Owen and Eric Roizman - Two Biographies
Owen Roizman, ASC, was born and raised in New York City. His father was a newsreel cameraman, but the son followed a different drummer. He wanted to become a major league baseball player. That dream was shattered when he injured his arm pitching in his last high school game. Roizman majored in math and physics at Gettysburg College, in Pennsylvania. He planned to pursue a career in one of those fields. After graduation, Roizman decided that he had a more promising future as an assistant cameraman. It paid better.
He worked for a leading edge TV commercial production house in New York, starting as an assistant cameraman, and working his way up through the ranks to operator and cinematographer. Roizman shot his first narrative film in 1970. It was a low budget film, which was never released. The following year, he earned the first of five Oscar nominations for his work on The French Connection. During the subsequent 11 years, Roizman compiled a total of 18 narrative film credits, including Oscar nominations for The Exorcist, Network and Tootsie.
Roizman opened a TV commercial production company in Los Angeles in 1982, mainly because his son Eric was just entering his teens, and he felt it was important to work closer to home. During the next five years, Roizman produced, directed and shot hundreds of commercials. He returned to narrative filmmaking in 1988, and subsequently earned his fifth Oscar nomination for Wyatt Earp. Just to put that into perspective, Roizman is one of only five contemporary cinematographers with five Oscar nominations. He earned the coveted American Society of Cinematographers Lifetime Achievement award in 1977, and the CamerImage Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001.
Eric Roizman is in the dawn of his career. Early in his teens, he considered a career in music, and began playing the guitar at the age of 13. He studied filmmaking at UCLA, but never lost his passion for music, and has occasionally played in bands. Roizman has worked as a second and first assistant cameraman and he stepped up to operator last summer (2002) with Richard Crudo, ASC on Bring it On Again. He worked with Crudo again more recently on Grind, and is currently a camera operator working with Francis Kenny, ASC on From Justin to Kelly.
(Published February 8, 2003)
by Bob Fisher
Owen Roizman, ASC was born and raised in New York City. His father was a newsreel cameraman, but the son followed a different drummer. He wanted to become a major league baseball player. That dream was shattered when he injured his arm pitching in his last high school game. Roizman majored in math and physics at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. He planned to pursue a career in one of those fields. After graduation, Roizman decided that he had a more promising future as an assistant cameraman. It paid better.
He worked for a leading edge television commercial production house in New York, starting as an assistant cameraman, and working his way up through the ranks to operator and cinematographer. Roizman shot his first narrative film in 1970. It was a low budget film, which was never released. The following year, he earned the first of five Oscar nominations for his work on The French Connection. Over the next 11 years, Roizman compiled a total of 18 narrative film credits, including Oscar nominations for The Exorcist, Network and Tootsie.
Roizman opened his own TV commercial production company in Los Angeles in 1982, mainly because his son Eric was just entering his teens, and he felt it was important to work closer to home. During the next five years, Roizman produced, directed and shot hundreds of commercials. He< returned to narrative filmmaking in 1988, and subsequently earned his fifth Oscar nomination for Wyatt Earp. Just to put that into perspective, Roizman is one of only five contemporary cinematographers with five Oscar nominations. He earned the coveted American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) Lifetime Achievement Award in 1977, and the Camerimage Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001.
Eric Roizman is in the dawn of his career. Early in his teens, he considered a career in music, and began playing the guitar at the age of 13. He studied filmmaking at the University of California—Los Angeles. He has never lost his passion for music and occasionally plays in bands. Roizman has worked as a second and first assistant cameraman, and he stepped up to operator last summer (2002) with Richard Crudo, ASC on the sequel Bring It On Again. He worked with Crudo again more recently on Grind, and is currently an “A”camera operator working with Francis Kenny, ASC on From Justin to Kelly.
Following are excerpts of a conversation with the two Roizmans:
ICG: Let’s start with you Owen. Your history began earlier. Where are you from?
OWEN ROIZMAN: I was born and raised on the East Coast. I lived in Brooklyn until I was 11 and then moved to Long Island, where I went to high school. My father (Sol Roizman) was a newsreel cameraman for Fox Movietone News for 22 years. My uncle Morris (Roizman) was a film editor. When television news started becoming popular that was the beginning of the end of cinema newsreels, so my father segued into TV commercials as a camera operator. He also worked for a while as an operator on several TV series, including Sergeant Bilko, and later as a director of photography on TV commercials.
ICG: Were you planning to follow in your dad’s footsteps?
OWEN ROIZMAN: I didn’t think about that because I wanted to be a major league baseball player since I was a kid. I remember my father taking me to Ebbets Field when he was shooting newsreels. I was in the dugout talking with Pee Wee Reese, Peter Reiser and other Dodgers. I was actually an avid Yankees fan, but I was in heaven. I was a very good pitcher in high school until I hurt my arm while pitching a no-hitter in my last game. When I realized that I was not going to be a major league baseball player, I started thinking about what I wanted to do. I majored in physics and math at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. I thought I’d be a physicist, engineer,mathematician, or maybe a teacher. However, when I was interviewing for jobs during my senior year I decided to become a cameraman instead.
ICG: What made you decide that?
OWEN ROIZMAN: During my senior year in 1958, recruiters for various companies interviewed me. I asked how much the starting salary would pay. Their answer was that I could start about $5,000 annually, and work myway up to $7,500 within four or five years. I asked my father how much I could make as an assistant cameraman. He said if I was good enough and got work, I could probably make $10,000 a year. It was an easy decision.
ICG: How did you get started?
OWEN ROIZMAN: During the summers of my sophomore and junior years of college, I worked at Camera Equipment Company (CEC), a camera rental company in New York. I checked cameras out for rental and checked them in. I learned how to thread film. I learned about lenses, and how to put cameras together and take them apart. That experience helped me a lot when I became an assistant cameraman right out of college.
ICG: How did that happen?
OWEN ROIZMAN: It’s who you know, not what you know in the beginning. I worked at first with my father, and then he spoke to a friend named Akos Farkas, a wonderful Hungarian cinematographer, who took me under his wing. I worked for Akos for a year as his assistant. He taught me a lot about life and relationships as well as cinematography. He was from the old school, and a real mentor. He would explain why he used different filters and made different decisions. Then, Gerald Hirschfeld (ASC), who was part owner of MPO Videotronics in New York and also a wonderful cinematographer, needed a new assistant cameraman. He asked me to try out with him at my father’s request. My father was his operator at the time. Jerry liked my work andput me on staff. Sadly, my father passed away a couple of years later and Jerry made me his operator. I thenstarted shooting commercials for MPO in 1968.
ICG: Weren’t there some other future greats working there at the time?
OWEN ROIZMAN: Gordon Willis (ASC) and I were assistant cameramen at the same time. Michael Chapman (ASC) and Arthur Ornitz (ASC) also occasionally worked there. Michael Cimino got his start at MPO, too. Cimino was just out of art school. He had never directed anything before. I remember when I was starting out, Arnold Kaiser, one of the owners, asked me to go work with Mike one day and just do whatever he wanted, because he wanted to experiment. Arnold was a wonderful guy who loved taking chanceson young talent and trying to develop them. I assisted for about three years, and then I operated for two years. The way I got into shooting was that Gerry Hirschfeld had occasional theater tickets. If we were going late on a shoot, he would go to the theater and ask me to stay and finish shooting his inserts, a.k.a tabletop shots. I started developing relationships with agency people and they started requesting me on jobs. Because of that I wasn’t around enough to operate for Jerry full-time, and he finally said if you’re not going to operate for me every day, there’s no point in me having you here. I was going to leave MPO and find opportunities to shoot, but they put me under contract as a cinematographer.
ICG: What was the commercial industry like then?
OWEN ROIZMAN: The commercial industry was great in those days. It was very experimental and creative, and MPO was a giant in the business. We had nine stages in New York, and a subsidiary in California. They sent me to California from October until April every year. I would go back to New York in the spring and summer because those were the busy times.
ICG: How did you get your first feature project?
OWEN ROIZMAN: There was an art director named Paul Heller, who was going to producea film called Stop for Warner Bros. It had a $300,000 budget, which even in those days was low. Paul was looking for a cinematographer. He had a first-time director by the name of Bill Gunn, who was also the writer. Paul was looking at some equipment at General Camera, and Dick DiBona, who was part owner, asked him who was going to shoot his movie? He said he didn’t have anybody yet, so Dick recommended me. I knew Paul because he was art director on some of the commercials I had shot. I had interviewed for one other film, but Gordon Willis got that job. I shot Stop in Puerto Rico. It had kind of a glossy look like the commercials I was shooting. That film was never released.
ICG: That was in 1970. What happened next?
OWEN ROIZMAN: A young director named Billy Friedkin was looking for somebody to shoot The French Connection, and again, Dick DiBona recommended me. Billy looked at my commercial reel. He liked it but it wasn’t a feature film, so he screened Stop. After about four reels, he said, ‘It’s pretty stuff, but all high-key. I want The French Connection to be a gritty, realistic, down-and-dirty, documentary-style film. Do you think you can do that?’ I said, ‘Why not? I’m a cinematographer. You tell me the moodyou want, and I should be able toget it on film.’ I think he liked my spunk. He offered me the film.
ICG: How did you prepare to shoot The French Connection?
OWEN ROIZMAN: I read the script, and started thinking about how I was going to light. There were things I had never done before like shooting low-key scenes in a car at night. I recruited my wife, Mona, to stand-in for Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider. I experimented with lighting those scenes in our in garage in total darkness. She sat in the car, and I experimented with placing a few lamps to get a feel for the look and the mood I wanted.
ICG: Did any of you have an idea when you were doing The French Connection that it would become a classic that is still inspiring other filmmakers?
OWEN ROIZMAN: I don’t think anybody knew it was going to become iconic. It’s still one of the best scripts I’ve ever read. When we were shooting it, we all knew we were getting some good things. One day the production manager was handing out our paychecks when we were about halfway through the picture. He said to me, ‘You’ll probably be going get an Oscar.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ I had never thought of it in those terms. When they were in the editing stage, I was talking to Billy (Friedkin) on the phone one day, and I asked, ‘How does it look?’ He said, ‘There is no way to tell yet.’ I don’t think anybody knew until it was released and the audience responded.
ICG: This sounds like a dumb question, but how did you know what to do?
OWEN ROIZMAN: When you were shooting commercials in those days, everything was high-key. We hardly ever shot at night or interior car shots. You never wanted to make anything look grainy, low-key or realistic. It was all stylized. In our early conversations, Billy said he wanted the picture to have almost a documentary look. He wanted it to be very real looking. I just started thinking about that and I decided to underexpose and force develop the film and then print it up. That gave a very grainy look.
ICG: Where did that come from? How did you know what to do?
OWEN ROIZMAN: Instinct. We sometimes shot in available light and low-key situations, and stretched the exposure latitude of the film. Everybody thought I shot The French Connection in available light. I always joke and say yes, I shot in whatever light was available from the truck. The goal was to make it look like it wasn’t lit, which was a radical notion in those days.
ICG: This is either a dumb or rhetorical question. During the past several years, there has been a series of articles in newspapers and some trade magazines about how digital cameras are eliminating the need for lighting, and how directors are now making their own movies by putting digital cameras on their shoulders. They are basically saying that lighting gets in the way of the actors and just slows things down. My question is whether future directors and cinematographers will need to be concerned about lighting?
OWEN ROIZMAN: My simple answer to that is FOREVER. I believe every film has a mood …some kind of quality that you want to capture to transmit the essence of the story to the audience. It doesn’t have to happen on a conscious level. I’ve always felt that you subconsciously draw the audience into the film, so that they’re not aware that there’s a camera, lights or anything else. They are just sitting there as voyeurs seeing a story unfold. There are many elements that go into capturing that mood and drawing the audience in, including composition, lighting and camera movement. The video camera is just another tool. You still need creativity and taste, and you still have to know how to achieve the looks and the moods you want. It really does matter. Imagine that you’re shooting a dark scene in a closet and there’s no light on, and yet everything is very brightly lit. Subconsciously, people are looking at it and they’re saying, what’s wrong with this? This doesn’t feel right. Even if it’s not on a conscious level, subconsciously they feel that something’s wrong and you’re doing the film and the audiencean injustice.
ICG: You got an Oscar nomination for The French Connection. Did you get countless offers after that, and how did you decide what to do next?
OWEN ROIZMAN: I never wanted to work non-stop, picture after picture after picture. I turned down a lot of films and filled my time with commercials. I started directing commercials during the mid-1960s. I liked the process of directing and shooting. I could do a lot of experimenting with commercials, and I could be more selective about the scripts I chose.
ICG: Your next films were The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, Play It Again, Sam and Heartbreak Kid. What are some of the memories of those films?
OWEN ROIZMAN: The French Connection wasn’t out yet when I accepted The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. The fact that somebody wanted to hire me again really thrilled me, and so I took it. I also thought the book was wonderful, but I never understood the script. I read it three times and thought there must be something wrong with me, because I didn’t know what it was about. Unfortunately that’s the way the film turned out. After that I did Play It Again, Sam, and that was a great script and a chance to work with Woody Allen, even though he didn’t direct it. Herb Ross directed it. That was fun and I thought it was a hysterical film. It was the same with The Heartbreak Kid. I just loved that script, too. It was kind of ironic that after doing a picture like The French Connection, I did three comedies in a row, but I tried not to approach those as high-key comedies. Itried to create the looks that I envisioned when I read the scripts.
ICG: You did a really scary film in 1973.
OWEN ROIZMAN: I filmed The Exorcist. That was another experience all together. The Exorcist was the most difficult film that I’ve ever worked on. Billy Friedkin was very demanding and sometimes quite unpredictable. It was a great book and a very exciting screenplay. I did a lot of research. I read the archives from Georgetown University, which William Blatty’s book was based on. They were actually scarier than his book. Billy Friedkin gave me a tape of an eight-year-old Italian boy being exorcised. The whole thing was in Italian, yet the sounds and the whole essence of it overwhelmed me. I was just completely sucked into the project. I just knew it was going to be great, and like I said, it was very difficult. I never knew what was going to happen from one day to the next.
ICG: There is a great line by Samuel Clemens, a.k.a Mark Twain, which says the difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. I’d guess that was true on The Exorcist. The difference between it being frightening and funny was probably a pretty close line.
OWEN ROIZMAN: Yes, I think that’s true. Billy (Friedkin) and I talked about the look at length. We agreed that it shouldn’t look like an old Lon Chaney horror film. We decided that there would be no under-lighting or anything to make it seem like a horror movie. We didn’t want any visual clichés. We felt if we could make it realistic looking, and the actors performed realistically that people would really be sucked into the story. If the audience subconsciously believes that what they see on the screen is real, they buy into the story.
ICG: I keep coming back to that question, how do you know what’s going to work?
OWEN ROIZMAN: Some of it’s taste, some is instinct, some of it is experience,and some is pure dumb luck. Billy Friedkin and I agreed right off the bat that we wanted to take a realistic approach with a very subtle undertone that something supernatural was happening. There are imperceptible nuances that make it a little spookier, but we didn’t overdo it.
ICG: Would you do anything differently with all the new technology today?
OWEN ROIZMAN: That’s an interesting question. Somebody, not too long ago saw the re-release of The Exorcist and said, ‘Wow, it’s amazing that you were able to do that 30 years ago with slower lenses and films and older lights.’ Well, the film and lenses were slower, but I still worked at very low light levels, so I don’t know how much different I would have done ittoday. It’s not so much as what kind of lights you are using but how you use them that counts.
ICG: Eric, when did you become aware that your father was a cinematographer?
ERIC ROIZMAN: Gosh, I can’t remember. I always knew that he had a very different type of job. Most kids go visit their dads in their offices. I’d go to visit him on location in the middle of a field in Mexico, or some other unlikely place with all these interesting characters running around. I don’t know when it really hit me that he was in charge of creating the images for movies.
ICG: Did your father put a camera in your hands when you were a kid?
ERIC ROIZMAN: No, I don’t think he was trying to make me a junior cinematographer.
ICG: At what point did you decide you wanted to be a cinematographer?
ERIC ROIZMAN: I went to film school at UCLA, but the truth is that I thought I was going to be a professional musician. I actually played in bands. I have been working on camera crews for a number of years, but I have just recently committed to making this my life’s work.
ICG: Owen, in 1974, you shot The Taking of Pelham One Two Three in anamorphic format, mainly on a train or what amounted to a long hallway. In those days, the anamorphic format was generally reserved for epic films with big exteriors. What was the rationale?
OWEN ROIZMAN: The picture was originally supposed to be shot in 1:8:5. When I was doing preproduction, and thinking about what was going to be the best approach for lighting, composition and movement, I spent time in subway stations and rode trains back and forth. I’d get out on the platforms and walk around and just look at it and get a feel for it. I noticed the length of the subway car and the shape was low and wide. I decided it would be perfect for anamorphic. We could get much more information into each shot and do more interesting close-ups. I went to the director and the producer and told them I think we should shoot the picture in anamorphic.
ICG: What was their initial response?
OWEN ROIZMAN: They said, you’re crazy and looked at me like I was nuts. I asked them to let me shoot some side-by-side tests, anamorphic and 1:8:5, and they could be the judge. We went into the subway station and shot people getting on and off trains from all different kinds of angles. I shot in anamorphic and 1:8:5:1, and then we screened the tests. Everybody went wild. They immediately agreed that we absolutely had to shoot in anamorphic. By the way, I am also a firm believer that you can also shoot comedies in anamorphic. Sydney Pollack is a great fan of anamorphic. We shot Tootsie, for example, in anamorphic. It is a matter of learning how to use the frame. Some films may lend themselves more to anamorphic than others, but I do believe that the most intimate pictures can be shot in anamorphic.
ICG: Can you give us an example of how you used the wider frame?
OWEN ROIZMAN: It’s hard to put into simple explanations. There are no rules you can follow. You can do different types of close-ups in anamorphic. You put the actor on the far side of the frame rather than in the center and you can fill the rest of the frame with information. Most of the time, to me, it should be filled with subliminal information, so you see it and feel it, but you’re not focused on it. That’s what I love about anamorphic. It’s up to your imagination.
ICG: Owen, were you primarily self-taught?
OWEN ROIZMAN: I learned a lot at MPO and as an assistant cameraman and operator. I was likea sponge. I really wanted to master the technical part of the craft. I had the opportunity to shoot infrared traveling mattes and did a lot of blue screen work and rear projection, so I had a lot of good technical training…as for lighting, I was influenced by still photographers and art directors at advertising agencies who wanted single-source soft and black shadows and things which hadn’t been done before. After that, I really taught myself from picture to picture. It was a lot of trial and error. I’ve always been bored if I did the same thing over and over. I was always experimenting.
ICG: In 1975, you shot another milestone film, Three Days of the Condor.
