Thomas E. Ackerman, ASC was born and raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where his father was a projectionist at a local theatre. He took some film classes in filmmaking while earning a degree in theater art at the University of Iowa. He served a stint in the United States Air Force during the Vietnam War, documenting combat and creating films.
After completing his military service obligation, Ackerman spent several years in Washington, D.C., working as a cameraman with Charles Guggenheim on political documentaries and commercials. He migrated to Los Angeles in 1978, and set up a television commercial business. Ackerman also shot many music videos at the dawn of the MTV age.
After qualifying for Guild membership, Ackerman chose to spend a number of years as a camera operator, working with some of the industry’s seminal cinematographers, including Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC and Joe Biroc, ASC. He earned his first mainstream narrative credit in 1984 for Frankenweenie.
Ackerman's credits include Anchor Man: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Beetlejuice, True Identity, Are We There Yet?, Dennis
the Menace, Jumanji, Balls of Fury, George of the Jungle, My Favorite
Martian, The Muse, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Rat Race,
Snow Dogs, the upcoming Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star, and the Project Greenlight film, The Battle of Shaker Heights.
(Published August 23, 2003)
(Updated August 17, 2010)
Thomas E. Ackerman, ASC was born and raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where his father was a projectionist at a local theatre. He took some film classes in filmmaking while earning a degree in theater art at the University of Iowa. He served a stint in the United States Air Force during the Vietnam War, documenting combat and creating films. After completing his military service obligation, Ackerman spent several years in Washington, D.C., working as a cameraman with Charles Guggenheim on political documentaries and commercials. He migrated to Los Angeles in 1978, and set up a television commercial business. Ackerman also shot many music videos at the dawn of the MTV age. After qualifying for Guild membership, Ackerman chose to spend a number of years as a camera operator, working with some of the industry’s seminal cinematographers, including Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC and Joe Biroc, ASC. He earned his first mainstream narrative credit in 1984 for Frankenweenie. Ackerman has subsequently compiled some 25 credits, including Beetlejuice, True Identity, Dennis the Menace, Jumanji, George of the Jungle, My Favorite Martian, The Muse, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Rat Race, Snow Dogs, the upcoming Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star, and the recent Project Greenlight film, The Battle of Shaker Heights. Ackerman is currently working on Anchor Man: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.
Following are excerpts of a conversation:
ICG: Where were you born and raised?
ACKERMAN: I was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. My dad was among other things, a projectionist at the local theater. He was also an avid railroad model builder. He built a business of constructing and selling car kits to enthusiasts via mail order across the country. There’s no doubt that my experiences hanging out at the theater and spending a lot of time in the projection booth inevitably had a lot to do with how I felt about movies. That was my view of the world. I probably saw every movie that came to town. My mom would take me down the theater when I was a little kid. I would sit in the manager’s office, which was right next door to the projection booth. It had a large bay window that opened up to the theater. I could sit at his desk and look at the films on the screen. That was my childhood growing up in a medium-sized, demographically very average Midwestern town. I didn’t have any sense of how films were made. All I could see was that they came on reels encased in these massive metal-shipping containers. The ritual was that the new film would come, and the old containers would be stacked outside the theater ready to be picked up. One of the employees would get up on a tall stepladder and change the marquee with large plastic letters. It had to be done manually and reset every time a new show came to town. I guess because I saw the reels of film being threaded and spliced, the projectors being fired up, and the sound of the film chattering through them, I was more aware than most people that these weren’t just some sort of magical image streams that came out of nowhere. Somebody had to be making them.
ICG: Were you a photography or home movie fan?
ACKERMAN: I made a lot of movies as a kid. I was fortunate to have a good friend, Mike Collins, whose dad had a 16 mm Bolex Camera. I remember a trip we took to Florida. They had a boat that they kept at a marina. It was a rainy day when there wasn’t much to do, so we decided to make a movie with the Bolex. I think we had two rolls of film. We had a stuffed toy alligator from a souvenir shop, and used it to make a horror film during the course of an afternoon. It wasn’t very good, but it led to all kinds of other filmmaking experiences, if you want to be so charitable as to call them that. We also made bogus commercials. We got the neighborhood kids together every summer and usually made a film or two, either in 16 or 8 mm film. Everybody would pool their money to buy the film. We’d drag some wardrobe items out of the closet. I recall one World War II epic that we shot. The story revolved around a small group of GIs who were deep behind enemy lines and had to fight their way out. We nominated one of our friends to play the part of a Japanese soldier who was unfortunate enough to be in a pillbox that takes a direct hit. He comes out aflame. We wrapped his torso in aluminum foil, added a couple layers of T-shirts, which were soaked in lighter fluid. He also wore a uniform, which was also soaked in lighter fluid. We rolled camera and torched him. He was a human fireball. We got the shot and rolled him on the grass to put out the flames. It was a horrifying spectacle for the parents who were in the audience at the premiere, but nobody said, what were you thinking? That was so dangerous. It was just a more trusting time.
ICG: Where did you go to school?
