsobrook points out that the program can be aired in letterbox format on conventional screens without a need for re-mastering.
“The colorist was quick to understand exactly what we were shooting for with the two opposing looks,” Alsobrook says. “After we established those looks, she would send me a tape of the on-line edit of each episode, and I would go through it and make scene-by-scene notes for her. Once she understood my taste, it was simply a matter of me telling her to making a scene warmer or cooler or maybe a touch darker. She knew what I meant. When I had time, I’d go to the final color session and work with her.
“The relationship with the colorist is crucial for cinematographers,” he says, “because ultimately your work is judged by what is seen on the screen. A colorist who is out of sync with you can negate everything you’ve achieved.”
Alsobrook chose the Kodak Vision 320T film 7277, which is rated for an exposure index of 320 in 3200 degree Kelvin light, He slightly over-exposed it at E.I. 250, which rendered “a little cleaner look” and “a little extra edge in the shadow areas.”
“It shows you how far we’ve come,” he says. “In the early 1990s, I shot 13 episodes of The Ben Stiller Show with a 100-speed, 16 mm film. You couldn't get a nice clean, grain-free look with a faster speed. We needed 100 footcandles of key just to shoot at stop T-2.8. Now, with the new films and the (Phillips) Spirit (DataCine), we are getting a great look. I’m lighting it the same as I do with 35 mm fil