OWEN ROIZMAN: Three Days of Condor was my first film with Sydney Pollack, and right off the bat Sydney said, I want to shoot this in anamorphic. I said, great… so we hit it off wonderfully. Sydney is very good technically. He knows still photography and he understands lenses, composition and lighting. He’s a great director with editing and really understands how to structure a film. We had interesting conversations. We agreed up front that we were going to shoot Three Days of the Condor with long lenses. The first day we mainly shot on location, including the sequence where the killers come in and wipeout everybody in the CIA undercover place. Sydney said, let’s put a 30 mm lens on. A 30 mm lens in anamorphic is equivalent to a 15 mm spherical lens, so it’s a very wide angle lens. I asked, what happened to the long lens theory we were talking about all those weeks? He answered that (production designer) Steve Grimes designed such a beautiful set that he hated the idea of not seeing it. So that’s how we started off on Condor, but we saw eye to eye on almost everything. It was a great experience.
ICG: You got Oscar nominations for The French Connection, The Exorcist and then in 1976 for Network. That wasn’t a bad start. You had 10 credits, three Oscar nominations, and you were still in your 30s. Then, you shot a Western in 1976, The Return of a Man Called Horse.
OWEN ROIZMAN: There’s a really interesting back-story here. Irvin Kershner was the director and really wanted me to shoot the film. Like you said, I did 10 pictures in New York but I still couldn’t get into the Camera Guild in California. The producers spoke to Jerry Smith, who was the business agent for the Hollywood Local about setting up some kind of deal that would get me into the Local. The producers came back to me and asked if I would work at half my regular price if they could get me into the union in California and I agreed. They figured they could satisfy Kershner and at the same time get me cheap. They were right.
ICG: Do you know why they asked you to shoot a Western in the first place?
OWEN ROIZMAN: Kershner wanted me because he liked what I had done in my other films. The producers asked him, ‘Why? He doesn’t shoot Westerns. He’s a city street guy.’ He explained, ‘that’s exactly why I want him. I figure he’ll bring a fresh approach to it.’ I loved the idea of shooting a Western, so I immediately began researching. Kershner is a great still photographer, so he understood everything I was talking about. We remain great friends to this day. We hang out together and show each other our still photographs. I came in with a totally fresh approach and we had a terrific time doing it, but ironicallyJerry Smith reneged on his end of the deal and still kept me out of the Local.
ICG: Did he tell you why?
OWEN ROIZMAN: He said he changed his mind. That was it.
ICG: How did you finally get in?
OWEN ROIZMAN: It’s a long story about finding loopholes in the system. I did it that same year through commercials. I had my own production company, and my attorney was also the attorney for the producers association. They had to take me in because I was an employee of a company with a Guild agreement.
ICG: Eric, I’m coming back to you. How serious were you about music?
ERIC ROIZMAN: It started when I was a little kid. I’d bang on pans and pots and pretend they were drums. I started playing the guitar when I was 12 or 13. It was my passion. I played all the time. I even played in bands. I still play the guitar.
OWEN ROIZMAN: You were 13. I remember, because it was when I came home from shooting Tootsie. I knew you wanted to play something, but didn’t want to make a commitment, so I made it a mandate that you choose a musical instrument. I said, ‘I don’t care what it is, you make the choice.’ You chose the guitar.
ICG: How did you get into film?
ERIC ROIZMAN: I went to school, and took some film classes, and dropped out for a while. I was an intern at Panavision for a six-week internship. It the first time I really went into the darkroom and loaded mags and learned how motion picture cameras and lenses were put together. I went back to film school at UCLA and finished there.
ICG: What were some of your early jobs?
ERIC ROIZMAN: I had a friend who was photographing low-budget music videos in 16mm. I got my feet wet by assisting him for a while. Then, Alan Dislar (1st Assistant Cameraman) gave me an opportunity to work as the film loader with he and Gordon Willis (ASC) on Malice. I’ve been a second assistant with different cinematographers, including Caleb Deschanel (ASC), Dick Bowen,
Russell Carpenter, (ASC), and Dean Semler (ASC, ACS), With Dean, it was just a couple of days on Triple X and then a couple of days on Bruce Almighty but I had a great time with him and his crew. Every cinematographer I’ve worked with is different. They all use meters and they all look through the camera, but other than that, every one of them is different in their philosophy and execution. I have always enjoyed working in the camera department, but truthfully it was when I became a camera operator for Richard Crudo (ASC) last summer on Bring It On Again that I began to really love this work. I knew because I couldn’t wait to get to the set when I got up every morning.
ICG: Do you remember why you got that feeling about operating?
ERIC ROIZMAN: I’ve studied both art history and still photography in school and on my own, and became fascinated with how you can make a statement with composition. It brings so many things together. There’s also a hand-eye coordination element to operating and a taste, which felt natural to me. I also like the challenge of coordinating with the focus puller and dolly grip to nail a tough shot. If you pull off a tough shot and it works, it’s just a great feeling.
ICG: Is it tough working in an industry where your father is a superstar?
ERIC ROIZMAN: I think I have a pretty good attitude about that. I fully understand that because of my father I have had opportunities that most guys don’t get. I also know that he can only get me in the door and that if I couldn’t do the job, I would be history.
ICG: Do you see similarities between music and cinematography?
ERIC ROIZMAN: Absolutely. Both are about tempo and timing. When you are shooting a scene, and moving the camera, it can be very rhythmic. It’s something you feel or sense. My music background has helped me as a camera operator, because sometimes there will be a rhythm or a beat to a scene that is very similar to playing music. It’s something I can contribute as an operator.
ICG: Owen, tell us about The Electric Horseman, which you shot in 1979?
OWEN ROIZMAN: The Electric Horseman was an interesting project. We shot it in Las Vegas and St. George, Utah, and lived in Caesar’s Palace for seven weeks. Usually you spend half your day traveling back and forth to locations but in this case it was like shooting in your own home. It was the second picture I did with Robert Redford, so I was used to working with him. Sydney Pollack was the director, and it was my second picture with him. It was the only time I’ve worked with Jane Fonda. She was delightful.
ICG: One of the reasons I brought this film up was that there was an interesting situation last year where the studio restored the negative, made a new print, and showed one of the scenes atan event honoring Jane Fonda. Somehow they turned a night scene into daylight. What happened?
OWEN ROIZMAN: There is a little history to this story so please indulge me. The last day of shooting was a scene where Redford and Fonda are walking with this horse that has been mistreated. He’s trying to save it, and she’s a journalist trying to get the story. They are out in the country walking to this place where he’s going to release the horse. The sequence plays out over the course of a day and ends at night. I told Sydney we should shoot this last part day-for-night because that’s the only way you really see any background out in the open country. He said, great. It was the last day of shooting and Redford and Jane had planes sitting and waiting at the St. George Airport (in Utah).
As soon as we wrapped, they were gone. We weren’t even going to see dailies until we got back to L.A. We had a perfect day for it, sunlight, and deep clouds. I jumped on the crane and started setting up the camera. Sydney asked me, ‘What I wasdoing?’ I told him I wasgoing to pull back and shoot with a long lens. Jane and Bob were putting pressure on him to get done. They wanted to get out of there, so he was trying to deal with them. I was sort of on my own on the crane. That was the only time I ever shot anything with him where I don’t think he understood what I was trying to do. If you don’t know what you’re doing in day-for-night, it’s really tricky. Sydney was actually giving me a hard time all day. But when he saw the resultsin the screening room, he couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘I never dreamed it was going to look like that.’ He asked me, ‘How did you know it was going to look that way?’ The answer is experience, taste and trusting your instincts. In order to express your art you have to know your craft. You can’t do one without the other.
ICG: So, what went wrong when they made this new print?
OWEN ROIZMAN: I always work with a thick negative to give the lab plenty of latitude. When the studio decided to make the new print, they had a timer do it without any guidance from either Sydney or me. What happened was that whoever re-timed it, assumed it was supposed to be daylight, and they printed it as though it was the middle of the day. It changed the whole meaning and mood of the scene. They called me in to take a look at it and I got it to look correct. However, they sent the scene from the first print to be shown at the event honoring Jane. Sydney later told me about it because he was there that night. He told me I would have had a heart attack if I had seen it. I hope they call me in when they transfer it to DVD, but I don’t know if they will. I think this is an important issue for cinematographers. Unless the person who created the images is present when are re-timing it for DVD or anything else, chances are they are going to get it wrong.
ICG: Are you typically called in to supervise when your old films are re-mastered?
OWEN ROIZMAN: It depends. I’ve had both experiences. I recently timed the new IP for I Love You To Death and now they’re making a high-definition DVD. That film is only 13-years-old, but they wanted to make a new IP and a high-definition transfer. Sony (Studios) was great. They called me in both cases. They felt that it wasvaluable for them, and I certainly appreciated it, because now my work will be preserved and seen the way I intendedit to look.
ICG: I have a question about Tootsie. What did you do to help make Dustin Hoffman believable when he was impersonating a female?
OWEN ROIZMAN: I think that was the whole secret to the movie. If he wasn’t believable then the whole premise of the story wouldn’t have worked. We did extensive makeup and wardrobe tests, and Dustin studied how the character should look, sound and act. His character Dorothy Michaels wears glasses in the film. We had Panavision make special coated glasses that were non-reflective. That was important because the only way I could make his skin tones look believable with all the makeup was to flat light him. I was using front light on him most of the time. If you do that, and your character has glasses on, you’re going to see reflected light. We used a lot of little tricks like that. In the final print, we did special processing to take some of the pores out of Dustin’s skin tones.
ICG: Here’s the question of the day for you. You compiled 18 credits in just 12 years and earned your fourth Oscar nomination for Tootsie in 1982. At that juncture, you decided to stop shooting narrative films and concentrate on directing and shooting commercials. Why?
OWEN ROIZMAN: Eric was 13 years old when I finished Tootsie. Actually I shot one more film after Tootsie. It was Vision Quest, which my good friend Harold Becker directed. After that I felt it was important for me to be around home more with a teenage son growing up. I figured if I opened my own commercial company it would tie me down and I wouldn’t be tempted by a great script to go off and shoot a film at a remote location for six months. I turned down a lot of good projects during that period, but I have no regrets.
ICG: How many commercials do you think you did in that span?
OWEN ROIZMAN: I have no idea. Sometimes you don’t do as many when you’re directing because there’s prep time involved. You may have weeks of prep for a one-day shoot, and there’s the whole bidding process. It was probably in the hundreds.
ICG: What did you learn from that experience?
OWEN ROIZMAN: I gained a lot of respect for producers and directors. I had directed commercials before, but now I was responsible for coming in on budget, and making sure I had all the elements. I also had an obligation to the crews to make sure that they were well treated well. I had a staff working for me and a big overhead every month, so there was a lot more responsibility. I became much more aware of the other elements of the process of filmmaking.
ICG: Why and when did you go back to shooting narrative films?
OWEN ROIZMAN: When I started my commercial company in 1983, I signed a five-year lease for office space. The five years were coming to an end, and there was a huge actors’ strike in the commercial industry. The business was getting very cutthroat and Eric had his driver’s license, so I figured, he didn’t need me hanging around anymore. Larry Kasdan asked me to work with him on I Love You to Death and I was interested. Right after that I worked with Sydney Pollack again on Havana and then the following year I shot The Addams Family and Grand Canyon.
ICG: Eric, what did you concentrate on in film school?
ERIC ROIZMAN: I concentrated a lot on the new media, the Internet and the use of computers for delivering content, because it was the dawn of that era.
ICG: What were your questions for your dad?
ERIC ROIZMAN: How much does production design affect what you do?
OWEN ROIZMAN: Production design has everything to do with what we do as cinematographers, because they provide the palette that we have to photograph. It’s the same with wardrobe, costumes, set decorators, all of that makes a huge difference. That’s why it’s important for cinematographers to come onboard as early as possible during the pre-production stage, so you can have meetings with the production designer and director, and hopefully guide them to your way of thinking. Too often, you are brought in after those things have been decided and you’re stuck shooting that palette. It makes a huge difference when you’re working with a really talented production designer. I remember, for example, Three Days of the Condor. It was my first film with Stephen Grimes. I remember we were looking at a set with very fine striped black and white wallpaper. I said, ‘Steve, you’ve got to change this, because this is going to dance and strobe, because it istoo contrasty.’ He was totally embarrassed that he had made that mistake. I thought to correct it he was going to take the wallpaper off, but all he did was tech it down to take the contrast out of it. We developed an immediate respect for each other and laterworked together on several films.
ERIC ROIZMAN: You have told me that you adhere to a less-is-more philosophy. How do you adhere to the less-is-more philosophy on large sets on soundstages or big night exteriors?
OWEN ROIZMAN: I don’t think the size of the shot makes a difference, because you can just adjust the size of the lights to coincide with the shot. If you’re going to shoot a bottle, for example, or a tin can on a tabletop, you don’t need a huge light, but you are still using one source from one direction. You use whatever size it takes to give you a believable source. This may be an exaggeration but I’ve always felt that if you’re working with a great production designer, you should be able to walk on a set, take one light, put it strategically in the place you want and everything should look great.
ERIC ROIZMAN: When you’re shooting in a practical location, how do you begin? What’s the first thing you look at while deciding how to light it? In other words, do you start from the space and then move onto the actors or do you start from the actors and move out to the space?
OWEN ROIZMAN: Everybody has different theories, but I always think about faces, because eventually you will end up with close-ups on the actors.I always look at their faces and think about how I want to end up lightingthem. From there, I work my way out to the set. There are other cinematographers who light the sets or locations first and let the actors find their best light.
ERIC ROIZMAN: Why do you choose a certain stop, say a T-2.8 or 4? What determines that? It seems like the differences sometimes are very subtle.
OWEN ROIZMAN: These are great questions. Two things always decide the stop for me. First, I try to pick a stop that I would want to work with for the entire film, because I train my eye to see things at a certain light level, so I know how it will translate to film. If I was working a key of 15 footcandles, I could feel how much fill light I needed. I didn’t even have to measure it, because I just knew from the dailies and doing it every day what it was going to look like. The other reason why I would pick a stop to work at was based on how much information I wanted to see in the background all the time. If I wanted to go for close-ups with the background to be out of focus most of the time, which is the way I generally like it, I would pick a more wide-open stop. Come to think about it, there’s another reason, too. If I had an assistant who I thought was going to be really, really good pulling focus, I could work at more wide-open stops.
ERIC ROIZMAN: So, the crew can be part of your aesthetic decision-making?
OWEN ROIZMAN: Absolutely. There are very few auteurs who can make great movies alone. It is a collaborative process. The crew is like my family. You are living with them day-in and day-out for months, especially when you’re on location. You have to know what everyone can contribute and keep encouraging them to do so.
ERIC ROIZMAN: I have a few more questions. What do you look for during rehearsals?
OWEN ROIZMAN: When the director is working with his actors and laying out a scene, I’m looking at it in terms of the different kind of shots that I think are necessary. It’s all about editing. Is this going to play well with just one master? Which direction will we get the best coverage? Which direction are the actors facing? How can I to get them in the best light? I’m always looking at it in terms of how I’m going to light the actors when they’re looking in a certain direction from a certain spot, and what kind of coverage will we need to make the scene go together smoothly? It’s a multi-faceted approach to thinking that starts on a conscious level, but it becomes almost subconscious or instinctive. It’s both an art and a science.
ERIC ROIZMAN: I’m throwing this question back at you. How would you light a scene in a space that has no light like someone in a closet or maybe a coffin?
OWEN ROIZMAN: Since I’m always asking that question, the truth is that I don’t reallyhave the answer. It really depends on so many factors. Let’s face it. If somebody really is in a closet and the door’s closed, and there’s no light coming underneath the crack of the door, they’re really in total darkness. But, in that case, you might as well be doing a radio show, so you have to invent a way to make it believable by using some poetic license. Everybody takes a different approach.
ICG: One of my personal favorites in your body of work was Grand Canyon, which you shot in 1991. What was your impression of that film?
OWEN ROIZMAN: I loved that film and I loved shooting it. The Grand Canyon was a metaphor for Los Angeles. You only see the briefest part of the canyon at the end, and everything else is just leading up to that. The story was really about living in this microcosm of a city where the characters are talking about the canyon.
ICG: You earned your fifth Oscar nomination in 1994 for Wyatt Earp.
OWEN ROIZMAN: It was a great film to work on because it was a multi-seasonal period story with great locations, talented actors and a special kind of chemistry. It was my third film directed by Larry Kasdan, and the first time Eric worked on my crew as a second assistant. It was a physically demandingfilm, but one of the nicest experiences I’ve had. Anytime any cinematographer can get to work on a period film in the outdoors the possibilities are endless.
ICG: You did another movie called French Kiss with Larry Kasdan in 1995. Roger Ebert wrote that your cinematography ‘made love to two cities,’ however you also had a prescient insight about how digital postproduction could alter the role of the director of photography.
OWEN ROIZMAN: We did a sequence with Meg Ryan on a train traveling through the countryside in France and another scene on an airplane. We shot the interiors on a stage in Paris that wasn’t big enough for us to use rear projection screens outside the windows. I had heard that (visual effects supervisor) Richard Yuricich (ASC) had developed some interesting process which allowed you to move the camera freely, instead of locking it down when you are shooting the foreground of composite shots with moving elements in the background plates. That was important, because it subtly enhanced the illusion that the train or airplane was moving. We shot some tests, and it worked. I lit the train scene to look like there was soft early morning light coming through the windows with just the right blend of colors and mood. I had a second unit cameraman shoot the background plates. I was very happy with the lighting inside the train, and the plates, but nobody called me when they made the digital composites on either the train or airplane sequences. Everything about the timing was wrong, but by the time I saw it was too late to fix. That taught me an important lesson. You can change anything in a digital suite, and itcan be a very powerful tool. However, if the cinematographer isn’t there, the results can be damaging to the film, because no one else really understands what was in his mind when he lit the scene, or what was necessary for continuity.
ICG: Why do you suppose that is even a question? Why don’t people understand?
OWEN ROIZMAN: That’s a great mystery. I don’t know what the answer is. I guess it comes down to us needing to educate the producers, directors, and studios. This will become a much more important issue as more movies are timed digitally instead of optically. It is really important that the original cinematographers see their images portrayed in the finished films the way they intended them to look. That can only happen if they are there to supervise the final product.
ICG: Eric, I’m turning back to you. You recently finished two consecutive pictures, Bring It On Again and Grind, with Richard Crudo. What did you learn?
ERIC ROIZMAN: I am always learning. Every film is an education about how to act on the set, how to deal with other people in the crew, and, of course, how to move the camera in ways that help the story. It’s an endless list. My advice to someone who is stepping up to camera operator is to really pay attention to your director of photography and your director. Watch rehearsals like a hawk. Know where your actors are going to be. Know what the scene is about, so you know who to go with if you have to make a choice. Richard is great to work with in that he really takes command of the set when he is lighting and he is not afraid to share his knowledge. I was watching Richard all the time to see what he did and how he acted. He’d come over and whisper in my ear and explain what he was doing and why. I really appreciated that. I watched him closely when he would set up shots and paid attention to how he dealt with the directors. One was a total first-time director and one was relatively inexperienced. It was interesting to see how Richard stepped in and helped them without making it obvious to anyone else. It was a great experience.