ACKERMAN: I went to the University of Iowa. We didn’t have a film school, but there were motion picture and television production courses, which were part of the department of speech and dramatic arts. I got a liberal arts education with a major in theater. Our facilities were fairly well equipped for that time. We had a little soundstage, an ARRI S camera and a blimp. We even had a little stage crane. It was probably the only one in the state at that time. We had halfway decent lighting equipment and a wonderful film laboratory on the campus. It was there primarily to service the university, which had a motion picture production unit shooting sports and educational movies for the school. There was a great old guy who ran the lab. He was an ex-high school chemistry teacher who didn’t know anything about movies. His name was Gene Jones. He inspired a lot of us, because this was our first chance to come to grips with the consequences of what we were doing. He’d say, ‘You guys can run around with the cameras and lights, but here’s the reality. You’ve got a strip of film, and it’s either well exposed or poorly exposed. Here’s a densitometer. Let’s see what you’ve done. If you want a decent looking print, you’ve got to learn the craft.’
ICG: That sounds like a pretty important experience.
ACKERMAN: I credit the Iowa experience with planting an awful lot of seeds that took root later in my life. If I hadn’t had the opportunity to take those courses, I’m not sure what my alternatives would have been. At the same time, it wasn’t really industry oriented like the film schools at USC or UCLA. We didn’t have guest speakers or visiting professors but it was still a great opportunity. I went on to a staff job with the motion picture unit at the university for a year. I’m eternally grateful for that experience at Iowa University.
ICG: Where did you go from Iowa University?
ACKERMAN: It was a state university and every male freshman had to take either a year of Air Force or Army ROTC. When I finished at Iowa, I went into the Air Force as an officer specializing in motion picture production. I reported for duty to the 1365th Photographic Squadron in Orlando, Florida, where I spent a couple of years working on training films. I was assigned to the 600th Photo Squadron at Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base in Saigon during the war in Viet Nam, and later I was reassigned as a detachment commander at Takhli Royal Thai Air Base in Thailand, where we operated a unit that had a number of missions including combat documentation. We had a motion picture lab and a still photo lab in support of the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing. I spent the last six months of my time in the service at Norton Air Force Base in California, which was set up as a motion picture production studio. At the end of my tour, I really had a lot of useful experience and met a lot of people who I would ultimately cross paths with again.
ICG: What happened after you were discharged?
ACKERMAN: After I got out, I worked for Charles Guggenheim, the great documentary filmmaker in Washington, D.C. for three years. Afterwards, Mike Robe, who I met in the Air Force, and I got together and formed a little company in Los Angeles. Our first projects were supermarket commercials for various ad agencies in the Midwest. We also shot numerous documentaries for the USIA, worked on after-school specials, and just about anything else we could get. During the mid- to late 1970s, Hollywood was a closed shop. It was very difficult to get into the unions, so work for the studios and TV networks was pretty well locked up. Commercial production was also mainly controlled by just a handful of large companies, which did the lion’s share of the work. If you were a couple of guys from the Midwest without any inside contacts, it was a somewhat daunting scene.
ICG: I want to take a step back. How did you hook up with Charles Guggenheim?
ACKERMAN: Charles Guggenheim was also a graduate of the University of Iowa. I think he graduated in 1947 or ’48. He was perhaps one of the most respected American documentary filmmakers ever. He was nominated for several Academy Awards, and I believe he walked off with the Oscar at least three times. I got to work with Charles because of an Air Force friend who had hired on as his production manager. When I got out of the Air Force I was hired as a production assistant. I started working with Charles in early 1970. It was a rude awakening in a way because I was a college graduate, and I had just been discharged from the Air Force as a captain. Suddenly, I was maybe a half-a-step above the guy they sent for coffee. I did virtually everything. I carried film to and from the lab and to the airport. They were located in this horrendous old building at the corner of 17th and H streets. I spent a lot of time in the basement packing equipment for the various location shoots that Guggenheim did. After the first few months, I started shooting film for Charles, and quickly became his principal cinematographer. I also did a lot of film editing. Charles was doing political commercials for a lot of interesting candidates, including Ted Kennedy and Walter Mondale. My last work for him was on the McGovern campaign.
ICG: What are some of your memories of that time?
ACKERMAN: It’s a pretty long list. Charles was a great believer in cinema verite. He felt the best material would be that which was the most truthful and the most honestly obtained. I have vivid memories of spending 10 to 12 hours a day with an Éclair NPR camera glued to my shoulder with magazine after magazine passing through it. I think my record was shooting 12,000 feet in a single day. I remember that the motor was getting hot. I suppose it’s a little misleading to say that the style was cinema verite, because obviously in the editorial process you are recreating the moment to the point where the text becomes the message. But I must say that in contrast to some of his counterparts doing political media at the time, Charles was pretty much of a purist. He also refused to shoot films for any candidate in whom he didn’t personally believe. I probably learned as much editing for Charles as I did shooting.
Often, cinematographers are so enamored of what we see through the lens that we neglect thinking about what it means. Not that every picture has to have a meaning, but certainly if filmmaking is a language of images, then you need some grasp on how the images go together. Charles Guggenheim could be very tough. He was relentless in his pursuit of something that made sense and that conveyed what he believed to be the truth. He was very quick to detect gratuitous cutting just for cutting’s sake.
ICG: Why did you decide it was time to move to Los Angeles?
ACKERMAN: I think I became kind of disillusioned with the lack of control in that that type of documentary shooting. It seemed that every time you prepared a shot with an eye toward the quality of the image, the interesting thing we had to shoot would happen on the opposite side of the room in a dark, dingy corner. I wanted to make films where we had the resources and the time to create interesting photography…having said that, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Shooting documentaries is hugely instructive. If nothing else, it exposes you to the real world. I think that’s enormously important for any cinematographer. Secondly, it takes you through a range of experiences that you probably wouldn’t have had any other opportunity to obtain. It takes you through a range of emotions that are harder to find, on a sound stage, because they’re real. We all hope to make films that will in some small way impact other people’s lives—at least that’s the dream. It also made me just enormously grateful when finally I could work with some real equipment instead of just three little 1K open-face quartz lights. I must say though, sometimes I wonder if we don’t have too many toys and distractions today. Sometimes, I find myself wanting to get back to the basics now, much more now than I ever did before.
ICG: Tell us more about the business you set up in Los Angeles.
ACKERMAN: We set up our company in what used to be called the Animation Center. It’s where the Post Group is now on Homewood Avenue. We literally went to Abby Rents and got a sofa, a couple of chairs, a table and two desks. We were so incredibly naïve. If you can believe this, we made cold calls. ‘Hi, we’re a new production company, and we’d like to tell you about ourselves.’ Remarkably enough, things began to happen. It was sheer luck in many ways. We had this base of supermarket commercials that provided a little bit of cash flow. Through serendipity, we achieved momentum. We were in business for seven years, and we steadily grew. We wound up having a small staff and never missed a payroll. We were successful creatively, as well. I think a lot of it had to do with picking the right partner. And good luck.
The first year was probably the scariest, because in-between jobs it got very quiet. The phone was not ringing off the hook. It wasn’t until 1978 during the so-called open season when people like myself, who had not apprenticed in the studio system, were given an opportunity to document our work and get on what was called the industry experience roster. It was an enormous breakthrough. Looking back now, I think many of us just didn’t know how the deck was stacked. It was just as well that we didn’t know the odds because if had we been aware that the chances of statistically surviving were pathetically low, I’m not sure that we would have taken the first step.
ICG: Didn’t you also get into music videos?
ACKERMAN: Music videos were an important part of what helped me turn the corner. MTV was just getting started, and it provided one of the first viable options for producing material for network television. It was one of the first really receptive, in fact demanding venues for new talent directing and cinematography. By then, I was shooting mainstream commercials, but everything was locked into a soft and beautiful Norman Rockwell ‘ain’t life grand’ look. MTV demanded an edgier look because the artists that were being put on film demanded that—their work personified that. It was a riskier kind of cinematography and there wasn’t money to do it properly. You were invariably confronted with doing two or three days work in one brutally long 18 to 24 hour day. It was like a war zone. At some point, after 20 or 22 hours of shooting, you’re functioning on adrenaline and grasping at straws to try to complete the work before everybody falls over. You are still trying to fulfill your initial high aspirations. There was a lot of, ‘we can’t do it with five lights. We’ve got to do it with one. We can’t do the last 10 shots in six hours. We’ve got to do them in one hour.’ We did whatever we had to do. But there’s no doubt that for myself and for so many others, music videos were an essential part of our growth. They took us to new places, and taught us new ways of seeing things… sometimes by accident.
ICG: Give us an example of a happy accident.
ACKERMAN: I did a lot of work with the likes of Stevie Nicks, Heart, Pat Benatar and Linda Ronstadt. It got me on a certain path of doing videos for female artists. Probably because of the way I approached lighting their performances. After a while, the budgets had grown and we had the resources to go out with a decent lighting package and crew size. The hours were long but at the end of the day, you had enough tools to make it happen. The real innovations tended to happen with lesser name groups. I remember one huge night shoot with multiple location moves. There was really no way to do it, so I just said, ‘Put a 10K on the insert car. We’ll move the camera and you drive the light around to wherever we need it.’ We just had that one big light, but at least we could quickly maneuver it to wherever we needed it. We just sort of played a game of tag. The camera would move, the light on the insert car would move a couple of blocks to the next place, and we’d shoot that. That taught one light is enough if you put it in the right place, and two lights would probably be too many. That helped me see the need for simplicity.
ICG: How many videos did you actually shoot?
ACKERMAN: Probably a 100 or more, sometimes, two or three in one shoot.
ICG: How do you think the experiences of documentaries, commercials and music videos influenced you later on as a narrative filmmaker?
ACKERMAN: It’s interesting to think of how my documentary work, when combined with the music videos, might have caused me to pursue shooting movies in a different way. Certainly, as I said earlier, working in documentaries, rightly or wrongly, puts your sensibilities in a different place. What you’re trying to do in a documentary is explain or advance a concept. Music videos are purely experiential. Obviously, they’re marketing tools; otherwise no record company would ever pay for them. But the aim is to create a film experience which grows out of the music, which, frankly, is what I found so compelling. There was just the music and the artists, and that led to some pretty fuzzy logic. I remember director Marty Callner, who was a quintessential rock ‘n’ roll guy. We’d have pre-production brainstorming sessions, and he’d discuss four or five different looks, and four or five different levels of shooting in any given video. He would offer up some random idea. He might say, ‘one idea is fire, a dark room and a shot with the girl in the car.’ There were all these sort of riddles. Ultimately, in the shoot, I would work to make each of his ideas distinct and separate visions. We explored a lot of really great imagery together, but at the end of the day, it was all about the experience for the audience. Ideas we though of were actually just feelings and intuitions. Marty had a huge visual appetite and it was great fun shooting for him. I think if there’s one big difference between documentary shooting and music videos, it would have to be this great gap. The great thing about music videos was they liberated us from the need to express a clear concept.