ICG: How would you describe your relationship with Richard? How did he let you know what he wanted you to do?
ERIC ROIZMAN: Richard would generally set the camera position and do a rehearsal or tell me what he expected. Sometimes things weren’t as nailed down, and I’d have the freedom to kind of float around and find shots. Once in a while he’d ask me to set up a shot and he would come over and bless it or tell me to make an adjustment. It always made me feel good when I felt I was in tune with him and that I was able to make a contribution.
ICG: I noticed watching you one day that you did a fair amount of handheld work.
ERIC ROIZMAN: It was motivated by the scene, like a fight scene that they wanted to feel a little bit more frenetic than a Steadicam or dolly shot. There’s a little more energy in a handheld shot. It’s something the audience senses. It’s usually the director’s call, but every once in a while Richard would suggest it and the directors were open to his suggestions.
ICG: Eric, I remember asking Phil Lathrop (ASC) why he spent some 20 years assisting and operating before he started shooting and he told me, very seriously that he didn’t feel ready. How about you? Do you have a plan for your future or are you riding the wind?
ERIC ROIZMAN: I absolutely plan on eventually becoming a director of photography, but I plan on operating for as long as it takes me for me to feel confident in moving up to that position. I will be patient because there is so much to learn. I want to work with as many different talented directors of photography as I can.
ICG: Do you think of this as an art form or a job?
ERIC ROIZMAN: There are times when you’re going in for a paycheck to do a professional, workman like job. But there are other times where you’re excited about what you’re doing, and it really feels like a worthy thing to be working on. And it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the subject matter. You can be working on the most seeming lightweight movie, but if everybody really cares about it and wants it to be as good as it can in every way…everybody rises with that tide. It’s very satisfying to come in and do the work in that kind of environment.
ICG: There is so much hype today about how technology is or will be changing everything about the art and craft of filmmaking. What is the most important advance that you’ve seen in technology?
OWEN ROIZMAN: I personally think that the biggest advance was the invention of the VCR, laserdiscs, and DVDs. They allow you the opportunityto study hundreds of films and learn more about the art and craft, because it’s a lot easier to run something back and forth at home on a DVD or a tape or a laserdisc than it is to go watch a film in the theater… and studying an art form is how you learn. The more you can study the better off you are. As far as the equipment goes, today’s lenses are and films are a little faster, the lights are a little smaller and cooler, but you still have to know when and how touse them to tell stories. They’re just tools, that’s all. It’s like a painter being given a different palette, a different brush or a different mixture of the colors. You still have to blend it all together and use them. I remember when we were shooting The Black Marble (1980), we had an interior scene in a very dimly-lit church in Los Angeles. The camera was on a balcony looking down on the action. I wasn’t allowed to rig lights, and we were using a 30mm anamorphiclens for the establishing shot. The film speed was 100 and it was a T-3 lens. I had the crew hide Chinese lanterns in the four corners of the church interior, but I was still getting a very low reading on my light meter. However, I decided not to push the film because I felt the scene needed rich black, velvet tones without a hint of grain. With all my experience I was worried about the results.We shot on a Friday, and I spent the whole weekend thinking that my career was finished. I was going to get fired on Monday. But, the dailies were gorgeous. It was probably one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever shot. We have new films, new lenses and other new technologies today, but in that same situation, I’d still have to trust my instincts and understand the craft. Those Chinese lanterns, as weak as they were, worked out great. If you just pointed the camera and shot, it wouldn’t be the same.
ERIC ROIZMAN: I think that’s a great point about DVDs being the most important new technology for cinematographers. Today, it is easy for someone like me to study a film 100 times frame by frame. I was watching Tora! Tora! Tora! Recently. There’s a scene where a general is in a room talking to the other generals, and the dolly moves were just so beautiful, so subtle and thought out. It must have taken such choreography between the dolly grip, cinematographer and operator…especially considering the size and heft of the equipment they were using at that time. It’s great to be able to watch a scene like that and really study it.
ICG: That’s a great segue to the annual ASC Outstanding Achievement Awards. Owen, you have been chairman or co-chairmanof the ASC Awards for as along as I can remember.
OWEN ROIZMAN: The main reason for the ASC Awards is that we believe it is important for cinematography to be judged as an art form by the people who actually do the work. That’s because it is very difficult for anyone else to understand what cinematography is about. One of the things that bothers me about the Academy Awards, and it’s difficult for me to say this because I’m on the Board at the Academy, is that everybody votes for everything. That means I have the same vote choosing who did the most creative sound or visual effects as the people who work in those sectors everyday of their lives. I can appreciate costume design because we work so closely with them, but I’m not looking for the nuances that only another costume designer would see. It’s the same with cinematography. When the critics write or talk about cinematography, they usually mention the gorgeous pictures or landscapes, but what they don’t know is the best cinematography is what they only notice subconsciously. You feel great cinematography.
The purpose for the ASC Outstanding Achievement Award is to give cinematographers the recognition they deserve, and maybe that will help to educate other people. The awards have evolved and they seem to draw more attention ever year. The one thing we always hear from people who attend for the first time is that the ASC Awards feel like an act of love. It’s a celebration rather than a competition. It’s much more than an awards dinner. It’s a whole weekend, including an open house and Internet chat with the nominees and special award winners on the Saturday before the dinner.
ICG: Where and when is the open house and who can come?
OWEN ROIZMAN: It is at the ASC clubhouse in Hollywood and it’s open to the public. Besides the nominees and special award winners, there are always many ASC members present. It’s a great opportunity for fans, other filmmakers, camera crewmembers, students, faculty and journalists to meet some of the world’s most talented cinematographers. Bill Butler (ASC), this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner, will be there. Bill has a great body of work. We are also presenting awards to Ralph Woolsey (ASC), who was a pioneer in television cinematography, Roger Ebert and the great director Norman Jewison. There are also 17 nominees in the television and feature film competitions. You can feel the spirit at the open house. It’s fun to see them answer the students’ questions and share insights with them. It’s a truly great inspirational, spirited weekend.
ICG: Eric, as you look ahead does the future seem daunting or exciting or both?
ERIC ROIZMAN: It is very exciting. I know a lot of people who are worried about the future of the business. They are nervous about their ability to make a living and to keep working, and I understand those fears. They are not imaginary. But I’m also very excited about the revolutions in technology and the different types of media that I’m going to get a chance to use.
ICG: Owen, do you get the Willy Loman question a lot? You know the one that he kept asking his uncle in Death of a Salesman? Do students and other young filmmakers ask you the secret of success, and how do you answer them?
OWEN ROIZMAN: There’s no secret to success and there are no shortcuts. It requires hard work. That’s the best way. I’ve always professed that in order to master the art, you have to learn the craft. The analogy I always use is the painter. The painter sits down at a blank canvas, has a great idea of what he wants to paint. If he doesn’t know how to apply the paints to the canvas, nothing is going to happen. So, he has to know technically how to paint before he can satisfy his artistic instincts. It’s the same with filmmaking. You have to know how to do it before you can do it. You can’t just like imagine it and it happens. It’s not magic…but it can be magical when it is done well.
* * * * * * * * * *
The following are audio excerpts from the interview with Owen Roizman conducted by Robert Fisher and Owen's son, Eric, a camera operator.
Clip 1 (57k)
Owen Roizman talks about shooting The French Connection. This clip is approximately 1 minute long.
Clip 2 (170k)
Owen Roizman talks about shooting three comedies in a row after the French Connection, followed by The Exorcist. This clip is approximately 3.5 minutes long.
Clip 3 (115k)
Owen Roizman talks about why he turned down feature work to focus on his commercial production company. This clip is approximately 2.5 minutes long.
Clip 4 (282k)
Owen Roizman talks about shooting The Electric Horseman. This clip is approximately 5.5 minutes long.
Clip 5 (262k)
Eric Roizman asks his father various questions. This clip is approximately 5 minutes long.
Clip 6 (174k)
Own Roizman explains why he thinks videotape and DVD are the most significant technology advances for cinematographers -- the ability to study others' work. This clip is approximately 3.5 minutes long.
Live Chat / Transcripts
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:28:11 PM)
Welcome to the chat! Unfortunately, my son Eric is not available today because he's out on a barge shooting in Miami. However, you can still send questions for him. They will be answered when he can get to them and they'll be posted on this web site. So feel free to ask as many questions of him as you would like.
Gino (Feb 8, 2003 1:28:37 PM)
I'm just wondering if you have anything to say about Conrad Hall?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:29:07 PM)
I don't think there's enough time to say something about Conrad. He was not only a dear friend, but one of my idols. And an icon for all cinematographers everywhere.
Sky (Feb 8, 2003 1:29:20 PM)
The handheld shooting style in The French Connection is integral to the beauty of the film. Who's idea was it to shoot a feature with this radical technique? Were there any debates about it or did everyone love it from the start?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:29:56 PM)
It was something that – as I remember – Billy Friedkin said he wanted to do. Partly because it was faster. It was something that sort of developed because that was not the original concept, which was to be shooting over the shoulders and behind the backs of the actors. We tried that for one day and found it didn't work at all, and then switched over to the handheld mode. It was something nobody could tell at the time whether it would be great or not. It was just something we did that felt right at the time.
kartik (Feb 8, 2003 1:31:01 PM)
Can u suggest a good way to light rainfall?? Something good and cheap...
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:31:41 PM)
The way to shoot - to see rain – you have to backlight it. The darker the background, the more it will show up. Whatever light that takes, that's what it is. There's no cheap way to do it.
jlight (Feb 8, 2003 1:31:45 PM)
Could you talk a little about the way you processed the film stock on The French Connection?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:33:31 PM)
We were using Kodak 5254 negative and my theory was to underexpose and force develop the film. Therefore getting the blacks to be milky. This gave the film a very thin look, very low contrast.
Amerikan (Feb 8, 2003 1:33:38 PM)
The expressively articulate commentary by William Friedkin on The French Connection, fox five star dvd, he consistently and vividly recalls the contributions of camera operator Ricardo "Ricky" Bravo. Please comment on Bravo's role in creating the "documentary" look to the film? Was Bravo free to shoot like a photojournalist, composing his own frames, camera movement, and placements? How did Bravo's role of operator differ compared to operators on your other films?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:34:35 PM)
In general, I always set up the compositions and then tell the operators what I'd like to see. And it was no different on The French Connection. Ricky was a great operator, and I could trust him implicitly. He had the freedom to adjust where necessary, but he didn't have the photojournalist kind of freedom you're referring to. He was just a great colleague to work with.
jlight (Feb 8, 2003 1:35:27 PM)
How did this process effect you lighting strategy? Were you lighting with harder light to make the highlights snap etc.
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:36:04 PM)
No, my whole approach to the lighting on The French Connection was to make everything look as if it were not lit. Sometimes that took just about every light that was available to us.
Sky (Feb 8, 2003 1:36:09 PM)
The French Connection was early in the careers of Friedkin, Hackman, Scheider, and you. Could a film like that be made under the corporate umbrella of today's system?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:36:57 PM)
There's no reason why not. I think it still happens today. We see new stars, new directors, new cinematographers that nobody ever heard of making great films. I can't refer to any right now, because it's not something I'm prepared to answer. But I think if you research it, you'll find that's a fact.
Op-Ed (Feb 8, 2003 1:37:07 PM)
Storaro talks about color theory and how different colors conjure different emotions, experiences, etc. How did this idea come into play in your work, Owen?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:37:39 PM)
Color is always important. Every aspect of what you're shooting is important, same as composition, lighting, movement. I tended to like to work with earth tones and avoid blues and rich colors whenever possible. It was just something I personally, esthetically ascribed to.
SBDP (Feb 8, 2003 1:38:03 PM)
You mentioned in your interview that you are still involved with still photography. How active are you, and what types of pictures do you take?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:38:37 PM)
I'm very active, but I'm doing mostly just portraits – especially portraits of ASC members we publish in the magazine every month. What I try to do is make each of them a little different from the others, so I don't get bored.
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:39:23 PM)
I almost always have a camera with me and I'll take pictures on the spur of the moment. I've been shooting all digital stills because it's faster for me to see the results and I can go to my computer, put t hem in PhotoShop and manipulate them artistically to my own satisfaction.
Jack Rob (Feb 8, 2003 1:39:32 PM)
Owen, you spoke about the importance of faces. How do you decide how to light faces, and the best angles, how to handle different skintones, and so on? Are there certain tests you do, or is it all in your eye?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:40:02 PM)
To me, faces are the most important thing you can deal with in making a movie. But every face is different. So there's no set formula for any face. Every skin tone is different. The hardest thing to do is make sure you balance different skin tones in the same shots so nothing looks out of place.
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:41:43 PM)
Whenever I was working with an actor/actress I thought might be tricky to photograph, I would try to shoot tests using different diffusions and lighting combinations to get the best results so I didn't have to spend that time on the set in the middle of production.
UCLAGirls (Feb 8, 2003 1:41:49 PM)
From all the films that you have done, which one do you think is your best/favorite?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:42:14 PM)
You know, films are like having children. There's something about all of them you really like and it's hard to pick a favorite.
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:42:29 PM)
But one of my personal favorites that I did was True Confessions. There are many reasons for that. One was that it had great production design; it was a period picture. Great faces to light. And a variety of moods to capture. I also was working with a director who let me do whatever I wanted.
Snad (Feb 8, 2003 1:43:07 PM)
Since you were talking about lighting faces and skin tones, how did you deal with the heavy makeup in the third act of The Exorcist? Did you work closely with Dick Smith to test how the makeup would film?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:43:42 PM)
Yes, Dick Smith and I worked very closely on that. And we shot many tests. Mostly before the picture started, but some during production. Wherever I would have a problem, I could call on Dick and he could fix it immediately. It turned out not to be as difficult as we had anticipated, once he got the formula for the make-up down pat.
UCLA Boys (Feb 8, 2003 1:44:10 PM)
Did you perform film tests to determine a style before every project?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:44:36 PM)
I was a great fan of shooting tests. And to me tests are not only to see what you want to do, but what you don't want to do also.
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:44:47 PM)
I probably shot tests before most every picture, but not necessarily to determine the look. I might have been testing lights, lenses, cameras, compositions, and anything else I might face during the actual production.
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:45:14 PM)
I found that you never stop learning and you never learn it all.
Wide Angle (Feb 8, 2003 1:45:18 PM)
You spoke about using a day for night technique in The Electric Horseman. Are techniques like that passe' now that it can all be done during digital mastering?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:46:10 PM)
Digital mastering certainly makes it easier. But you still have to take certain steps to present a negative that will work the best that it can in digital mastering. Again, there is no set formula for getting great day-for-night. There's a lot of elements that contribute to it. One is the direction of the light, and another is the background.
Movie lover (Feb 8, 2003 1:46:42 PM)
There's a great shot in Tootsie when we first see Dustin Hoffman's feet in high heels. What inspired that shot?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:47:24 PM)
I have to be honest, I don't remember the shot, so I can't really comment on it. But probably because Sydney Pollack said he wanted the shot.
Amerikan (Feb 8, 2003 1:47:28 PM)
I'm sure there are many, but can you please list a few films you feel exemplify excellence in cinematography? What about them makes them unique?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:48:03 PM)
There are so many beautiful classic films that it would be hard to list all of them and it would be unfair to those that I didn't mention.
SBDP (Feb 8, 2003 1:48:11 PM)
I really love Grand Canyon. One of my favorite scenes is when Kevin Kline’s son is learning how to drive in the notorious LA traffic. How difficult is it to stage a location shoot of that nature?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:48:44 PM)
I'm glad you like Grand Canyon that much, because so do I. It was one of my favorite films to work on.
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:49:05 PM)
That sequence took a lot of logistical planning from everyone, especially production. To be able to organize the traffic, block certain streets off, etc. It's always tricky to do things like that on live location. It's sort of like during the chase in The French Connection where the logistics were enormous.
Tre (Feb 8, 2003 1:49:26 PM)
What are your thoughts on digital shooting? Does it have the same emotional richness of film?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:50:11 PM)
There's no doubt in my mind that someday in the distant future digital will replace film. But for now, there is no comparison. Film is king. There is nothing that digital has to offer at this time that even compares to film.
Sky (Feb 8, 2003 1:50:16 PM)
Speaking of digital cameras, how do you feel about the new generation of HD cameras? How does new technology effect your approach to cinematography?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:51:12 PM)
HD offers some interesting techniques to use. It is a tool to be treated as such – just as if you were given a new film emulsion or a new lens or a new light. It does not replace film at all and it still takes the creative idea and experience from the cinematographer to capture the best images possible. You still have to light, compose, and move the camera properly to capture the mood you want.
filmer (Feb 8, 2003 1:51:50 PM)
Where do you see the digital revolution headed? Does it mean less work for us camera guys? Or more and different?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:52:19 PM)
I think I already answered the question about where it's headed. As far as whether there's more or less work, only the future will determine that. Unfortunately, I can't predict the future.
kartik (Feb 8, 2003 1:52:57 PM)
Who are your favorite painters and photographers?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:53:32 PM)
Again, that's a long list. Obviously, Rembrandt. I love the Impressionists. Probably, almost all of them. Especially Degas. But there are so many more. And photographers too. There would just be too many to mention. I take a little bit from all of them; they all have something to offer and to learn from.
UCLAGirls (Feb 8, 2003 1:54:00 PM)
What do you think is the best training for becoming a WORKING cinematographer in the industry?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:54:49 PM)
Start at the bottom, learn everything you can about the job you're doing at the time, and then when you feel ready try to move up to the next level. And keep that chain going until you reach the place you want to reach.
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:55:04 PM)
Unfortunately, you have to be lucky to get that first position. And then after that, it's up to you as an individual to move forward. It'll come from hard work and studying.
UCLA Boys (Feb 8, 2003 1:55:22 PM)
How do you shoot knowing extra CGI will be added later?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:56:02 PM)
I don't know if you have to plan much in advance for that. Because from my understanding of what can be done in CGI these days. You can make all kinds of mistakes and it can be fixed. And you can do some great stuff and they can ruin it, too. So if it's something there's a question or could be a problem, then I think it should be tested up front.
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:56:58 PM)
Currently, I know John Schwartzman is shooting Seabiscuit, and they're going to be doing a lot of CGI work. Consequently, he did many tests up front to determine which was the best way to go.
seak (Feb 8, 2003 1:57:17 PM)
When you shoot shots that are keyed from the back, as a thin rim light, how do you think about/determine the exposure.
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:57:45 PM)
Everything is based on the old zone system. And you have to train your eye to determine what portions of the frame you want to fall into which zone. And then measure with your light meter accordingly.
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:58:21 PM)
There are no formulas for it. It comes from experience and from common sense.
Mat (Feb 8, 2003 1:58:31 PM)
You mentioned the importance of the light direction and background in day for night shooting. How do you think these should be used to create a believable impression of night?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 1:59:03 PM)
It's really difficult to make a day-for-night shot absolutely 100% believable that it's night. What you do is take poetic license and try to create an illusion of night.
jlight (Feb 8, 2003 1:59:21 PM)
Talking about low contrast looks etc. what is your feeeling about the new kodak stocks? i.e most recently 5218
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:00:21 PM)
Unfortunately, I retired from shooting films several years ago, and I'm not up on some of the latest film stocks.