ICG: We noticed that you did some operating after you got into the Guild.
ACKERMAN: When I first got into the Guild, I had enough days on the industry roster as a cameraman. However, it was clear to me that I really had to work at the studios for a while as a camera operator before I felt comfortable as a director of photography. I decided to re-rate to camera operator. I think I was an operator for about four or five years before I did my first project as a cinematographer. My last operating gig was One From the Heart for Vittorio Storaro (ASC, AIC). He was a tremendous friend and mentor, and an inspiration to me throughout the years. He’s an incredible person. I also operated for Jerry Finnerman (ASC), and I did a little work with Joe Biroc (ASC) and Emil Oster (ASC). I also operated for John McPherson (ASC), who was very influential. He was shooting Kojak, and I went in a lot as a B camera guy.
I had worked with a lot of the “old timers,” and he was the first cameraman that I had operated for who had a more naturalistic approach. In fact, I remember standing outside the equipment truck, one day hearing the grips and electricians grumbling about how he was just going to use the practical lamp in the ceiling of this little store that we were using as a location. He was doing all these things that were anathema like using bounce card and foam core. I also worked with Frank Thackery (ASC). I think the first set that I reported to, as a camera operator, was his. I guess I was a little nervous. I didn’t know really what the protocols were, but Frank made me feel very welcome. I will always be grateful for that. Frank Stanley (ASC) was also a wonderful man and really fine cinematographer. I also worked with Benny Coleman (ASC). I handled the B camera for him on The Fall Guy. Operating was a vital part of my education. I learned really a great deal about the flow of things on a major set. There’s a rhythm to it. Along with all the other things, you learn that protocol is important. It helped to prepare me to conduct myself on my own set.
ICG: What was your first credit as a cinematographer?
ACKERMAN: It was New Year’s Evil, a freakishly bad horror movie for Cannon Films (1981). My first studio credit was Frankenweenie (1984) for Disney, followed by Back to School and Beetlejuice.
ICG: Thinking back, what was that like, finally getting to shoot your own films in Hollywood? What were the biggest differences on practical and emotional levels?
ACKERMAN: There are many differences, but the biggest one is that you’re not in Kansas anymore. It’s somebody else’s dollar, but it’s your vision. The big question is how do you keep your vision fresh and intact. The level of enthusiasm has got to the same as it was the day you picked up a camera for the first time. I remember in college the thrill of waking up on a Saturday morning with a stack of equipment in the corner of my apartment, then going out with a small crew and shooting a student film. The total cost was the piece of a bag of cheeseburgers that I bought for everybody at lunch and maybe a six-pack at the end of the day. Now, you find yourself charged with the responsibility for filming x number of pages every day. You are obviously working under much greater pressure, but you still have to somehow be a poet and a field marshal at the same time. Some people aren’t comfortable with that. In fact, I don’t think I’m always
very comfortable with that, but I’ve learned that’s the way it has to be. One thing that doesn’t change is that you are still doing it for the love of it. You still have to make the best use of your resources, so that at the end of the day you feel that is the best you could have done. You are responsible for keeping the production company happy, treating your crew fairly, and helping the director get his vision onto film.
ICG: Beeteljuice was your first big movie. Are there any memories to share?
ACKERMAN: Beetlejuice was a great opportunity. It was a very quirky, bent world, and I had a chance to work with a brilliant visual director, Tim Burton. We’d collaborated earlier on Frankenweenie. “Bo” Welch was the production designer. Tim is provocative. He sort of seduces you into his view of things, and that’s a good place to be for a cinematographer.
ICG: What about Dennis the Menace?
ACKERMAN: Dennis the Menace was one of the most pleasant undertakings of my career. We were gathered in Chicago in a beautiful North Shore neighborhood during probably the greatest summer weather that they had ever had, to render this innocent little story. To me, it was just a very pure movie. It was an opportunity to put on film, the kind of neighborhood that I grew up in. There was dappled sunlight, and nights where you’d go outside to play kick-the-can, hide-and-seek and other games. Although they were dark, the neighborhoods were reassuring, safe places where kids could be out late at night without anybody calling 911. I loved the experience of shooting for Nick Castle, the director. Walter Matthau and Joan Plowright were in the cast, and the kids were great. It doesn’t get much better than that.
ICG: How about Jumanji?
ACKERMAN: Like Beetlejuice, it was a chance to help fashion a very strange world. It was a huge pleasure to shoot for Joe Johnson, because he is a gifted visual director. He had been an art director, and so he created his own storyboards, which gave us all a very clear course to follow—not slavishly, but the intent of each shot that he planned was clear, so we used our time creatively instead of trying to ferret out what it was he was after.
ICG: You also shot another fantasy film, George of the Jungle…
ACKERMAN: What I most enjoyed was the fact that almost everybody who saw the film was surprised to hear that we shot 90 percent of it on a stage. It was an opportunity to fashion an elaborately staged jungle world without ever leaving the Hughes Aircraft plant in Playa Del Rey. It was also the first film that I had shot with Sam Weisman as director, and that was a huge pleasure.
ICG: You did something totally different with The Muse.
ACKERMAN: The Muse was obviously at the other end of the production spectrum from Jumanji or George of the Jungle in terms of its aspirations and the approach that we took to filming. The Muse is a movie. It was a brilliant script, written and performed by Albert Brooks, who was also the director. I think the only visual effects were a couple of dissolves. It was fun to be liberated from all the visual effects paraphernalia, blue and green screens and wire rigs, and so on, which were so much a part of my other studio films.
ICG: But, you did go back to a fantasy theme with The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle. What can you tell us about that film?
ACKERMAN: Rocky and Bullwinkle was a chance to shoot for Des McAnuff, who is an enormously talented stage director, for whom the challenge of mounting this very complex, multi-layered, and ultimately very complicated rendering of a cartoon series was no huge deal. He was used to staging musicals on Broadway that required this complex layering of elements. From the very get-go, he was not put off by the meticulous planning and all the other departmental involvements and crafts that had to be brought to bear. He really took to the process, very naturally and gave us all a clear idea and directions to follow. It’s probably a discipline that comes from working on the stage where you do everything possible to mold the show in your vision, but on opening night you basically have to sit in the audience and watch the curtain go up. I think it’s a different sensibility. There’s no fixing it in postproduction.
ICG: You have a couple of pictures coming. One of them is Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star. Can we talk about the genesis of that project?
ACKERMAN: Sam Weisman called me from Boston on Dickie Roberts before he made his deal to do the picture. He was simply exploring my interest in it, and I was immediately intrigued. It’s the story of a former child star who had been hugely successful in a 1970s kid show Glimmer Gang. He is now in his mid-30s and can’t get arrested. He’s hopelessly out of date, out of the loop, and just scavenging for any opportunity he might have to regain his earlier stardom. It’s an original script co-written by Fred Wolf and David Spade, who plays Dickie. There are an awful lot of former child actors around who can probably empathize with this story.
ICG: How much was this first call in advance of production?
ACKERMAN: Sam called me probably about three-and-a-half to four months before we started shooting. The deal was made perhaps two months after we had first talked about it.
ICG: Did you and Sam discuss and visual references?
ACKERMAN: Actually, the answer is no. For one thing, we were going to be shooting in Hollywood rather than making some remote location look like Hollywood. There are people walking the streets who came to Hollywood with a dream, and it may have never happened for them, or happened briefly and then they fell out, but they never gave up. I guess for me the visual approach was sort of intuitive, because I had wanted to photograph Hollywood as Hollywood for quite some time.
ICG: Are the visuals based on reality or fantasy?
ACKERMAN: I think Sam’s idea from the outset was to make it reality-based. In other words, the core of the story is something extremely credible, because we have all seen the revolving door for performing artists. We know there are people like Dickie Roberts. This is commonplace, not fantasy, but in some ways the story is elaborated in a way that could be construed as a departure from reality.
ICG: We are presuming that the landmarks in Los Angeles play a part?
ACKERMAN: I think a main reason for shooting in Los Angeles was the availability and authenticity of locations. Unlike other films that have gone elsewhere, Sam’s intention was to really render Hollywood as Hollywood. I wasn’t privy to any of the initial conversations about where the film would be shot, but my sense is there was a real commitment to doing it in Hollywood from the start, primarily for the sense of authenticity and keeping it reality based. There may have been other considerations, including David’s television work that kept him in Los Angeles.
ICG: Why is it important to shoot at authentic locations?
ACKERMAN: I’ve been a party to shooting films overseas that purported to be U.S.-based locations, so I can speak on this point. For example, we shot Jumanji in Vancouver, with some additional scenes in New England. When all was said and done, there were no houses in Vancouver that even remotely resembled the kind of Georgian look we needed for authenticity, so an enormous facade had to be created for the exteriors, and, of course, a sizable interior set as well.
ICG: How much of Dickie Roberts was filmed at practical locations?
ACKERMAN: It equally shot on location and on stages at Paramount. We shot in some of those great little low-rent neighborhood with little bungalows and cottages that are north and south of Hollywood Boulevard. Dickie’s apartment is right on Hollywood Boulevard. It had been an office. The production designer wanted to create an apartment with as much direct connection to the town as possible, so we chose an office with really huge windows on the third story. During a key scene, which is a poker game between Dickie and his former child star buddies, we wanted to have as much of the boulevard in the background as possible. We were also on location in Pasadena a good part of the time. The neighborhood was a contrast to the hopeless seedy qualities of his Hollywood environment, after he found a supposedly ideal family to live with in Pasadena. We filmed a lot of the residential interiors of the house in Pasadena on the stage. For example, there are a number of scenes that play in the foyer of this house. The exterior of the real house had all the right aesthetic values, but it also had a relatively small foyer. We would never have been able to fit three, four, or five actors and a dog into that area and do what I needed to do with the camera. Shooting scenes like that on a stage enabled us to move the camera and light with some elegance and control. We also created color schemes, shaped and texture that were right for the moment.
ICG: Was your relationship with the production designer was a key?
ACKERMAN: I always consider the production designer and the costume designer as two key collaborators. In this case the production designer was Dina Lipton. We had worked together on The Muse and already had a great relationship. She’s intent on getting it right for the camera. In other words, she doesn’t live in a hypothetical world where you operate independent of the lighting or what is needed to serve the story. She is a team player.
ICG: What types of things did you suggest?