Amerikan (Feb 8, 2003 2:00:25 PM)
Did the folks at Fox consult you when producing their five-star DVD of The French Connection? Are you happy with the end result? Any thoughts on the kind of access a cinematographer should have to the post-production and archival process(es) of their film?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:00:53 PM)
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:01:07 PM)
I was not consulted on the DVD of The French Connection. I believe that Billy Friedkin supervised that himself – much to my dismay. Because I felt that, although it was okay, it wasn't nearly as good as it should have been – which it would have been had they had me in for consultation.
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:01:50 PM)
I feel it's very important for cinematographers to always be involved with final transfers to the digital medium. It's the only way the work will ever be preserved the way it was intended to look. I think it's almost criminal that studios do not always take this step.
Snad (Feb 8, 2003 2:02:14 PM)
Sydney Lumet once said that Network is meant to become literally darker and darker as the film progresses. Was that planned early on in preproduction, or did it organically come to be over time, just because it made sense?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:02:51 PM)
That's the first time I heard that Sydney said that. He certainly never said it to me. I just shot the film the way I saw fit to shoot it. And to capture the moods I felt were necessary for the scenes wherever they appeared in the story.
Op-Ed (Feb 8, 2003 2:03:45 PM)
I wanted to ask about working with Barry Sonnenfeld on the Addams Family. Did his camera background make it easier or harder for you as a dp?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:04:15 PM)
It made it neither easier nor harder. It was just a different experience. Barry is a very talented director, and we had a mutual respect for one another. So it was a pleasant relationship.
Movie lover (Feb 8, 2003 2:04:49 PM)
Did you ever meet any of the old great studio cinematographers? George Folsey, Hal Mohrs, etc. What did you think of them?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:05:37 PM)
Yes, I met lots of them. Especially after I became a member of the ASC. I had the honor of working with George Folsey once as either his assistant or operator, I forget which.
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:05:49 PM)
When I first came to California, they treated me with open arms and were just a great group of people. Stanley Cortez was one of my sponsors to the ASC, and was a grand character.
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:06:24 PM)
I specifically remember Lee Garms coming to my house one day with avocados when I first moved out here, in welcome to me. And I'll never forget Joe Ruttenberg, who sent me a wonderful admiration letter for my work on Network.
hapage (Feb 8, 2003 2:06:49 PM)
Owen, it is a shame Eric could not join us today. Still, as someone who's been there and now sees the change in the employment climate, especially with large numbers of operators and D.P's fighting for the few spots available, what advice did you pass along to Eric regarding his move up last year and the job of operating itself?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:07:37 PM)
I constantly talked to Eric about the art form. About operating. And lighting as well. Because eventually he would like to be a DP and he is quickly learning that you can never learn too much.
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:08:23 PM)
Knowing every aspect of filmmaking helps you in whatever job you're doing at the time. So he is trying to learn editing as well, and shooting lots of stills, and just preparing himself for the future. Actually, he has a great advantage in the fact that he can come to me at any time and pick my brain – which I am always encouraging him to do.
Mattie M. (Feb 8, 2003 2:08:53 PM)
What's it like to have your son in the business? Do you look at his work as a father or as a cinematographer?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:09:15 PM)
I think it's great to have my son in the business. I can live vicariously through him that way. I look at his work both as a father and a cinematographer. I can be critical and loving at the same time. So it's a great thrill for me. Especially to see how he's come along.
SBDP (Feb 8, 2003 2:09:53 PM)
In retrospect, do you have any regrets about spending all those years shooting commercials?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:10:12 PM)
Not at all. I have no regrets. I learned so much from shooting commercials.
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:10:25 PM)
I also directed so many commercials that I was able to appreciate more what editors, directors, and actors do. Commercials were how I started. And how I was weaned. What I learned on commercials prepared me for feature films.
George (Feb 8, 2003 2:10:49 PM)
How do you feel when you see something in a film that's obviously an imitation of your style? Flattered or angry?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:11:26 PM)
I've never been aware of any imitations of my style. But if I were, I would definitely be flattered. Certainly not angry. I believe in sharing knowledge with young cinematographers. And I think it's part of our duty to pass the knowledge along to the next generation.
Tommy (Feb 8, 2003 2:11:51 PM)
Owen, if you could pick any of your films to do a pre-quel or a sequel to, which would it be? Why?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:12:28 PM)
It's a thought that's never entered my mind. And probably never will.
Daryn (Feb 8, 2003 2:12:36 PM)
What are your thoughts about beginning a career as a cinematographer in New York as opposed Los Angeles? Were there creative challenges in the east coast that influenced your development as a cinematographer that may have been different on the west?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:13:20 PM)
I think that – learning on the east coast – things were a little freer at that time, and not as "studio-oriented" looking. So it gave me an opportunity to be an individual and to use my own creativity.
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:13:44 PM)
I don't know if I had started on the west coast if it would have been the same. But I suspect that eventually I would still have come through that.
Wide Angle (Feb 8, 2003 2:13:57 PM)
What would it take to bring you out of retirement to shoot another film?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:14:35 PM)
Unfortunately, I don't think I really have that option. I do miss the art. But I sure don't miss the hours – which I think are ridiculously long and unhealthy.
UCLA Boys (Feb 8, 2003 2:14:49 PM)
Would you ever consider picking up an Arri S and helping a film student on his project?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:15:16 PM)
I would consider telling him how to hold it! But that's about it.
Jack Rob (Feb 8, 2003 2:15:21 PM)
Do you know if the ASC has plans to do a follow-up to Visions of Light?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:15:56 PM)
We certainly hope to. We have talked about it. And in the next year we will probably make a determination whether or not it's going to be feasible.
Sky (Feb 8, 2003 2:15:59 PM)
You mentioned Eric is studying editing. A lot of camera people shy away from post production. How important is a knowledge of editing for a cinematographer?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:16:54 PM)
It's very important. And the reason why Eric is studying it is not to become an editor, but to help him understand how scenes go together, what compositions work best for when you are editing, and just the whole structure of each scene. How it works to help tell the story.
UCLAGirls (Feb 8, 2003 2:17:02 PM)
What recent film did you find remarkable in cinematography?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:18:11 PM)
Still being fair to all the wonderful films that were shot this year, for my taste, Road to Perdition is not only a brilliantly photographed film this year, but I put it in my top 5 of all time. And I don't know what the other four are.
seak (Feb 8, 2003 2:18:15 PM)
The difficulty I find with rim light is that it is too thin to measure with a spot meter, and since the reflectance value of the subject can create vast variances on exposure, how do you determine such with an incident meter. Or do you?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:19:21 PM)
Well you can use an incident meter. But you have to know how to decipher it. I find it's easier to use a spot meter in that case. And determine again what zone you want different areas of the frame to fall in. Rim light will go usually to white. And after that the only way it'll get brighter is to maybe flare the lens a little bit.
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:20:04 PM)
Remember that in film, as opposed to video, the maximum density you can have on the film is white. After that, nothing else shows up.
Wide Angle (Feb 8, 2003 2:20:13 PM)
I'd like to hear more about how you approached shooting Wyatt Earp as a period film. What did you do to create a period look?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:20:54 PM)
Strangely enough, one of the things Larry Kasdan told me he didn't want was for the picture to look like a period picture. He said he'd rather have it shot as if we were living at that time, and we did it normally. Therefore, we let the sets and the wardrobe contribute to the look more than anything.
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:21:42 PM)
Of course, I did a few other things I never told him about. Like over-exposing the daylight scenes and using a mixture of cool and warm light at night to give a beauty to some of the night scenes. And a brightness to the day scenes.
Gino (Feb 8, 2003 2:22:14 PM)
Did you ever make a 65 mm film-and do you think that genre is dead?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:22:47 PM)
I never made a film in 65 mm but I shot some plates in 65 mm for one film. And I was astonished at the quality that large negative gave.
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:23:06 PM)
It's sad to think that it would be a genre that's dead. But certainly because of the size of the equipment, it's something that is not done very often. Though ideally, it should be used all the time.
UCLA Boys (Feb 8, 2003 2:23:23 PM)
Are you always aware of shots that are to be cut together and shoot for continuity or do you leave that up to the director?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:24:41 PM)
I feel it's one of the responsibilities of the cinematographer to totally understand the structure of each scene and how it will eventually cut together. Not necessarily the exact sequence of the cut, but that shots will give the editor enough flexibility to cut it any way he/she wants.
UCLAGirls (Feb 8, 2003 2:24:45 PM)
What was the most difficult lesson you had to learn as a cinematographer?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:25:05 PM)
That the director's the number one guy on the set!
kartik (Feb 8, 2003 2:25:08 PM)
Have you worked on any international films? Did u meet any of the European greats?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:25:49 PM)
I never worked on an international film, but I certainly have met some of the European greats. And many have become good friends of mine.
Mat (Feb 8, 2003 2:25:54 PM)
Talking of editing, do you prefer to shoot films were there's a lot of coverage and the film is made later, or do you have more control over the look of the film if the amount of footage shot is far more limited?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:26:21 PM)
I don't believe you can ever shoot too much. The more options an editor and director have to work with in the final result, the better off they will be. It can only help them with the performances from the actors and to give them as many options as possible.
Gino (Feb 8, 2003 2:26:49 PM)
Is there anyone (directors, actors, production designers, editors, etc) who you never got a chance to work with that you wish you would have?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:27:31 PM)
I don't think I could ever run those thoughts through my mind. I'd rather think that I'm grateful for the people I did have the opportunity to work with. I got to work with some wonderful directors, and great actors and actresses.
filmer (Feb 8, 2003 2:27:45 PM)
When reading a script, how do you relate the emotions in the story to your approach to lighting and composition?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:28:40 PM)
Whenever I read a script for the first time, I would try not to picture anything in my mind about lighting or anything like that. I always tried to reserve those thoughts until my first meet with the director about the script.
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:29:11 PM)
And then I would re-read it and think it through. And I always took the approach that whatever the story was, I would try to adjust my lighting and compositions to fit that story. Rather than look at it as how the story would fit my lighting style.
dijon (Feb 8, 2003 2:29:37 PM)
Tootsie has an unusual look for a comedy made at that time, can you talk about your strategy for it?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:30:03 PM)
First thing, of course, was that we shot in anamorphic. The other aspect of it was that we didn't shoot it with the intention it was a comedy. We felt that in order for the audience to believe this whole premise, everything would have to look very realistic so that they could relate to the fact that the people within the story were actually fooled by this guy. If they accepted the fact that those people were fooled, then they could be fooled also. Therefore making everything more believable.
UCLAGirls (Feb 8, 2003 2:31:01 PM)
Why do you think there are so few women cinematographers? And Do you think that women will ever achieve an academy nomination for a feature film?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:31:27 PM)
I've seen some really wonderful work out of female cinematographers in the last few years. And there is no doubt in my mind that a woman will not only get an Academy nomination but will probably win an Oscar before too long.
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:32:03 PM)
It's just a matter of getting the right projects to work on, and I personally don't see any gender segregation in my mind. Same as there's no doubt in my mind that one day a woman will be President of the United States.
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:32:23 PM)
I think it's all about the work rather than the gender.
UCLA Boys (Feb 8, 2003 2:32:35 PM)
Now that you're retired, do you miss shooting and being a part of the process? if so, what part about it do you miss the most? what parts don’t you miss?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:33:29 PM)
I answered that question before. But to repeat, I miss the art. Which consists of the camaraderie of working with different people every day on the set, creating new ideas, images. Telling a story that can touch the lives of people around the world.
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:33:57 PM)
What I don't miss is the interminable hours that for some reason producers think are necessary in order to make a film these days. I remember in the old days producers used to be more interested in the product than in the budget. Somewhere along the line that's changed. Unfortunately.
jlight (Feb 8, 2003 2:34:24 PM)
In this day and age what do you feel is the best path to climb to becoming a cinematographer. The camera route or the electric route?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:34:59 PM)
Given a choice? Definitely the camera route. You really should understand every aspect of creating images. They're not always just about lighting.
Spotlight (Feb 8, 2003 2:35:09 PM)
Is there any interior scene that comes to mind that was particularly challenging to you?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:35:59 PM)
One of the earliest challenges I ever had was shooting the inside of the men's room in a bar in The French Connection.
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:36:14 PM)
The solution for me was to just change the bulb to a brighter bulb and get out of there because it smelled so bad in there. And I learned a lot from that actually because the results were so satisfying that I realized you can do a lot with a little – if you do it carefully.
Amerikan (Feb 8, 2003 2:36:37 PM)
In Road to Perdition, Conrad used beautiful shadows, which I felt added tremendous weight and emotion to the story. Everyone is aware of the importance of light in a picture, but how important is shadow?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:37:27 PM)
Conrad always had an expression, that it's not always what you light that counts, but often it's what you don't light that counts. There was probably no better example of that than what he did in Road to Perdition.
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:37:48 PM)
All images are made up of a gray scale that goes from pure white to black, and all kinds of gradations in between. Whatever portion of that gray scale you, as a cinematographer, decide to render, that's what captures the mood of that particular scene. So it could be bright. It could be dark. And it could be a combination of any parts in between. Conrad was a master at creating that.
Jack Rob (Feb 8, 2003 2:38:31 PM)
Is it true that all great cinematographers are also great still photographers?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:40:07 PM)
I don't know the answer to that. I know that through the efforts of Francis Kenney at the ASC, we are compiling a collection of still photographers taken by ASC members. And hope to someday publish them in a book.
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:40:23 PM)
However, I don't think it's a general rule that a great cinematographer is a great photographer. I would assume that would be the case, but I can't state that as a fact.
Op-Ed (Feb 8, 2003 2:40:36 PM)
Every time I see The French Connection, I get so wrapped up in the story that I hardly notice any of the production elements. Not the cinematography, not the editing, not the script. And I think that’s the greatest compliment a filmmaker can receive. Would you agree?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:40:57 PM)
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:41:13 PM)
My theory always was that the cinematography should be subservient to the story. Go unnoticed. Unless it was designed to be one of the important elements of telling that story. Like creating a period look, for example.
Tommy (Feb 8, 2003 2:41:44 PM)
In your humble opinion, which is in better shape today – the state of filmmaking or the state of baseball?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:42:43 PM)
I would like to think that the state of films is in a lot better shape than baseball. But since I'm a baseball fan, in my humble opinion, they both need a lot of work.
Bob. F. (Feb 8, 2003 2:42:57 PM)
How did you make an unbelievable concept - Linda Blair becoming possessed in The Exorcist - look so believable?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:43:37 PM)
The most important thing we tried to accomplish was that we kept everything looking very believable. The same approach we used in Tootsie.
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:44:01 PM)
We didn't want it to look like an old, for example, Lon Chaney horror film where you used ghastly under-lighting and weird compositions. We tried to shoot The Exorcist from beginning to end as if it was entirely possible and a believable thing.
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:44:31 PM)
I think that's what made it so powerful. Because people actually walked out of the theater not sure whether something like this could happen.
Cropper (Feb 8, 2003 2:44:35 PM)
If you could wave a magic wand, and be 18 years old again, knowing what you know now, would you do anything differently? Would you go to film school?
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:45:26 PM)
I definitely would have gone to film school. And art school. And learned anything I could about all art forms. Because eventually they all apply to cinematography. I don't regret any of the steps that I did take. But since you ask that question, that's what I would do differently.
Owen Roizman (Feb 8, 2003 2:46:18 PM)
I’d like to thank everybody for chiming in with great questions. I hope I was able to help you. I'm sure Eric sends his regrets that he wasn't able to make it.
Owen Roizman’s Career Celebrated at CamerImage
(This article originally appeared in International Photographer Magazine in 2001.)
If dreams always came true, Owen Roizman, ASC would have been the next Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle. He would have been the centerfielder for the New York Yankees. His father, Sol, was a newsreel cameraman for Fox Movietone News for 22 years before he switched to shooting documentaries and TV commercials. His uncle Morris was a film editor.
“The truth is that I never thought about following in my father’s or uncle’s footsteps,” Roizman says. “I wanted to be a professional baseball player. That was my dream. I still treasure the memory of visiting Ebbets Field and watching the Dodgers play in Brooklyn. They let me in the dugout because of my father’s job. I got to talk with Pee Wee Reese, Pete Reiser and other Dodgers.”
Roizman had both natural athletic ability and a fierce competitive spirit. There is no way of telling what might have happened if a bout with polio hadn’t slowed him. Roizman didn’t give up. He switched to pitching, and spent endless hours strengthening his arm and perfecting his control by throwing a ball against a wall.
His hard work and determination paid off. Roizman was an all-star pitcher on a championship high school team in New York City, but he hurt his arm during his last game. After thinking about his future, Roizman decided to become an engineer. He studied math and physics at Gettysburg College, in Pennsylvania, and spent his summer vacations working at a camera rental house.
After graduation, Roizman interviewed for corporate jobs as an engineer, but the offers didn’t feel right. Akos Farkas, a Hungarian expatriate who specialized in shooting TV commercials, offered Roizman a job as an assistant cameraman.
“He treated me as though I was an apprentice,” Roizman recalls. “I learned a lot from him about both life and film. If he wanted a filter, he would always explain why. I tried to learn how to think like him, so I could anticipate his needs.”
Roizman was sorting through his memories before leaving for Lodz, Poland where he received the 2001 Lifetime Achievement Award at Camerimage – The International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography during the first week of December. It was a singular tribute. Roizman is only the ninth recipient. Previous winners include Sven Nykvist, ASC, Vittorio Storaro, AIC, ASC, Conrad Hall, ASC, Haskell Wexler, ASC, Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, Laszlo Kovacs, ASC, Giuseppe Rotunno, AIC, ASC and Billy Williams, BSC.
Roizman has been lionized before. In 1997, his peers in the American Society of Cinematographers presented him with the coveted ASC Lifetime Achievement Award. He is also one of only five contemporary cinematographers who have earned five Oscar nominations. His first nomination came in 1970 for The French Connection. The others were for The Exorcist (1973), Network (1976), Tootsie (1982) and Wyatt Earp (1994). Some of his other milestone films are The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, The Return of a Man Called Horse, Three Days of the Condor, The Electric Horseman, Absence of Malice, True Confessions, Havana and Grand Canyon. He also earned an Emmy nomination for Liza With a Z, his only narrative TV credit.
“Filmmakers every place in the world have been influenced by Owen Roizman’s work,” observes Camerimage festival director Marek Zydowicz. Many cinematographers and other filmmakers who were directly or indirectly influenced by Roizman have voiced these same thoughts.
“All of us have a certain movie we hold closer to our heart than any other,” says Richard Crudo, ASC. “For me, it's The French Connection. I was born and raised in New York City, and I've never been able to think of home without recalling this movie's light and textures. Noir-ish, rough-hewn, documentary-like…call it what you will. Owen managed to render a truth in a carefully modulated fashion that only a fellow cinematographer would recognize. The key is the unobtrusiveness of his technique. You almost have to look beyond his photography to find its genius. I first saw The French Connection as a freshman in high school and though I wouldn't know it for a couple of years, it planted the seed that led to my becoming a cinematographer.”
Crudo explains that in retrospect he came to realize that Roizman’s work on The French Connection made him aware that lighting didn't just happen on its own. Someone had to create it.
Serendipity led Roizman on the path to shooting The French Connection. In the mid 1960s, in addition to shooting documentaries and commercials, Sol Roizman was working at MPO Videotronics, Inc. whenever its top cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld, ASC needed an operator. After his first assistant was killed in a car crash, Hirschfeld offered that job to Owen Roizman.
“I got to work with my father and Gerry (Hirschfeld) for about a year,” Roizman recalls. “Then, my father died, and Gordon Willis (ASC) joined the crew.”
Within a year, Willis moved up to cinematographer. Hirschfeld tried several other operators before agreeing to give Roizman the job on trial.
“I was Gerry’s operator for about two years until MPO made me a staff cinematographer. I shot a lot of commercials during the next several years, and then Bill Gunn, a writer, asked me to shoot a movie he was going to direct."
They shot Stop in Puerto Rico, mainly in soft light with long lenses. The film was still in postproduction when Dick DiBona, one of the owners of General Camera, recommended Roizman to a young director named Billy Friedkin.
“After looking at my commercial reel and Stop, Billy said he liked my work, but he was going to shoot a gritty, down-and-dirty, realistic documentary-style film,” Roizman recalls. “He asked if I could work that way. I told him I was a cinematographer and could shoot in any style he wanted.”
While they were scouting locations for The French Connection, Roizman decided it was important to record images at those sites the way they looked to his naked eye. That meant he had to augment the light. Roizman knew the lighting inside the car was the key to establishing the setting and accentuating the drama. He experimented with lighting that scene in his own car parked in the family garage. All of the garage windows were blacked out so it was totally dark. His wife Mona alternately sat in the seats that Roy Scheider and Gene Hackman would occupy in the movie, while Roizman experimented with lighting her face and the interior with just a few small lamps.
“I wanted to feel the mood,” he says. “That’s my approach to lighting. I’m fascinated by light. Anytime I go anywhere, day or night, I’m looking at how the light falls, the brightness and the shadows, the colors reflecting off objects and reflecting on faces.”
The famous chase scene was precisely storyboarded and broken up into small parts. Roizman decided to use longer lenses that compressed the distance between the speeding car and pedestrians, objects and other vehicles to amplify the feeling of an imminent deadly crash. Roizman also utilized wider angles lenses in certain instances to accentuate the speed of the vehicle.
“It was the first time I tried to make a film look like reality,” Roizman says. “That’s when I became aware of how you can use source lighting to pull audiences into stories even if you augment it. I’d walk into a room on location, and maybe I’d change the bulbs in a lamp to make them brighter, and then use something to shade the walls down, so you could shape and model the light and still make it feel real. You can change the mood of a whole scene by simply changing the angle of light coming from a lamp. You are trying to create a feeling.”
The French Connection won five Oscars, including best picture, best director and best script. It was only Roizman’s second film, and the first one that was released, but he was already on the way to establishing himself as one of the defining cinematographers of contemporary times.
“I photographed a picture called Bullitt that was directed by Peter Yates in 1968,” recalls William A. Fraker, ASC. “We had a very exciting car chase scene that went up and down hills on the streets of San Francisco. It was very dramatic. A few years later, Owen photographed The French Connection. They also had a car chase scene, but it was on the flat streets of New York under an elevated train track. It was equally exciting, and that was a pure tribute to Owen’s talent. I remembered seeing The French Connection and being awed by his talent.”
Roizman compiled another 17 narrative credits during the next 11 years. It seemed like every director he met after The French Connection wanted to talk about emulating a realistic, documentary-style look. He remembers thinking he should also do some more stylized work, but even when he had license to explore other possibilities, his taste gravitated towards realism.
Roizman was never complacent or totally satisfied. He quickly discovered that cinematography was a game of inches. In 1972, while Roizman was shooting a night scene for his third feature film, Play It Again Sam, he noticed that a light behind an actress was coming directly into the lens. Her body was blocking the light, creating kind of a halo effect. He thought about using smoke to soften or diffuse the light, but decided to let it burn around the edges of her back. His operator told him that he thought it was going to flare out and blow everything out. Roizman watched a couple of takes to see how it played. He decided that the few times she moved in a way that let the light flare, it actually helped the scene. “I knew from experience that while the human eye couldn’t handle that bright light, the film could and would see it differently. I thanked the operator for his suggestion and told him to let it play,” says Roizman
Roizman collaborated with Friedkin again in 1973. This time the film was The Exorcist, based on William Blatty’s book by the same name. “Before the film was in pre-production, Billy Friedkin gave me a tape of an actual exorcism of an eight year old boy in Italy,” Roizman says. “It was in Italian, so I couldn’t understand the words, but the sounds coming out of the boy’s mouth were terrifying. William Blatty also arranged for me to read a copy of the exorcism his book was based on. I was totally entrenched in the story and believed in it wholeheartedly. Billy and I agreed that The Exorcist shouldn’t look like a horror film. We wanted the audience to believe the character is real and possessed by a demon. That’s what makes it scary.”
“Last summer, I saw the re-release of The Exorcist,” says James Chressanthis. “The audience responded as though it was a completely contemporary film. It was as frightening today as it was 30 years ago. The cinematography is really remarkable. The lighting is so natural that it is transparent to the audience. It was a really terrific achievement to light a very dark film like The Exorcist that long ago. He was probably working with a 50-speed film, slow lenses and big lights, and yet he made it seem so natural and frightening. If The Exorcist was a new film today it would be considered a great artistic achievement.”
In 1974, Roizman collaborated with director Joe Sergeant on the making of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. During the early days of preparation, Roizman’s research included spending time on a subway platform and watching trains coming into and out of the station. He also spent time riding subway trains in order to get a feeling for how the light was falling.
“We wanted this film to be as realistic and believable as possible, so the audience is sharing the experience,” he says. “I rode the cars to get a feeling for the ambience. I had this feeling that with the shape of the subway cars, where most of the story takes place, the anamorphic frame would give us the width at the edges of the frame that could be used to heighten feelings of tension. Joe (Sergeant) and the producer were planning to shoot in 1.85:1. They thought I was crazy when I suggested shooting in anamorphic. The cars were more vertical than horizontal, and the spherical lenses were much faster; but they agreed to let me shoot some tests and make comparisons. When we screened the tests, everyone was amazed at the difference the anamorphic frame made. I trusted my instincts.”
The following year, Roizman shot Three Days of the Condor in anamorphic format. It was his first film with Sydney Pollack. “We both liked the idea of longer lenses,” he recalls. “Sydney particularly liked a 360 degree anamorphic shot. The first scene was in a practical location, where these guys come in and kill everybody. Sydney wanted to use a 30 mm anamorphic lens. I said, ‘what happened to all the discussion about long lenses?’ He said ‘this set that (production designer) Stephen Grimes did is so interesting that I want to see it all.’ After that, we approached every shot on its own merit.”
The visual style was designed to create a tactile feeling of tension. Roizman notes that the use of longer lenses used in many scenes gave the audience a voyeuristic sense that they were watching the story unfold, as though they were spying on the characters through a telescope. The lens compressed the action, which allowed him to isolate people and objects.
Tom Priestley, Jr., ASC, remembers what it was like working with Roizman during those formative days of his own career. “In the late 60s. I was a camera assistant and Owen had just become a director of photography. We were doing commercials. Later we worked together on seven films, including The French Connection, The Exorcist, and Three Days of the Condor. Owen was certainly from a different mold. He was college educated, which was unusual. He brought a very serious approach to filmmaking in New York. Owen was involved in not just the lighting, but in designing the entire look of the film. He was an innovator who took advantage of lighter equipment, faster films and lenses, and other advances to help create a new kind of filmmaking. Techniques that Owen took a chance on back then are now taken for granted as part of film grammar. Owen raised the standards in every way. He made me a better cameraman.”
That’s just one example of how Roizman touched people’s lives and careers, sometimes in inexplicable ways. “I was in Miami in 1981 when I found out that I had just gotten my first feature assignment,” recalls Steven Poster, ASC. “Owen was in Miami shooting Absence of Malice. He called and invited me out to celebrate. I felt a million miles tall. Here was one of the great filmmakers of all time, and he was accepting me as a colleague.
“He told me, ‘Don’t ever let them make you shoot something you don’t want to see on the screen.’ Over the years that has been a great piece of advice.”
Roizman earned his third Oscar nomination for Network, a totally different type of character-driven film with memorable performances by Peter Finch and Ned Beatty. One scene was staged around a conference table. It is night and the room is dark. Beatty’s character is pontificating and berating Finch’s character. He stands up and walks down the length of the table. It’s a long dolly shot.
“I loved the way Sydney staged that scene, and I was very happy with the lighting in the dark room motivated by little green lamps on the table,” Roizman says. “It was the right mood for a scene that set up the rest of the story. In that last shot of Ned Beatty, I had a really strong backlight on his hair so it seems to be glowing. It made him seem God-like. There is just a little light on his face, so you can barely see his features. We wanted it to look ethereal without anyone realizing we lit him.”
Roizman earned his fourth Oscar nomination for Tootsie. One of the obvious keys to the story was making Dustin Hoffman look enough like a woman for the audience to believe he was fooling the other characters. There was a lot of testing with makeup, and a lot of tension on the set.
“I was working with a new high-speed film (Eastman EXR 200T 5293) that was much grainer, and not as saturated in colors, because I wanted to use less light, so the heat didn’t melt Dustin’s make-up,” Roizman remembers. He was one of the first cinematographers to use that speed film on an entire feature. “If you aren’t willing to take risks, you are never going to learn anything new.”
Pollack offered these observations about his long relation with Roizman: “I've always been a kind of an amateur photographer. I figured that I needed enough knowledge to communicate with cinematographers because that's the vocabulary we use to speak to audiences. I still remember talking to Owen for the first time and being surprised at how young he was. He was a different breed. The first film we did together was Three Days of the Condor. He was able to make it absolutely real and not glamorized. In one scene, he transformed a normal alley into a horrifically ominous place. At the same time he took care of the actors. Condor was a thriller, Electric Horseman and Tootsie were romantic comedies, and Absence of Malice was a straightforward drama, but relationships were at the core of all of those films. I loved how hard he worked to make somebody look right without looking lit. That's a special talent. I loved working with Owen. There was never an ego contest between us. It was always a real collaboration. He was the first guy I called on every picture. Owen is like a painter who has absolute control of light and darkness, shadows and highlights. You can turn the sound off, watch his films, and you’ll still be able to follow the story and feel the emotions.”
After completing Tootsie in 1983, Roizman decided to make a radical change in his life. He opened a television commercial production company in Los Angeles and cast himself in the dual role of director-cinematographer. Roizman had just shot three pictures in a row, and had been away from home for 21 months during a two-year period. He decided it was important to spend more time at home with his family. He directed and filmed hundreds of commercials during the next five years.
“I was a film student at USC in 1988,” says Aaron Schneider, ASC. “There was a seminar program where great cinematographers would come in and set up shots from actual projects and discuss what they were doing and why. Owen Roizman recreated a shot from a commercial. It was fascinating. I think there were about 20 students there, and I wanted to get some connection to him. I asked if I could help carry a case of gels, or maybe it was filters, back to his car.
“Eight or nine years later, I was shooting Murder One, my first TV series. An actor came on to play a role in the third or fourth episode, and he said a friend of his who was a cinematographer said hello. He said his friend admired my work on the show, and he encouraged me to make sure it was entered in the American Society of Cinematographers (Outstanding Achievement Awards) competition. It was Owen Roizman.”
In 1989, a day after he decided to return to the feature film arena, Roizman happened to get the script for Larry Kasdan’s script for I Love you to Death. His other credits during the 1990s include Havana, The Addams Family, and Wyatt Earp. Roizman earned his fifth Oscar nomination for Wyatt Earp.
“Every film is different,” he says, “so every time you read a script you have to invent a new approach to telling the story. You borrow ideas from other films, and rely on your experience to get it done in a practical and believable way. But the vision for the story comes from inside, and it is something that is unique to each cinematographer. We shot Wyatt Earp in big country, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We mainly used normal and wider-angle lenses that enabled us to use more of the background, and show the audience the characters in that immense Western setting. That’s what the story is really about—a fight for this seemingly endless land “
“You look at his films and no two are the same, but his lighting is always perfect for the story,” says Laszlo Kovacs, ASC. “Two of my favorites are Grand Canyon and Wyatt Earp. Owen Roizman is truly a master of light. I don’t think there is a cinematographer working today who hasn’t been influenced by Owen whether they realize it or not. “
Through all of these years, Roizman has persisted in keeping the spirit of Farkas alive in his outreach to other cinematographers. "I was very fortunate to be Owen Roizman's film loader on my first job in the industry, and was thrilled and honored when I heard from him 15 years later when he asked me to be his camera operator on Wyatt Earp,” recalls Bill Roe, ASC. “It wasn't until I became a cinematographer that I truly understood the full value of my filming experience with Owen. He encouraged me to participate in every aspect and at all levels of being a cinematographer while shooting Wyatt Earp."
“By watching Owen work, I learned how important it is to be true to yourself, to know the value of your work and experience, and to stand by your judgments,” says James Glennon, ASC. “I learned that a crew runs on your courage. If you protect them, they will do anything for you. He taught me that if you want to know where to put the keylight, read the script. When I think of Owen, I think of his quiet intensity, thoughtfulness, watchfulness and humor. I think of his creation of emotions with light and camerawork. I think of Owen challenging us all to be better, and showing us all how to do it by example.”
In 1995, Roizman shot French Kiss. It was his fourth film with Kasdan, and it presaged what would emerge as a crucial issue for cinematographers by the end of the decade. The story was filmed in France with much of it taking place during a train ride through the countryside. The original plan called for those scenes to be filmed on a moving train. Roizman investigated the possibilities of filming those scenes on a sound stage. The initial option was using rear projection to create backgrounds, but the available stage wasn’t big enough.
The alternative was compositing B-roll footage of the exterior scenery into the window spaces. There was a similar scene on an airplane, when one of the characters, played by Meg Ryan, is flying to Paris. After testing, he and Kasdan decided to shoot the train and airplane scenes on sets and digitally composite the exteriors into the windows. Advances in motion tracking technology gave them the freedom to move the camera freely on the sets.
“I lit the interior on the train like there was very early morning sunlight streaming through the windows,” Roizman says. “That was consistent with the script and the mood Larry wanted. Unfortunately, when the final composite was done, I wasn’t called in for consultation and by the time I saw it, it was too late to change it. The problem was that the angle, color and quality of the interior and exterior light didn’t mesh, and it wasn’t consistent with the mood that Larry and the actors established for those scenes.”
The differences were relatively subtle, but Roizman felt they were sufficient to give the audience a subliminal clue that something wasn’t right. It didn’t feel realistic.
“I don’t think the audience was laughing at an obvious mistake,” he says. “There was much more nuance. It's something they feel rather than see. The scenes don’t pack the emotional punch they deserve. That made me realize how important it is for us to maintain control, to be there in the digital suite. It should be part of our contract.”
We asked Roizman how he thought new technology was changing the art form.
“You can do things with available light today that you wouldn’t have dreamed about doing in the past,” he says. “You can shoot in places that are pretty dark and reserve the use of light to make dramatic statements. There are also amazing advances in lenses and the way the camera can be moved. The sum of these things is that you can work a little quicker and be more spontaneous when the opportunity arises. Some people have interpreted that the wrong way. They think anyone can become a cinematographer, but someone still has to create lighting for artistic expression, choose the right lens and composition, pick the angles of photography, know the strengths and weaknesses of the faces of the actors, and when necessary whisper advice in the director’s ear. Unfortunately, most people don’t understand that the craft we have mastered is what allows us to express ourselves as artists. Part of the problem is that the art of cinematography is supposed to be invisible. We don’t want the audience to be aware that we are creating illusion, because that would distract them from the story.”
If you consider the sum of Roizman’s career, the moral is that even the wildest of dreams can come true. It turns out that Roizman is Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle wrapped up in one package, only his sport is the art and craft of filmmaking.
A Conversation on the Art of Filmmaking
(This article originally appeared in the CamerImage program in 2001.)
QUESTION: Do you have a philosophy about your role as a cinematographer?
ROIZMAN: It is always difficult for cinematographers to explain what they do. Art has so many forms of expression. You can tell any story in so many different ways. Cinematographers happen to do it with images and our interpretation of how the story looks in our minds, and how we want the audience to see it. I love that process. It feels as natural to me as a composer writing music or an author using words to tell a story. I try to subliminally transport the audience into the story as though they are voyeurs observing what is happening without being aware of the camera, lights, director, or the fact that the actors might have done take after take after take that the editor assembled into one scene. What I want is for the audience to forget they are watching a movie and to feel the moment. That's the main ingredient of my philosophy of filmmaking.
QUESTION: Can you trace the origins of those feelings?
ROIZMAN: I remember when I was a youngster, I would go to movies and I liked the ones where I was never aware there was a camera or people who made the film. When I was aware of over the top acting, forced camera angles or things like that, it always bothered me. So, I guess right from the beginning my tastes were defined by what felt right to me. But, it isn’t quite that simple. Cinematography isn’t just an art form. It’s also a craft where you learn from experience. When I was on Gerald Hirschfeld’s crew shooting commercials, I learned from observing what he did and how he worked. As I moved up the ladder, I gained more and more experience. You have to do the job, put in the long hours and deal with the pressures in order to learn how to master the technical part of the craft.
QUESTION: You didn’t start out wanting to become a filmmaker?
ROIZMAN: It never entered my mind on a conscious level. In high school, I was an athlete, a baseball player. That was my dream. I could answer any question about any baseball player—batting averages, teams and positions, but I couldn’t tell you the names of the most popular actors, directors, or cinematographers. I had no interest in that at all. I remember going to see movies on Saturdays and seeing The Black Swan, Dracula and Frankenstein films, and My Friend Flicka. They were mainly fairy tales. I also couldn't wait to see the serials. I really loved movies, but I never envisioned myself working in the film business, even though my father was in it.
QUESTION: Are there similarities to sports and cinematography?
ROIZMAN: I've always been a competitor. That started with sports. I always wanted to win. Whether it was playing baseball or shooting a film, I went after it with a passion and I wanted to win. You don’t really win anything when you shoot a film but it is just the challenge to do your best, which is similar to trying to win at sports. I remember when we were in the middle of shooting The French Connection and one day the production manager was handing out paychecks. He was kidding around, and as he handed me the envelope, he said, ‘and the winner is…’ as though it held the name of the winner of an Academy Award. He told me, ‘You know, you'll be going up for one (an Oscar) for this film.’ I remember thinking how ridiculous that seemed. The thought had never occurred to me, even though I was on a quest to help make the best possible film and to tell the best possible story. Frankly, I was always surprised when I got an Oscar nomination because the competition was so fierce and there are so many talented cinematographers. I always felt fortunate when I was nominated, and make no mistake, I always wanted to win. That’s my competitive nature.