ACKERMAN: Let’s put it this way, I’m really opinionated on everything. But, I try to restrict those opinions to a couple of main avenues, which affect how I light scenes and the tonalities of the sets, both colors and densities. I work with the designer to get wall treatments, textures, colors and densities, so that we don’t have to go crazy trying to keep light off of the walls, which is frequently a problem on sets. The decisions we make in pre-production, about the design, configuration, color and furnishing on sets, the window treatments, all affect things that we’re going to be living with for weeks or months. It was all about cooperation and collaboration. For example, before I came onboard there was a plan to build the house set on risers four feet high. There was a concern that when shooting past a window—there were many windows on that set—we would see the backings or the translights at the point where they joined to the floor. On Dennis the Menace, we had an amazing set like that surrounded by a fully detailed front yard and back yard, but this film had a more restricted budget. We basically had a few greens to move around, but there was no money to recreate much of an exterior world on this film. They built the house on risers, so you don’t see where the translight hits the stage floor. When I looked at the miniatures with my viewfinder, I explored some alternatives with Dina. It became clear that by putting a hedge row at a certain place and designing window based on a realistic understanding of where the lens was likely to be in a given shot, we could make it work without adding expenses to production design or crimping the visual style. They took out the risers, which made the set a lot easier to work on.
ICG: What about the color schemes? How important were they?
ACKERMAN: The color schemes were very important. Hollywood locations are tawdry. Pasadena locations, when Dickie finds the “ideal” family to live with and regain his childhood, are painted in a very warm and inviting palette of colors. There are a lot of earth tones, a sort of dusty red and a bit of green. It is very restrained. We’re not talking about really intense colors in high chroma. Dickie grew up in a dysfunctional family with a stage mom who was horrendous. She ultimately abandoned him. He never had a proper childhood. Now, he is searching for the ideal family to live with. He interviews a lot of totally inappropriate families, and finally finds his ideal family who lives in this Norman Rockwell-ish, lovingly rendered Pasadena house.
ICG: Can you explain what is going on in his life at that point?
ACKERMAN: Dickie is very short on any kind of realistic hopes or opportunities at this point in his non-existent career. Things are just not happening for him. He catches wind of a film that is going to be directed by Rob Reiner, who plays himself. Rob tells him that he’s an enormous fan. He loved his kid show, The Glimmer Gang, but with all due respect, this role is going to take some acting and life experience. He frankly tells Dickie that he hasn’t had much of a life. He had no childhood, because he was always working. Rob tells Dickie, ‘I’m not really going to be casting seriously for a couple of months. If you can go out there and gain some experience, maybe there’ll be a chance for you.’ Dickie has just received a small advance fee on a tell-all autobiography. He places an ad in the paper, ex-child star looking for family to regain his childhood.
ICG: Do you flashback to his childhood?
ACKERMAN: There are momentary flashbacks to Glimmer Gang days. We used really appallingly flat 1970’s TV lighting that kind of glued an artificial look on those scenes.
ICG: What was your relationship with the costume designer?
ACKERMAN: Lisa Jensen and I had a close collaboration, especially during prep. Dickie’s taste in clothing ended at about 1979 or 1980. Like a lot of people, he saw himself in the image of a happier time in his life. Lisa designed a wardrobe that was essentially a time warp. David had a lot of input to his wardrobe. There are a lot of synthetic fabrics that were appropriate for the character. We tried to make sure they didn’t come into conflict with the set dressing, especially colors, so Lisa, Dina and I had to be on the same page. I don’t know how you possibly could plan to film a movie without being in really close contact with the costume and production designers. There are other key collaborators on every film, including the art director and assistant director, and sometimes the effects supervisor. All these people ultimately have a direct impact on my work.
ICG: How was a decision made about the format used for production?
ACKERMAN: Sam Weisman and I discussed the format during the first hour of the first day. Interestingly enough, we both of us had been thinking about shooting in anamorphic. Sam hadn’t done an anamorphic movie, but he was drawn to it based on films that he had seen. He liked the dynamics, but he was candid about needing to know more about how it was going to work on a day-to-day basis. He asked, ‘how would scenes be blocked differently and what about composition?’ I started bringing a viewfinder location scouts, and I’d show him glimpses of that geography in an anamorphic frame. We had casual discussions about the blockings of scenes. I also took photographs of the sets or renderings of the sets and of locations. We put a 2.35:1 matte over them so that he could see it composed in anamorphic format. All the storyboards were done in that format. By the time we were shooting, he was delighted with the wide-screen format.
ICG: That was an interesting decision. Dickie Roberts doesn’t sound like the type of film that would normally play out in anamorphic. It doesn’t sound like there were big vistas or action sequences. What was the aesthetic rationale?
ACKERMAN: We filmed Dickie Roberts in 40 days on a modest budget. Shooting in anamorphic gave us the chance to film scenes with less coverage. We put the characters in environments, and showed the audience how they reacted to each other. It is very subjective camerawork with not too many close-ups. I’m not sure I can say anything to convince anyone to shoot in anamorphic unless they instinctively feel it works for their movie. We could have easily shot this in 1:8:5, but ultimately it comes down to taste. One of the advantages is that you are using the entire 35 mm frame, so you aren’t wasting any of the resolving power of the film. At the same time, you don’t have the range of lenses available in spherical. On some projects that could be a problem, but we were shooting a lot of dialogue and not too much action. We had some walking and talking, and used A and B camera a lot, but there weren’t gigantic, multiple camera sequences, day after day where we were worried about matching lenses.