QUESTION: Baseball and filmmaking are both team games.
ROIZMAN: I never thought of it exactly that way but it certainly is the case. I’ve always been conscious of the fact that along with many other people, I’m there to help tell a story. Painting and still photography are solitary arts. In a movie, there are many people painting on the same canvas. The writer gives you a story, the production designer gives you a set, the director has the final word, and you have to work within those confines. You also work with the art director, set decorator, costume designer, makeup artist, and so many other people. From my point of view I want each shot to be perfect so it fits the film like a piece of a (jigsaw) puzzle.
QUESTION: How does the collaborative process between you and the director work?
ROIZMAN: It’s different on each film with every director. When I was working with Ulu Grosbard on True Confessions, we were getting ready to shoot a scene one day, and I asked him if he wanted to use a wide, normal or long lens. He asked what I thought. I told him, and he said ‘do it.’ The whole picture went that way. He didn't accept all of my ideas, but he appreciated the fact that I was offering them. I’ve never been reluctant to say what I think. Some directors welcome ideas and others don’t. The fact is that the directors are in charge. It is their film. Everyone else should be trying to implement what he or she wants. Sometimes that is difficult because we all see things a little differently from one another, especially when it comes to art. There is nothing as gratifying to me as a close working relationship with a director. I consider myself fortunate to have worked with so many talented ones. Many directors that I have worked with have become lifelong friends. That is a good feeling.
QUESTION: How would you cope with an auteur director who isn’t interested in your ideas?
ROIZMAN: I wouldn’t let it bother me, but I don’t personally subscribe to the auteur theory unless it’s a solitary art like painting or still photography. I think it is very difficult for anyone to make a good movie alone. I don't understand how anyone can direct and shoot their own film without making artistic compromises. I suppose there are exceptions, but chances are that even if you are a talented director, there is a cinematographer who can help you tell a better story. A director has got to watch the actors and spend time with them. A cinematographer has got to concentrate on lighting and framing the images. There is always the potential for an exchange of ideas that can enhance both the direction and the cinematography, which can only improve the final product.
QUESTION: How do you feel about people who put down the role of the cinematographer as something that is purely technical and ‘below the line?’
ROIZMAN: They are uninformed and unaware of what we actually do. They don’t realize the impact that the cinematographer can have on a film. A lot of people comment on the unique camaraderie between cinematographers. I think one reason for that spirit of friendship is that we appreciate what our colleagues have achieved, and we know they aren’t getting the recognition they deserve. There's nothing offensive about being listed below the line if that’s your job, but putting a cinematographer in that category is plain stupid and that does offend me.
QUESTION: How do you choose films?
ROIZMAN: Most important, I would have to like the story. I've turned down a lot of scripts, because I didn’t want to waste three months of my life making a film I didn’t believe in. Earlier in my career, I was actually less selective, but luckily most the material that I was offered was very good. I always ask myself, does this script tell a story that I would pay to see in a movie theatre? Over the years, I have also developed relationships with certain directors, and that has often been a factor in choosing a script.
QUESTION: What made The Exorcist such a powerful film?
ROIZMAN: It was based on an amazing book by William Peter Blatty. Before the picture was in preproduction, Billy Friedkin gave me a tape of an actual exorcism of an eight year old boy in Italy. It was in Italian, so I couldn't understand the words, but the sounds that came out of this little boy’s mouth were terrifying. All of a sudden, he had this amazingly deep voice that couldn’t possibly come from such a young boy. Blatty also arranged for me to read a copy of the archives of an actual exorcism involving a 10 or 11 year old boy that his book was based on. I was totally engaged in the story and believed it wholeheartedly. Friedkin and I agreed that The Exorcist shouldn't look like a horror film. We wanted to make the audience believe that the character is real and she is possessed by a demon. That’s what makes it so scary. We figured that if we made the visuals very realistic then we had a chance to subconsciously bring the audience into the story. It would be easier to impact their religious beliefs that way.
QUESTION: What about The Taking of Pelham One Two Three? How was the decision made to shoot that film in anamorphic format? It was counter-culture at the time.
ROIZMAN: I research every film as thoroughly as possible. On Pelham, my research included spending time in a subway station and riding trains. I'd stand on the subway platform for long periods of time and watch trains coming in and going out of the station. I’d ride trains looking up and down the aisles to get a feeling for the light, because we wanted the film to be as realistic and believable as possible. One day I realized that a subway car has roughly the same shape as an anamorphic frame. They had been planning to shoot this picture in 1.85:1. I went to the director, Joe Sargent, and the producer, Edgar Sherick, and I told them why I thought it should be shot in anamorphic, and they said, no way. I think they thought I was crazy, but they agreed to let me shoot some tests and make comparisons. I shot tests on the platform when the trains were coming in and out, people were walking around, and getting on and off. When we screened the tests everyone was amazed at what a difference anamorphic made and how much better it looked. It was my first anamorphic movie, so I trusted my instincts, which told me what felt right. It was very unusual for that type of story to be produced in anamorphic format in those days (1974). The following year, I was excited when Sydney Pollack said that he wanted to shoot Three Days of the Condor in anamorphic format.
QUESTION: What were the factors that influenced that decision?
ROIZMAN: It was my first film with Sydney Pollack. We talked and talked about how we were going to make this film. Sydney knows a lot about photography. We both liked the idea of using long anamorphic lenses and shot some tests. He particularly loved a 360 mm anamorphic lens. I had never used it before, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. That became our basic plan. Wherever possible we would shoot with longer rather than wider lenses. The first day, we were preparing to shoot the very first shot in the movie in a room in the building where the bad guys come in and kill everybody. It was a practical location. Sydney told me he wanted to use a 30 mm lens. In anamorphic that’s the equivalent of a very wide, 15 mm spherical lens. I asked, ‘What happened to our long lens concept?’ He said, Stephen Grimes, the production designer, gave us such a beautiful set, it would be a shame not to see it all. That’s the way we did the movie. Each shot was different. There were times when he loved using long lenses, and other times, he wanted to be standing next to the camera and very close to the actors, so we were using wider lenses.
QUESTION: Can you describe Three Days of the Condor in a word?
QUESTION: How did you make the audience feel the tension? Is it all in the performances, the way the performances were photographed, or both?
ROIZMAN: It began with the script, the director’s vision, the actors’ performances, and finally how we photographed it. It was a combination of choices of camera angles, light, and long lenses that really enhanced the feeling of tension. They have a tendency to make you subconsciously feel like you're viewing something through a telescope. It compresses things and the focus is on one plane, rather than on everything. The eye goes to whatever you want to lead it to. Years later, when I did Tootsie with Sydney, he wanted to shoot it in anamorphic, but I thought it was a strange choice for a comedy. We had shot The Electric Horseman in anamorphic and Absence of Malice in 1:85, which I felt could have worked either way. My technical instincts at the time told me that anamorphic would be too difficult to shoot Tootsie because of the nature of the script. It would make composition a lot more complex with a lot of little adjustments required. But, Sydney was right. I credit him for proving to me that no matter what the genre, you can get so much more information on the screen, even in close-ups. The trick is to balance the frame with different elements to achieve the most interesting compositions. The lesson is that you have to look at every film with a fresh eye and decide the best way to tell that story. Although some people might argue that certain films should be shot in spherical format, I eventually became convinced that although it may sometimes be more difficult, anamorphic is the best way to shoot everything.
QUESTION: How much do you pre-visualize and plan before you shoot?
ROIZMAN: You need a plan, but I don’t really know what the final images will look like until I see the elements before me, before I know exactly what I am shooting. Some directors like Sidney Lumet like to pre-plan every element of a movie. It comes to other directors when they are right there on the set after they've run through rehearsals with the actors. It's the same with cinematographers. Some cinematographers have a preconceived idea of every shot. Others wait until they walk on the set and see the actors in the environment. I’m in that second group. Sometimes it can be really simple. If the set is properly designed, I’ve always felt that I should be able to use one big light source to wash it with light from an interesting direction. It’s the same with lighting actors. If they are doing a great job, you should be able to light them so they seem totally believable. If the actors aren’t performing, you can’t help them with brilliant, creative lighting.
QUESTION: A scene in Network has always stuck in my mind. There is a meeting around a long conference table and there are these little green lamps at each seat.
ROIZMAN: We shot that scene in what I recall was the New York public library. It was a challenging scene to pull off because they would only allow me to hang one light. Everything else had to be hidden. It starts out as a day scene but Ned Beatty walks into the room and draws the drapes. He then stands at one end of the table and starts preaching to Peter Finch’s character at the other end. Beatty’s character is pontificating and berating Finch. He gets up and walks down the length of the table and stands over him. It is a long dolly shot. I loved the performances and the way Sydney staged that scene, and I was very happy with the lighting in that dark room with the individual green lamps. It was the right mood for an important scene that set up the rest of the film. In that last shot of Ned Beatty, I have a really strong backlight on his hair so it seems to be glowing. It made him seem God-like. There is little light on his face. You can barely see his features. We wanted it to look ethereal without anyone realizing that we lit him.
QUESTION: What about Straight Time? Was there anything unusual about it?
ROIZMAN: When I first signed onto shoot Straight Time, Dustin Hoffman was going to direct it. I spent about three months in preproduction with him. He decided to try shooting for a day as sort of a preproduction test for himself—to see if he was going to be comfortable with directing. He realized at the end of the day, that directing and acting in the same film was not for him. That is when he decided to bring in Ulu Grosbard to direct. Ulu was wonderful. He is a total gentleman and a dedicated professional. The film presented many challenges and also many opportunities to do some interesting work. In particular, we shot a jewelry heist and a bank robbery that were frighteningly real. Because of the nature of the material, the film wasn’t a big success, but we were able to do some very good work. I later went on to shoot True Confessions with Ulu. He was a pleasure to work with, mostly because of the freedom and support he gave me to do my job.
QUESTION: You said True Confessions was one of your favorite films. Why?
ROIZMAN: First of all, it was a period piece, 1947 I think, and that’s always fun. Ulu Grosbard asked that I didn’t do anything unusual, like sepia filters or diffusion, to get a period look. He didn’t want it lit like a forties film might have looked. Instead, he preferred that I shoot it like a modern film and just let the wardrobe, the sets, and the props take care of the period. The film featured two of the greatest actors in film today, and maybe of all time, Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall. They are two wonderful guys to work with, and, of course Charles Durning. I just love him. It wasn't the greatest story or a big commercial success, but I liked the way it came out. It was a wonderful experience. It was a murder mystery, and we reveal the killer early in the film. Most people don’t get it. It just slips by them. The film is really a character study about two brothers who went in exactly the opposite directions. One was a cop and the other a priest. The amazing Stephen Grimes was the production designer. Every set, all the costumes, everything about this film was exactly right, and everyone was terrific.
QUESTION: Tell me about working on The Stepford Wives and your relationship with Bryan Forbes
ROIZMAN: I love Bryan Forbes. He is both a serious filmmaker and at the same time has a great sense of humor. We had a delightful time together on Stepford. It was definitely an interesting project and very challenging for me. I wanted it to look very real but at the same time I had to make the women look good. Therefore I had to fudge a little when it came to source lighting and other techniques that help make something look real. There was one scene in particular where we have several of the wives in one room and we pan around from one to another in a medium close up. To get the lighting right for each actress took some careful work on my part. I often was challenged with making something eerie and at the same time believable. Brian always had a positive attitude about everything and the cast couldn’t have been any nicer to work with.
QUESTION: What sticks in your mind about Absence of Malice?
ROIZMAN: That was another film with thoroughly professional actors, Paul Newman and Sally Field, who were terrific to work with, and Sydney Pollack was great, too. It was one of my favorite projects. There was something about the chemistry that worked.
QUESTION: What was your first impression of Tootsie when you read the script?
ROIZMAN: I thought it was going to be a good picture if the audience believed Dustin Hoffman looked enough like a woman to fool the other characters. That was risky. There was a lot of testing with different makeups. It was a very difficult picture to work on and there was a lot of tension on the set. Almost every morning, Dustin showed up with rewrites of the script pages that we were going to shoot that day. He and Sydney would sometimes spend hours talking about the changes Dustin wanted. It was pretty tough on Sydney but the picture was much more successful than anyone had anticipated. I think that was because Dustin is a brilliant actor who was obsessed with making the part believable. To his credit, Sydney held his own very well. I think Dustin’s makeup and the way we lit him contributed to his believability. I was working with a new high-speed film that was much grainer and not as saturated in colors. The reason was that I wanted to use less light because the heat would melt his makeup, and we would have had to stop to touch it up too often. Besides that, there was the discomfort that Dustin would have experienced.
QUESTION: Do most films have challenges like that, which are only apparent to the cinematographer?
ROIZMAN: Absolutely. In The Exorcist I had to work with very small lights in a cold room. We didn't have KinoFlos or other lights like that in those days. If I had worked with bigger units it would heated up the room too fast, so I used a lot of small lamps that kept the room cooler for longer periods. Those things don't show up in anybody's review.
QUESTION: One of the claims of the so-called digital auteurs is that you don’t have to light with video cameras, so it is easier on the actors and you save time?
ROIZMAN: That is an utterly ridiculous theory. No matter what the medium, whether it is film or digital, someone must create the proper mood with lighting, composition, and movement. That is what cinematography is about. Cinema is an art form. Can you imagine giving a painter some new technologically improved paints and brushes and claim that now he could paint like Rembrandt?
QUESTION: You shot 20 films and earned four Oscar nominations in just around 10 years, and then you took a long hiatus shooting commercials. What brought you back to narrative films again after you took that hiatus doing commercials?
ROIZMAN: I’ll tell you what happened. I had completed Vision Quest, when I was asked to shoot and direct a very large package of commercials for a new beer product. I was told I could take it to any commercial company I wanted or I could produce it myself. I decided to do it myself. I hired a production manager and we produced these spots. It was interesting visual work. I decided I would shoot commercials for a while, because that would give me more time at home with my family. I'd just been working on location for 21 of the previous 24 months. My son was a teenager and I wanted to be there to give him my support as he grew up. Those are difficult years for any family. I opened my commercial company and took a five-year lease on a building. Near the end of that lease, there was a writers strike in the commercial industry. I decided that was a good time to go back to features. The very next day after I closed my doors I got a call from Charlie Okun, a producer who I knew from my early days in commercials when I lived in New York. He said Larry Kasdan wanted to talk about a film. That’s how I happened to do I Love You To Death. It was the first of four films I did with Larry. If he had called me earlier, before the writers’ strike, chances are I would have told him I was committed to shooting commercials.
QUESTION: Grand Canyon was one of my favorites of your films with Larry Kasdan.
ROIZMAN: I loved the script. There was a point during the middle of the picture where we were shooting a scene on a hospital set. A nurse is walking down a hallway carrying this baby that was being put up for adoption. It was a very tender scene. I was caught up in the emotion like everyone else on the set. I remember telling Larry (Kasdan), ‘You are making a great film. I just want you to know I feel that way.’ That’s the best gift you can give yourself as a cinematographer. Try to work on films that you believe in and that you would pay to see in a cinema. When you are doing something you really love and telling a story you really believe in, probably subconsciously you are digging a little deeper and making a 1000 percent effort.
QUESTION: On a subconscious level?
ROIZMAN: Right, because on a conscious level, you make that all out effort on every film, but I think sometimes under the surface you dig a little deeper.
QUESTION: You also did Wyatt Earp, a big Western film, with Larry Kasdan, and that effort resulted in your fifth Oscar nomination. What do you remember about that film?
ROIZMAN: It was actually my second big Western film. The first was The Return of the Man Called Horse (1976) directed by Irvin Kershner. Somebody brought my name up to the producer and his first reaction was that I was a New York Street shooter. How could I shoot a Western? However, Kershner decided he liked the idea because I might have some new ideas that hadn’t been done on Westerns. We met and there was an immediate connection between us. Kersh is a director who appreciates cinematographers. During our first conversations, we agreed on a concept for a different look for Westerns that was right for telling this story. We talked about long lenses and a warm tone. I used the equivalent of a double 85 filter (on the camera lens), which gave the film a very orangey, warm feeling. It had kind of a subtle period quality. I also used very heavy diffusion on the lens. I varied between a Harrison number four and five fog filter, and sometimes a four or five diffusion filter, and I suggested that we shoot everything in backlight. I exposed the film for the shadow area, so the highlights glowed.
QUESTION: Where did you get that idea?
ROIZMAN: Again, going back to my research for any film I would work on, it was like a look I saw in some paintings of the old West. I thought it captured the moods, and then it was a matter of how do you create it? That is fairly typical of my whole approach to filmmaking. I see the picture in my imagination, discuss it with the director, and then figure out how to create that look. I remember a big massacre scene in the beginning of the picture. I wanted to shoot it all with three cameras and long lenses, kind of distancing the audience, rather then shooting a series of separate closer-in shots of different stunts. I felt it would be more realistic.
QUESTION: So, it was an instinctual feeling?
ROIZMAN: It was a combination of instincts and my experiences in creating that type of feeling on other films and also commercials. In retrospect, my early commercial experience was very good training, because it gave me a sense of what you can do with different lenses, composition and light to create visual perspectives for the audience. I learned a lot by shooting commercials. They were my training ground.
QUESTION: You shot Wyatt Earp approximately 18 years later. Did time and experience change your approach to shooting a Western?
ROIZMAN: Every film is different, so each time you read a new script you are inventing a new approach to shooting a story. You borrow ideas from other films, and rely on your experience to get it done in a practical and believable way. But, the vision for the story comes from inside, and it is something that is unique to each cinematographer. We shot Wyatt Earp in big country, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We mainly used normal and wider angle lenses, because that allowed us to use more of the background, so the audience sees the characters in the immense Western setting. That’s what the story is really about, the fight for this seemingly endless land. Longer lenses tend to compress the images, so we used them selectively when we wanted that feeling. Wyatt presented great opportunities for interesting work. We shot through three seasons and all kinds of weather. It was a long and arduous schedule and very demanding physically. The changing weather presented myriads of problems because it changed so quickly during the course of each day and night. We were shooting a night sequence in a railroad yard that was scheduled for four nights. The first night went very smoothly but on the second night it started to rain heavily. It didn’t stop for the rest of the week. Normally you would shut down for weather like that but Larry (Kasdan) insisted that we keep shooting. It forced me to change the style of lighting that I established on the first night or else we would have seen the rain. That is where experience pays off. If you want to see rain then you use backlight and conversely, if you want to hide the rain, then you don’t use backlight. What I ended up using as the compromise lighting turned out to be even better than with the backlight. I learned an interesting lesson from that experience…there is always more than one way to do something.
QUESTION: That brings up an issue that is becoming more important for cinematographers. With advances in digital postproduction technology, it is now possible to change any aspect of an image, the colors, contrast, even composition. How is this going to affect the role of the cinematographer as co-authors of the films they shoot?
ROIZMAN: I was talking with Sydney Pollack recently about a tribute to Jane Fonda, where they ran a scene from The Electric Horseman (1979). It was a day for night scene that we completed on the last day of shooting. There were some huge clouds in the background and I was shooting with long lenses exposing the film like it was dusk, though it was actually the middle of the day in the sunlight. I used filters that gave us kinds of a cool blue look with very rich clouds. It was exquisite in the original film, and it really amplified the mood at a climatic moment. Sydney told me that whoever printed the scene for the tribute made a mistake. They printed it as a bright, sunlit scene. I wasn’t surprised, because I had just recently re-timed a print for the studio. The timer made the same mistake on his first try. There is a moral to this story. The cinematographer is the author of the light. If we aren’t there supervising postproduction when the film is timed for release, the chances are good that you are going to compromise the artistic quality of the film. That happened to me on French Kiss (1995). We shot a sequence on mock up of a train on a stage against a green screen background. We had a second unit shoot plates for the background in very early morning light. It was pre-sunrise. I lit the scene on the train to create a feeling of early morning, using cool, soft light coming through the windows knowing that we were balancing with the plates that were going to be composited into those spaces. The reason for staging the scene at that time of day was to motivate a mood that Larry (Kasdan) wanted. Unfortunately, I wasn’t called to supervise that part of the matting process, so the first time I saw it was as a composited print…too late to make changes. The digital facility had made the exterior plates look like it was the middle of the day. It was the wrong mood at the wrong time of day and the wrong feeling for that scene. Unfortunately this was a forerunner of a real problem for cinematographers and for the art of filmmaking.
QUESTION: Is there a solution?
ROIZMAN: I’m not against the use of digital technology, when it is appropriate. Cinematographers are almost always the first people in the industry to embrace new technology and new ideas. But, somehow, someway, cinematographers must have final control over color timing whether it is done in a film lab or digital suite. No self-respecting novelist would allow someone else to write a different ending for his manuscript. Changing the look of a film without the cinematographer’s input is like changing the author’s words or the composer’s score. The truth is that with digital technology, you can change the colors in a set or costume, an actor’s hair and even their features, so it’s not just cinematography at risk. It is the entire collaborative process. Digital technology is a great tool in postproduction. You can fix things and enhance images in almost any way, but if someone else assumes that role for the cinematographer, the chances are that you are going to diminish the storytelling and that wouldn’t be progress. It would be technology for the sake of technology.
QUESTION: I understand that there will be some 700 students in the audience at the CamerImage festival where you are receiving a career achievement award. What is your advice for them as they begin their careers?
ROIZMAN: Be true to yourself. Fight hard for what you believe in. Learn as much as you can about the craft as well as the art. You can never stop learning. You have to master all of the possibilities about every aspect of filmmaking. Most of all, be passionate about your work. Follow your heart and learn to trust your instincts. Looking back, I’ve never regretted a decision I ever made, even turning down films that became very successful. Usually, something else came along that was just as good or better. I’ve always had a positive attitude. You never know when or where your next opportunity will come form. In 1976, I had a memorable experience shooting a 20-minute, short film called Independence. It was just two weeks in production, and we all worked for scale. It was 20th Century Fox's contribution to the bicentennial celebration. John Huston directed the film. What a great experience that was. It was a little story about the signing of the Declaration of Independence. I think it ran for 20 years in Independence Hall, in Philadelphia, and millions and millions of people have seen it. I got to shoot that film because Stephen Grimes was the production designer, and he recommended me to John Huston. I’m grateful I had that opportunity. That’s one of the great things about this industry. You get to meet and work with a lot of wonderful people, actors, directors, producers, production designers and so many others. I remember films I did with a talented director named Harold Becker. I shot Taps with Harold, and it was Tom Cruise’s and Sean Penn’s first film. The list of names of people who I’ve worked with seems endless. I also had opportunities to touch the lives of millions and millions of people all over the world. There aren’t a lot of careers where you can say that. When I was entering the industry, the opportunities were very limited. There were no film schools, no DVDs, videocassettes or movie channels. There are many more film schools and much better tools for learning today. There is more access to media, including DVDs and videocassettes. You can watch films over and over and see if you can figure out why and how the filmmakers did the things they did. The industry is more open to new talent today but, it is still a very tough and competitive business, and only the best-prepared, most competitive people survive. My advice for young filmmakers is that if you have the talent and desire, stick with it, because if you quit, some day you’ll look back with regret wondering what you could have achieved.
Focusing on the Future of Cinematography
(This article originally appeared in International Photographer in 1995.)
Is Owen Roizman, ASC, a chip off the old block or what? His father Sol was a cameraman. His uncle Morris was a film editor. Roizman followed in their footsteps and earned an Oscar nomination in 1971 for The French Connection.
It was only his second feature, and it marked Roizman, who was only in his early 30s, as a rising star. He has subsequently earned other Oscar nominations for The Exorcist, Network, Tootsie and Wyatt Earp. That puts him in a very exclusive club of contemporary cinematographers with five nominations. The others include Vittorio Storaro, AIC, ASC, Haskell Wexler, ASC, Bill Fraker, ASC, Conrad Hall, ASC and Allen Daviau, ASC.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Believe it or not, Roizman has fewer than 30 feature credits. That makes his five nominations an even more awesome accomplishment. It makes you wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t taken a long hiatus from shooting features during the peak of his career.
A little history: Roizman was red hot during the 1970s, when he added Three Days of the Condor, The Return of a Man Named Horse, The Taking of Pelham, One, Two, Three, The Heartbreak Kid, Play It Again, Sam, The Stepford Wives, Straight Times, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Electric Horseman to an increasingly impressive body of work. He shot five additional features between 1980 and 1982, including The Black Marble, Absence of Malice, Taps and True Confessions.
He pulled the plug after filming Tootsie in 1982.
From 1983 to 1988, Roizman directed and/or shot literally hundreds of commercials. His only feature during that period was Vision Quest.
Why? He had the best reason in the world.
“It was an important time for me to be closer to my family,” he explains.
Larry Kasdan lured Roizman back to features in 1988 with I Love You to Death. Roizman has subsequently been selective, shooting an average of around one film a year, including Havana, The Addams Family, Grand Canyon, Wyatt Earp and recently, French Kiss.
Getting back to the question about being a chip off the old block, Roizman gives a wistful reply. He says that during his formative years, he never planned to follow in his father’s or uncle’s footsteps. He dreamed about becoming a major league pitcher.
Millions of American boys have shared that dream. For Roizman, it could have come true. He has a vivid memory of visiting Ebbetts Field in Brooklyn, with his father, who was a newsreel photographer for Fox Movietone News.
“Because of my father, I was allowed in the dugout, where I spoke with Pee Wee Reese, Pete Reiser and other Brooklyn Dodgers. I was in heaven,” he says.
Roizman lived in Brooklyn and later on Long Island, but he was an avid Yankee fan. He followed them on the radio, and rode the subway alone to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx when he was only 10. Roizman started playing baseball during his early teens. He wanted to be a first baseman, but a bout with polio slowed him down. That’s when he decided to pitch. Roizman spent hours throwing a ball against a wall to strengthen his arm.
Pitching: He thrived on the one on one competition. It was just him and the batter, and he loved the competition. Roizman was an all-star pitcher on a championship team in high school. He injured his arm while pitching a no hitter in his last game. It was the end of the dream. He studied physics and math at Gettysburg College, in Pennsylvania
During summer breaks, Roizman worked at a camera rental house. By then, television had killed the newsreel business, and his father was working as a camera operator with TV commercial crews. After interviewing for engineering-type corporate jobs during his senior year, Roizman decided it would be more rewarding to work as an assistant cameraman. He apprenticed with a cinematographer named Akos Farkas for a while. Roizman also crewed with Gerald Hirschfeld, ASC. His father Sol was the operator.
In 1961, after Roizman’s father died, Gordon Willis, ASC, became Hirschfeld’s camera operator. That was a crew for the ages. When Willis moved up to director of photography, Hirschfeld promoted Roizman to operator when he was only 27.
Within two years, Roizman was shooting for MPO, a top commercial production house in New York. In 1970, a director named Bill Gunn recruited him to shoot a feature called Stop. It was a slick piece of glossy camerawork filmed in Puerto Rico. Stop was never released, but Billy Friedkin saw some of the reels, and tapped Roizman to shoot The French Connection.
“I’ve told this story a million times,” says Roizman. ”This is exactly the way it happened. Billy said, ‘You’ve shot some nice commercials. It’s pretty stuff. All high key. But I want The French Connection to be a gritty, realistic, down and dirty, documentary-style film.’ He used adjectives like that, and asked, ‘Do you think you can do it?’”
“I said, ‘Why not? I’m a cinematographer. You tell me what you want, and I should be able to get it on film.’ I think he liked my spunk, and the rest is history.”
Roizman read the script, and he started thinking about some of the lighting challenges... the things he had never done before like shooting low-key scenes in a moving car at night. You didn’t shoot things like that in commercials in those days. He wanted it to be very realistic, so he recruited his wife to stand in for Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider. They went into the garage and blacked out the windows, so it was totally dark. She sat in the car, and he practiced lighting with just a few lamps.
“I thought of the situations I would be shooting, like close-ups of Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider in the car at night,” Roizman says. “I placed the lights and lit the scene to get a feeling for the mood. I didn’t shoot film. I just wanted to feel what it would be like.”
In a way, it was no different than spending those endless hours throwing a ball against a wall to develop his strength and skill as a pitcher.
Roizman recently agreed to take over as co-chair of the ASC Outstanding Achievement Awards Committee along with “Bud” Stone, the former president of DeLuxe Laboratories. It was a reunion of sorts. The first time their paths crossed, Stone was starting his career at a New York lab, while Roizman was an assistant cameraman at MPO.
Roizman is taking over for the venerable Phil Lathrop, ASC, the long-term co-chair of the awards committee who recently died. The volunteer committee organizes and stages the annual ASC Outstanding Achievement Awards event, which has become a major platform for fostering an appreciation for the art of cinematography, and for encouraging a quest for excellence. The 10th Annual ASC Outstanding Achievement Awards will be held on February 25 at the Century Plaza Hotel.
“I think it's important for cinematographers to recognize artistic achievements by their peers,” he says. “With the Oscar and Emmy awards, cinematographers who are peers are responsible for the nominations, but everyone who belongs to the Academies votes for the winners. The ASC awards are different. The selections are made by peers who recognize the difference between cinematography and scenery. That’s important for us.”
Roizman believes that the awards ceremony is also important, because it brings cinematographers and their crews together in one room, one night a year.
“There's a wonderful camaraderie,” he says. “One night a year, there's electricity in the air. We don’t often have that opportunity. That makes it a special night.”
Roizman says that the role played by the cinematographer is difficult for him to define in words.
“We all face the same thing. I don’t care how experienced or good you are,” he says. “You walk on the set and look around. You try to figure out what you're going to do to try to light something or to create some shot. There are times when all of us are dumbfounded. You ask yourself, ‘What l am I going to do now?’ Then you rely on your experience and instincts, and it starts happening. You try different tricks and techniques.
Roizman believes the role of the cinematographer is changing with the evolution of digital technology blurring the traditional line between production and postproduction. Witness his work on French Kiss, filmed in France with Kasdan. For that film, a train ride through the French countryside was actually filmed on a sound stage. Background film plates were digitally composited into the spaces where the windows were. It’s a seamless illusion. It looks and feels like the train is moving through the countryside.
‘It’s not black magic,” he says. “It’s like any other new tool. You have to understand its possibilities and how to use it. It gives you a lot of freedom on the set, because you don ‘t have to lock the camera down when you’re shooting the live-action elements of the composited scene. This alone adds a new dimension to your thinking. You can let your imagination run wild, and do things you never thought about doing before.”
Roizman explains that motion tracking software is used by the digital postproduction facility to adjust the compositing of background elements to match the angle of photography and camera movement in the foreground footage. At the computer workstation, colors, contrast and other image characteristics can be digitally manipulated to ensure that the visual consistency of composited images is seamless.
There’s the rub: “You can’t just delegate this to the visual effects facility, and hope they get it right,” Roizman says. “It’s part of the creative process. If you are going to be one of the authors of the film, with responsibility for creative lighting, you have to supervise digital post, or at least approve the results.”
Roizman recounts his first experience with digital filmmaking: “Originally, we were going to shoot on a train traveling through the countryside. We would have had to take over a train, and ride it back and forth through the countryside. That didn't make a lot of economic sense. I spoke with a traditional optical house, because I’ve shot a lot of blue screen composites in the past. I thought that might be a solution. They suggested using rear projection instead, because with optical blue screen, we’d have to lock the camera down while shooting foreground elements. It would look static and unnatural. Rear projection would allow us to move the camera within limitations. The other advantage is that I would be seeing what I was shooting, and it would probably cost less in the long run.”
But that suggestion didn’t prove to be feasible. One of the problems was finding a sound stage in Paris large enough to shoot rear projection scenes. Roizman points out that the projection screen would have to be a fair distance from the windows for the images to look realistic. Also, it probably would have required flying someone to Paris from the United States who was familiar with setting up and operating a rear projection system.
Roizman heard that Richard Yuricich, ASC, had shot a digital film test for a similar situation which occurs on a train in Under Siege 2: In Dark Territory. Yuricich shot the background plates in Colorado. He used the bus from Speed for the live action footage. The digital compositing was done at the Cinesite digital film center in Los Angeles.
After seeing that test, and conferring with Brad Kuehn and others at Cinesite, Roizman called Kasdan, and said that he had found the solution. In addition to the train sequence, there was a similar scene on an airplane. Both interiors were filmed on sets on a sound stage in France. Green screens were placed outside the windows of the train and airplane sets. The background plates were digitally composited.
Roizman suggested using two different effects houses to accommodate an extremely tight postproduction schedule. One handled the train sequence, and the other was responsible for the airplane scene.
“Each company sent a representative to consult with us while we were shooting,” he says. “They answered questions about getting the right balance of light on the background and also about camera movement. They didn’t stay the whole time. The process was pretty simple, but they approached it very differently. One effects company wanted the background to be about three-quarters of a stop under the foreground. The other advised us to expose the background up to two stops over the foreground.”
Roizman photographed the live-action elements, and a second unit crew filmed the background plates. One of the things Roizman had to do was match the interior light on the train set to what the audience could see through the window. He simulated northern light coming through the windows using soft light.
“The second unit crew was looking for bright exteriors, which were as scenic as possible,” he explains, “but there were times when there was no direct sunlight. We anticipated that could happen, and the interior scenes were lit to match that softer look.
“Unfortunately, I never saw the final composite work until it was too late. Frankly, I wasn’t thrilled with the airplane composites. I’m not blaming anyone, but everybody sees things differently. I lit to achieve a certain balance and mood. When someone else translates your work, it becomes a different image. It made me realize that the cinematographer must maintain control somehow right through to the final images, and get some kind of approval. It’s important for the cinematographer to see the images right through the final release prints. It’s no different than supervising timing or telecine transfers. It's part of the creative process, and it should be in our contract.”
In all, there was about 10 minutes of day and night scenes on the train in the final cut. Roizman also created what he called “a poor man’s process shot” to suggest that the train was moving at night. Two tracks were laid down outside the windows of the train, at different distances. There was a black background behind them. Roizman set some small lights on the tracks, and he moved them at different speeds. It created the illusion that the train itself was moving past the lights. It also created a visual sensation of depth of field.
Roizman credits a prop man on his French crew with creating the rig which made possible the illusion of the train moving at night.
“Film is a unique art form in the sense that no one person can express himself or herself alone,” he says. “You rely on a lot of unsung heroes. It's not like an artist painting a picture where it’s just him and the easel. There are 100 people I rely on.”
Roizman notes that while much attention is being focused on the digital film revolution, recent years have brought cinematographers many other new tools.
“Every new tool affects what you do,” he says. “It's like having another paintbrush, or another color to use if you're painting a picture. If you get another color gel, a different lens, or a new film that sees shadows differently or enables you to use more natural light, it enhances your creative choices if only in subtle ways. Sometimes, the art is in the subtleties. We have better tools today, but you still have to be an artist to use them.”
Roizman brought operator Rob Hahn, gaffer Tom Stern and assistant cameraman Alan Disler with him, and the rest of his crew was French. Stern and Hahn were bilingual, and a number of people on the French crew spoke English. There were no communications problems.
French Kiss was photographed in anamorphic format.
“It was an automatic decision,” says Roizman. “Larry (Kasdan) and I are in total agreement. There are people who shoot in 1.85:1 format to accommodate the home video release. We believe in shooting for the big screen. Sometimes we’ll joke that if two people are at opposite ends of the frame, only one of them will be on the video cassette, but you can’t compromise with composition if you’re shooting a movie.”
French Kiss is basically about two people in a relationship. Why does that call for a wide-screen format? Roizman believes it’s a matter of getting a lot more information on film. The wider frame also provides space for creating more interesting compositions.
“What you're doing is capturing the environment, “he says. “It’s more than scenery or landscapes. The human eye covers around a 270 degree angle when you include peripheral vision. If you have two people sitting in a room, the space between them and the size and shape of the room are all part of the story. In the anamorphic format, you can capture that area in addition to showing how close or far they are from one another. I don't care if it's an intimate picture like French Kiss or a Western. The right format helps to differentiate cinema from television. When you are in a theater, it should feel cinematic.”
He chose to shoot French Kiss with the Panavision E-series anamorphic lenses, because there are a fair number of Steadicam shots. The E-series are more compact than PRIMO anamorphic lenses, and they’re about as fast. He used them for both Steadicam and other live-action photography. This meant he only had to carry one set of lenses.
Early in the French Kiss filming, Roizman used the Eastman EXR 5293 film for daylight exteriors. But, he quickly decided to shift to the faster 5298 film, which gave him about the same look in terms of grain, contrast and color rendition, in addition to pulling a deeper stop. From that point forward, he mainly used the 5298 film, even for day-light exteriors. Why? It was a creative decision to pull deeper stops and allow us to shoot later in the day. It looked and felt right to him.
Roizman is often asked the Willy Loman question by emerging or wanna-be cinematographers. Do you remember Willy, the fading salesman in Arthur Miller’s classic story, The Death of a Salesman? Willy begged the ghost of his dead uncle to reveal the secret of his success. Roizman says that he is truly amazed by the large numbers of talented people entering the field. How do you tell them that talent alone isn’t enough? Metaphorically, you have to spend a lot of hours throwing the ball against the wall. Still, in the end, says Roizman, it requires a great deal of luck, especially getting started.
He closes the conversation with this story: “When I was nominated for an Oscar for The French Connection, I couldn’t believe it. I thought I was fooling everyone. You know, I still feel that way. In fact, when I was nominated for the fifth time for Wyatt Earp, the first thing my wife said was, ‘Well, you fooled them again.”
Heading West with Wyatt Earp
by Stephen Pizzello
(The article originally appeared in American Cinematographerin June 1994.)