ICG: Did you do any testing with the actors before production?
ACKERMAN: Unlike most of my other films, we had very little opportunity to do tests with the actors prior to shooting. It was a compressed pre-production schedule, and the actors weren’t available most of that time. The character that David created is a fascinating blend of quirkiness and accessibility. I was really impressed with what he and Sam did with the character. He’s definitely eccentric, but he’s also very appealing, attractive and very engaging. On the printed page, you wonder how the audience will respond to this very edgy character, and how to make him likable. If they don’t empathize with him, there’s not much of a story. He could be an off-putting, self-indulgent personality, but David absolutely comes through and wins over the audience.
ICG: How did your camerawork support that?
ACKERMAN: It all begins with the performance. It was inspiring. The camera can’t help but support what the actor is investing in the character. I wanted to be sure that the audience sees Dickie Roberts as a sympathetic character, so I was careful not to let any element of satire creep into the photography. I made sure that the coverage of David made him feel really accessible to the audience. He looks good. There are just a few exceptions, including a celebrity boxing sequence at the opening of the movie where he’s knocked out and totally humiliated. Our mission in that scene was to diminish his character, but mainly we wanted to create as much empathy as possible with decisions made about lighting and composition. Every minute of every day on every film, you are making those decisions. I tried to choose the lighting and composition that best created a likable and credible Dickie Roberts, rather than a stereotypical character.
ICG: Is it possible to explain your rationale about lighting him?
ACKERMAN: Now we get into some difficult turf, because lighting is perhaps the ultimate subjective process. It’s virtually impossible to really communicate why a given lighting decision might be made. Sometimes people have posed that question on the set. ‘Why did you do it that way?’ I might be able to occasionally come up with a rationale that sounds halfway logical, like, ‘it’s dark because it’s meant to feel foreboding,’ or ‘I wanted that hot shaft of light coming through the window and just grazing the actor’s face a certain way, because it felt right.’ It’s ultimately very subjective, which usually requires a great deal of planning and marshalling of resources. It is a combination of poetry and combat, and I’ll admit that I’m highly opinionated on this point. If you ask why did I choose to light David Spade as Dickie Roberts the way I did, the answer is that in every scene, I lit him in a way that felt right to me, and how much more subjective can you get than that?
ICG: How about composition?
ACKERMAN: There are many ensemble scenes, but a lot of the story takes place with Dickie and his younger foster brother and sister. One of the great opportunities in anamorphic is that you can render large proscenium shots, but it also provides an opportunity for intimacy with the characters because you can use negative space to give more dynamics to the frame. You can use the frame to make a character more prominent. I think that just on the performance end of the scale, there are some real advantages to composing a frame that has negative space.
ICG: What was your basic camera package?
ACKERMAN: I used Panavision equipment, including a Platinum camera, and a set of Primo Prime anamorphic lenses in basic focal lengths up to 180 mm. I also carried a set of C-series primes, which were of course smaller and lighter weight. We tended to use those with the Steadicam. On occasions, when we did some handheld work in the boxing ring, for instance, I sometimes used C-series lens instead of the bulkier Primos. I used both the short zoom and the 11:1 zoom generally for exterior scenes. We had probably the best 11:1 that I’ve ever shot with. All of the Panavision lenses tend to be very high performance optics, but this particular 11:1 was so sweet, we got the serial number of that one, and I’ve got it locked in the safe. It’s a terrific lens.
ICG: Is there a particular style of movement?
ACKERMAN: Sam didn’t want to let the scenes become static. We were in a domestic environment with a tremendous amount of coverage in the family home. In this situation, you are really confronted with challenges in terms of keeping the camera moving and maintaining the energy. Sam didn’t want the camera to be a passive observer. We did a lot of Steadicam shots, and not just walking and talking, but also negotiating through and around the set dressing, where we couldn’t build a dance floor and had to get from point A to point B without tracks. Fortunately, I had a really great Steadicam operator, Julian Chojnacki, SOCwho was also handheld A camera. With Julian I felt like we could devise virtually do any move, and it would work. Sam Weisman has had a great deal of stage experience as an actor and director. He understands the art of choreographing scenes, and why the camera, as a participant, needs to move. We used the Technocrane and Super Technocrane as well as the Steadicam.
ICG: How about your choice of films?
ACKERMAN: We so often go out with three, four, or even five different camera films, and that can make life difficult for the assistants and loader, who are constantly shuffling back and forth between emulsions. On this movie, I decided to try to reduce the inventory of raw stock. I tested the Vision 250D, daylight-balanced Vision stock, which I loved. It’s a subjective choice. It’s a very handsome-looking film with a really tight grain structure and it handles mixed lighting, where you have some daylight and you have some tungstens working some parts of the set. It really looked terrific, and I could use it all day long. During the early day, I had some heavy, neutral density filters on the lenses in the brightest light. I could continue shooting right up until twilight, through the magic hour, without having to make that panic call back to the truck to send out a faster film stock. The other negative, was the Kodak Vision Expression 500T film in darker interiors and night.
ICG: Cinematographers certainly have a lot more tools today.