It is well past sundown,and a quiet calm prevails on the dimly lit streets of Tombstone, a Western town once plagued by lawlessness and the mercenary whims of gun-toting desperadoes. Since the arrival of a badge-for-hire named Wyatt Earp, Main Street has been made safe again. On this particular evening, however the strapping deputy sheriff is headed to a local hotel, where Doc Holliday a newcomer of notorious renown, is embroiled in a bitter boudoir feud with Big Nose Kate, a lady friend of equal infamy.
Striding into the hotel’s lobby, Earp is directed toward the second floor by a group of jittery citizens. As he mounts the stairs a gunshot rings out; his instincts kicking in, Earp grips the balustrade and bounds toward the trouble. Before he reaches the landing, however, a cry of “Cut!” pierces the air, stopping him in mid-stride.
In the moments that follow a hubbub of activity disrupts the illusion of the Old West. The “hotel” is once again reduced to a frigid film set, made marginally more hospitable by an array of strategically placed space heaters. As the parka-clad crew attends to the secondary actors and props director Lawrence Kasdan and his star Kevin Costner confer about the scene’s blocking. Cinematographer Owen Roizman, ASC, chomping on a cigar that protrudes from a beard cultivated for extra warmth, takes advantage of the break to adjust a group of soft lights that hang over the hotel’s entryway. A short time later, Costner is once again clambering up the staircase.
Budgeted at $65 million and slated to run over three hours in length, Wyatt Earp is Warner Bros.’ best bid for a summer blockbuster. Shot mainly in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the film covers most of Earp’s life from his teen years to late middle-age. Contrary to most previous screen treatments of the legendary lawman, the story paints a warts-and-all portrait of a conflicted man whose life included bouts of alcoholism and criminality. In addition to Costner the cast features Dennis Quaid (as Doc Holliday), Isabella Rossellini (Big Nose Kate), Gene Hackman (as Wyatt’s father), Mark Harmon, Michael Madsen, JoBeth Williams, Catherine O’Hara, Adam Baldwin, Betty Buckley, Jeff Fahey, Tom Sizemore and Mare Winningham.
As filming of the hotel sequence wraps, Roizman concedes that the film’s grueling schedule and the recent November weather conditions in Santa Fe (well below zero with wind chill factored in) have made the last weeks of shooting an arduous approach to the finish line. “Most people would think that a 113-day schedule was pretty liberal, but every day was packed,” he maintains. “Before the picture started, I went over the schedule with the assistant director, Steve Dunn, and we just laughed at a couple of the days because we knew they were impossible to make. But as we went along, we found out that we were actually doing it.”
One of the reasons the filmmakers were able to hew to deadlines was their determination to shoot in any and all weather conditions. Roizman reports that the production went just eight days over schedule, losing only half a day to the elements when a torrential downpour hit during a lunch hour. The cinematographer adds that his director issued an additional time saving edict before shooting began. “Larry, the editor (Carol Littleton), the script supervisor (Anne Rapp) and I made a pact at the beginning of the film that we would not worry about matching,” he says. “Larry’s experience was that in all of the great films he’d ever loved, he could see that a lot of stuff didn’t match, but it didn’t take away from his enjoyment. If we hadn’t done it that way, we never would have stayed on schedule. So occasionally we’d find ourselves shooting a scene in the middle of the day, with bright overhead sunlight, and finishing when the sun was going down - sometimes when it was already down. A couple of times, I even found myself shooting night-for-day. It would be pitch black out, and I’d be lighting shots that we had done during the afternoon, just so we could finish the day’s work. Other cinematographers will notice that some things don’t match, but I don’t think the general audience will ever know the difference. It was something I just had to live with.”
Wyatt Earp marks the third collaboration between Roizman and Kasdan, following I Love You to Death and Grand Canyon. Roizman has been nominated for four Academy Awards (The French Connection, The Exorcist, Network and Tootsie), and has also overseen principal photography on such films as The Heartbreak Kid, Play It Again Sam, The Taking of Pelham 123, Three Days of the Condor, The Return of a Man Called Horse, Straight Time, Absence of Malice and The Addams Family.
Given this distinguished list of credits, one would assume that Roizman has always harbored a yen for filmmaking. Not so; the Brooklyn-born cinematographer insists that his first love was baseball. “My father (Sol Roizman) was a cinematographer, my sister was a script supervisor, and my uncle was an editor,” he says. “But all through high school and college, I was a baseball player - that was my dream.”
A promising pitcher, Roizman’s shot at hardball glory ended when he developed a sore arm. After graduating from Pennsylvania’s Gettysburg College with a B.A. in Math and Physics, he considered becoming a physicist, mathematician or engineer, but instead decided to try working as an assistant cameraman. He first trained with New York-based cameraman Akos Farkos (“a Hungarian cameraman from the old school”) and then moved on to work closely with Gerald Hirschfeld, ASC. His association with Hirschfeld led to commercial work and the low-budget feature Stop (1969). Shortly thereafter, he shot the classic police drama The French Connection, which established his reputation overnight.
“When The French Connection came out, everybody labeled me as this gritty New York street photographer, “ he recounts. It wasn’t until later, when I’d done several other very different projects that people realized I could do other things. I know I’ve gotten slicker but I still have the same basic philosophy: I like realism and I like light sources. I don’t want it to look like a documentary but I don’t go too far in the other direction either.”
He adhered to those principles on Wyatt Earp, hoping to stake out new visual terrain in a genre that has been covered from every conceivable angle in an endless array of styles. Seeking to make a unique contribution to cowboy cinema, Roizman screened every Western he could find on laserdisc or tape. He also delved deeply into the history books, sifting through reams of information about Earp himself and the period in which he’d lived. “I wanted to familiarize myself with what it was like so I could start to formulate my own pictures of what it might have looked like,” he states. “I didn’t necessarily want to copy anything from the films I watched; if anything, I wanted to go against what had been done and make this different than any Western ever shot. I don’t know if I succeeded but that was my goal. Of course, my job was made that much easier by the people I worked with. When you have the kind of palette I was given by [production designer] Ida Random, [set dresser] Cheryl Carasik and [costume designer] Colleen Atwood it makes the job that much easier and more enjoyable.”
As he studied the work of others, Roizman began to feel that his favored approach-realism-would ironically be something of a departure. “Strangely general, I stayed true to my sources.”
Roizman also kept filtration to a minimum. He points out that one of the most picturesque and authentic-looking Westerns, Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC), still had a heavily diffused look. “I used some filtration but it’s so subtle I don’t think you’ll notice it,” he says. “I had a plan for the way the film should look in general. I thought the interiors should be very warm, with lighting from the candles and
kerosene lamps, and very dark when possible. I felt that the day exteriors should be bright, dusty, smoky and overexposed. I wanted the evenings-especially sunsets-to have a very rich, natural quality, with beautiful skies. On the other hand, I let the daytime skies blow out. And at night, it was just dark. We had some lamps working, but the only other source I had was the moonlight. So I always tried to play a little bit of blue moonlight someplace. It’s a tricky thing to do, because if you overdo the blue it becomes very obtrusive. I thought it helped to counteract the warmth, though; if you have too much warmth all the time, it starts to look muddy.”
If a scene was too contrasty, the cinematographer says he would “knock it down” with Tiffen’s UltraCons and SoftCons. His only other indulgence was to occasionally add a black ProMist to the lens.
Roizman was also careful in his choice of film stocks. Rather than using Kodak’s richer 5245 or 5248 stocks for day exteriors, he opted for the new 5293. “I felt that it had a little less color saturation, and it wasn’t as contrasty. It’s a subtle difference, but I felt that it desaturated just enough for me during the day scenes, so I could capture that ‘older’ feeling. The one thing we didn’t want to do was to get into any sepia-type stuff; I just printed slightly on the warm side. We did try to get a more orangey look for the night exteriors, because I felt that’s the way it would have looked.”
When shooting interiors and night exteriors, Roizman went with Eastman’s higher-speed 5296. “I found that stock to be extraordinary, because I also used it when the light went down at the end of the day,” he says. “I often threw it on, sometimes without an 85 [filter,] to continue a scene we’d started earlier. It’s a terrific-looking film at that time of the day. I didn’t want to use it in the middle of the day, because I didn’t think it would match exactly right, but I gladly would use it at the beginning or the end of the day, when the light was so low that you could hardly see. That film sees in the dark, and I got some fantastic results with it. We shot some scenes when there was just no light left at all. 1 have a digital meter, and the meter was telling me, ‘It’s time to go home.’ The film often allowed us to do another take for performance, and when we saw those takes in the screening room it was just amazing how much light and detail there was. It perfectly matched what we’d done earlier.”
On more than one occasion, however, shot-to-shot matching was made more difficult by the fact that the crew often covered scenes with multiple cameras. This strategy is frequently employed on action-heavy adventure yarns, but Roizman points out that Wyatt Earp, despite the conventions of its genre and the inevitable inclusion of the bullet-fest at the O.K. Corral, is a more story and character driven picture. According to the cinematographer, the filmmakers opted to use multiple cameras primarily to save time. He notes, however, that the benefits to the schedule were offset by some difficult aesthetic considerations. “In order to accommodate the multiple cameras, I couldn’t be as careful with some of the lighting as I wanted to be,” he admits. “I occasionally would have to illuminate for a wide shot and a close-up at the same time. Sometimes we even cross-shot different scenes; the cameras would be looking almost back at each other, which is a nightmare for lighting. To counter that, I tried to get an overall look so I could shoot in almost any direction and still have the same feeling.”
The multiple cameras also caused some problems during exterior scenes, which frequently required the film’s special effects crew to try to control the dust effects Roizman added for atmosphere. “There’s a danger to that approach, of course, and controlling dust in an area like Santa Fe is even more difficult because the weather is so turbulent; it changes every few minutes,” he relates. “Because of the natural dust, we had water trucks come through to wet the streets down so we could work. At other times, we had to make our own dust. We had scenes where we put dust in, and it was just right, but all of a sudden the wind would come up and blow it out or change the direction Thank God I had Bert Dalton and his special-effects gang; those guys were great at controlling the dust. They used fans and little handheld machines, but to keep it looking consistent was still very difficult The same thing went for smoke; in those days, people were always burning things for heat, and cooking on little stoves outside. I had to try to remember from shot to shot what was happening. It would have been a lot easier with one camera; working with two cameras from different angles made it twice as hard. We did the best we could, and all we can hope is that it cuts together.”
The epic sweep of the story was enhanced by the use of the wide-screen anamorphic format. The A and B units (consisting of A cameraman Bill Roe; B cameraman Ian Fox; A camera first assistant Alan Disler; B camera assistants Jeffrey Gershman and Tony Rivetti; second assistants Mike Raspa and Eric Roizman; and loader Mike Martinez) worked with Panavision Platinum and Gold cameras, respectively; Roizman’s lenses of choice were Primo primes and Cooke’s 10:1 and 5:1 zooms. He reports that he tailored his photography to the usual characteristics associated with anamorphic, especially the format’s reputation for a decreased depth of field. “We always had enough depth on the people, and as far as the background was concerned, I didn’t care,” Roizman explains. “It never seemed to bother me if things were out of focus in the background, and I never felt that they were that far out, because we didn’t do that many close-ups in the picture. Larry and I decided, especially in light of our research, that in the biggest feeling films we’d ever seen, the close-ups were never that close, and were used judiciously to heighten their impact. For a general close-up, we never got that close, although we still called it a ‘close-up’. It may not work as well on a television set, but on the large screen that approach gives everything a bigger feeling.”
This strategy of restraint also aided Roizman in his attempts to “age” Kevin Costner photographically, by allowing him to keep the camera back a bit. Costner himself goes through three transitions, although there are four overall (Ian Bohen plays the teenaged Wyatt). “The first time you see Kevin, he’s supposed to be 21 years old, and let’s face it, as good as he looks, it’s a conceit for us to think he looks 21,” Roizman says with a wry smile, risking the wrath of his star and fellow filmmaker. “However, Kevin did a great job in the acting, and I tried to light so you wouldn’t see many wrinkles in his face. I tried to get fill light into his face and under his eyes to light out the few wrinkles there were and make his skin look even smoother. I approached it the way I approach lighting for women. With women, it depends on the shape of the face. If they have a rounder face, I might half-light them to make their face look narrower; if they have a thin face, I might front-light to make the face look a little broader.
“There are several women in this picture, but at the outset there were only two whom I really felt I had to flatter-Wyatt’s first wife and second wife. The other women were supposed to be whores or plain Janes who weren’t supposed to look too good. The toughest one to do that with was Isabella [Rossellini.] Her character, Big Nose Kate, is supposed to be a notorious prostitute and a bitch on wheels, and she played it really tough. Larry and I agreed we shouldn’t make her look glamorous. I took the same approach with the other women. They always seemed happy at dailies, though, so it worked out O.K.”
Roizman took a rougher approach to Costner during the portion of the film in which Earp becomes an alcoholic troublemaker. “At that point, I let a lot of things go,” he says. “I also tried to shoot him from higher angles when he was down in his doldrums. Later, after he’s recovered, he puts a moustache on, and has more character in his face. During that section the film, I always wanted him to look strong, so I shot him a lot from low angles. Kevin is a big guy, and he’s pretty dynamic onscreen, so I didn’t have to do a lot to help him out. But I tried to add whatever subtleties I could.”
The cinematographer resisted the urge to exaggerate the gaunt, weatherbeaten look of Doc Holliday, who suffered from tuberculosis. Actor Dennis Quaid donned makeup and reportedly lost 40 pounds for the role, and Roizman felt that additional photographic enhancements were unnecessary. “I didn’t do anything to accentuate Holliday’s illness or make him look especially bad. I just tried to make him look interesting; to give him a quality of light that always lent his face some character. Dennis even came over to me at the end of the picture and told me, ‘I think your lighting enhanced the performances.’ It was a nice compliment.”
In his desire to fully exploit the anamorphic frame, Roizman shied away from his usual proclivity for long lenses. “Basically, we were on wider lenses, so the background was never that soft even at 2-8,” he says. “On the exteriors, I was working just the opposite of what I might normally do, which is to open up to about 5.6, or 8, to use the best part of the lens. I found myself shooting mostly at 16 outside. I never would stop down past 16, even if the light said 32, I’d just overexpose it two stops.”
While the cinematographer maintains that the picture offered more than its share of technical brain-twisters, several scenes proved to be especially rigorous. Roizman says that the camera was constantly on the move, and cites a nighttime Steadicam sequence as being one of the trickiest lighting setups of his career.
The scene in question begins in a local jail cell, where a prisoner is peering out of his window; on the streets beyond the bars, flickering lights indicate the approach of a lynch mob. The prisoner shouts for Earp, who’s on guard duty, to save him. The camera glides from the jail cell to Earp, who straps on his gun and heads outside to confront the mob. As the crowd arrives at the jailhouse steps, the camera circles behind the angry citizens to face Wyatt-an arc of roughly 270 degrees.
To achieve this sweeping move, Roizman invoked a bit of old-fashioned ingenuity. “I used a lot of overhead light, and hid some fixtures behind windows,” he reveals. “We also had a firebar on pipes off to the side to augment the torches when the mob got close at the end. The torches basically lit the people, but the street had to be lit in such a way that it didn’t overpower the torches. I had to work at a stop that allowed me to get all of this light in and have it balance. I shot it all at 2.8. I’d been working at 2.8 for most of the picture, and I found that to balance against the little practicals we were using-to simulate candles, and so forth-2.8 worked the best for me. During this particular sequence, I thought about stopping down to 2.3 or 2, but I didn’t because I wanted the lens to resolve a little better. Rusty Geller was the Steadicam operator, and he did a terrific job on a very tough shot.”
As for the O.K. Corral sequence, Roizman is able to sum up his approach in one word, “coverage.” Kasdan wanted to recreate the gunfight as accurately as possible, right down to its actual duration (20 to 30 seconds) and location (an alley beside Fly’s Photography, which was in front of the corral itself). “It took us about five days to shoot the sequence,” Roizman says. “We spent most of our time on the buildup, as the Earps walk toward the corral. We did a lot of coverage-shooting from up high on rooftops, from half a block away over a woman’s shoulder from behind the Earps, in individual close-ups and close-ups of the guns and faces, and with a Steadicam. We used smoke and dust the whole time, and the light changed dramatically each day from the beginning of shooting till the end; it was really difficult to match things, but Larry’s theory was that each shot would be so quick you’d never see the difference. We were shooting with two cameras, sometimes three, plus the Steadicam. The master shot took 20 to 30 seconds, so it’s exactly accurate.”
While shooting the film’s climax, set at a train station in Chama, New Mexico, Roizman found himself changing his technique to suit Mother Nature-and being pleasantly surprised by the results. Bent on avenging the murder of his younger brother Morgan, who has been killed by the surviving baddies from the corral shootout, Earp hops aboard the train carrying the coffin, accompanied by his friend Doc Holliday. When the locomotive arrives at the train station, Earp and Holliday engage in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with Morgan’s killers, who are lying in wait for them.
“There’s a big buildup from inside the train as it’s pulling in,” Roizman elaborates. “When Wyatt arrives at the station, we played the scene with a lot of steam from the trains. We created a lot of silhouettes, lighting up the steam from behind and having the actors walk through the white areas, adding little flashes of light to show a bit of their faces. I played the steam very bluish to make it a bit more ominous-looking as the guys are looking under the trains and hunting for each other.”
At a high point in the sequence, Wyatt shoots a man between two trains, one of which is moving. To stage the shot, the moving train had to be backed up and restarted repeatedly. “Executing that sequence was very dangerous, because the trains were close together, it was cold, and there was a lot of steam and soot,” Roizman notes.
After three nights of shooting, the cinematographer’s job was made tougher when it began to rain. “It rained for about half the night on the fourth night, but Larry didn’t want to stop shooting,” he says. “He said to me, ‘Find a way to do it so we don’t see the rain.’ So I had to change my whole lighting style. On the last night of the sequence, it poured steadily all night long, but the production company still didn’t want to stop. Instead of working with backlight, I decided to use reflections, silhouettes in reflections, half-lights and tricks like that. This made things especially tough for my gaffer, Ian Kincaid, who had to reroute a lot of the equipment, and my key grip, Tim Ryan, who had to protect everything from the rain. But it worked out great; the sequence might not have been as dynamic if I’d done all of it the way I’d originally intended.”
Reflecting upon his deep involvement in the project, Roizman says that he was happy to have the chance to learn more about the Old West and Earp himself. “Most stories about Wyatt Earp-including My Darling Clementine, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and The Hour of the Gun-focus on the gunfight, with a fictional orientation that makes Wyatt into a big hero,” he points out. “Earp was a legend, but there’s a lot of controversy. Many of the history books portray him as a very bad guy, claiming that he and his brothers were criminals and that the gunfight wasn’t a fair fight. They were actually arrested after the gunfight and tried, but were freed.
“In our film, there’s a scene at the end that poses a question about how much of the story was truth and how much was fiction. It’s left open. In terms of the story, this is probably going to be a very dark picture.”