ACKERMAN: We have far greater access to a much wider inventory of tools than we ever had before. I remember when an issue of the ASC manual was published in the mid or early 1980s, and there were several pages dedicated to describing the basic lighting instruments that were commonly used at the time, 10Ks, 5Ks, 2Ks, Maxi-and Mini-Brutes, arcs, and so on. Mole-Richardson supplied most of the gear. I think it’s safe to say there are hundreds of different lighting instruments today, and many different vendors. Not to mention all the ancillary diffusion equipment, dimming systems and special items like Lightning Strikes, and that’s just lighting. Today, you have infinite grip and camera mounting capabilities where once it was basically the Chapman Crane head. Now it’s there are seemingly endless numbers of ways to mount and fly cameras. The same is true of cameras, lenses, film stocks, post-production techniques including digital intermediate image manipulation that stretches far beyond any dreams of even 10 years ago. Today, when you begin to prep even a modestly sized feature, and I’m sure this is true in television as well, you are confronted with a vast array of tools and resources. This is great, but I think arguably it also leads to an element of overload. The range of tools that you have on a typical set also raises the question of how best to use them. I think one has to be really careful that the cart doesn’t lead the horse. I remember using a Technocrane on True Identity for Disney many years ago. It was the first time I’d used it, and it was one of the first times it was used in the United States. It was the perfect application. We were chasing a character up a flight of stairs at ankle height, and then turning a sharp corner. The extension ability of the crane, in essence, allowed us to dolly up the stairs, and that was invaluable. It was a great shot. I began ordering Technocranes on commercials and other movies. Having said that, I find myself wanting to find way to use less ‘stuff,’ and get back to my roots in the music video days, when the only lighting choices had to be cheap and fast. Having said that, there are many times when you need every bell and whistle.
ICG: Cinematographers make a lot of decisions, don’t they?
ACKERMAN: You can’t over-simplify what we do. At any given moment on the set, there is a nucleus of activity where the shot is being made. There is the camera crew, actors and director. There’s the video village, where other people are watching. The grips and electricians are working or preparing for the next take or set-up. There is a craft service. All of these people are dedicated to making that one moment happen. It’s pretty staggering. There are the guys in the executive offices overseeing the budget and how to market the film, and the writers. Filmmaking isn’t rocket science or brain surgery, but it is a high-stakes undertaking where a lot of people are counting on you. You have to do it one day at a time with a clear vision and an unfettered way of looking at things. I’m always trying to keep photography fresh as though there is none of that infrastructure surrounding us, and that requires preparation. You have to get into the director’s mind, so you know what he or she wants to achieve. There are endless conversations with the production designer and everyone else on the visual side of making a film. You need the cooperation of the first AD to make the day happen. Then, you need to make the shots.
ICG: You mentioned that Dickie’s apartment was a practical location.
ACKERMAN: It was a practical location, which was converted from an office to his bachelor pad. We had to remove a couple of walls and take out parts of the ceiling, so we had enough room to hang a few lights. The lighting was relatively simple inside the apartment. I basically had a China ball hanging over a poker table, with some material stretched over portions of it, so I could mold the light a little bit more. There were some practicals and a little ambience that I created with bounce light. We used a few white cards for bouncing light into close-ups at the table. I had a Bebee light outside positioned to accent a few architectural elements along the boulevard, as well as a couple of 20Ks with half-CTO gel on the top of the building that housed the apartment.
We opened with a shot from a SuperTechnocrane mounted on a Chapman Super Nova, so we had a two-arm crane move to steer us from the establishing look on the boulevard, and coming to a window where we can see a poker game underway inside. The image of the poker game seen from outside the window was inspired by one of Edward Hopper’s paintings, Night Hawks. When we went into the close-ups, I would sneak in a little white card onto the table surface to liven up the eyes of the actors. We couldn’t do that on a wide shot, because the B camera would see the card necessary to make the A camera’s close-up work. At one point a few years back, I would have considered two cameras at once to be absolutely anathema, like it just so violated what I thought. You know, you do one shot at a time, one lighting set-up at a time. Now, I’m sort of greedy. I see the second camera as a chance to get another shot that you couldn’t otherwise get.
We also used a Hopper painting as a reference for a diner scene seen from outside on a dark night. We had two lonely looking people inside, a waitress and a guy sitting at the lunch counter. There’s just something poignant about surrounding people with their environment. You can learn so much about who they are by seeing where they are.
ICG: Did the director work from a video village or the camera?
ACKERMAN: In those instances where a video village just couldn’t be accommodated in the immediate shooting zone, we would bring in small monitors, so Sam could remain physically close to the actors. That was very important to him. I think it’s helpful for the cinematographer. I think you’ve got to be on the set most of the time to really sense what’s going on with the actors. Don’t get me wrong. The video monitor is a very useful tool. I personally consider it invaluable. But it is also very important to have physical contact with your actors and your crew.
ICG: What was the lab relationship on Dickie Roberts?
ACKERMAN: Deluxe was the lab. We had film dailies, which we looked at together every night after we wrapped. Typically, it was Sam and Fred Wolf, the co-writer, one of the producers, the editor and his assistant. I always look forward to dailies and seeing the pictures. Film dailies are enormously helpful. It’s not so much a matter of finding problems. Over the course of shooting a film, there are going to be a few bumps here and there. Maybe focus went south on a shot, but that very rarely happens with Steve Hiller, who was my A camera focus puller until he moved up to operator on The Battle of Shaker Heights. There might be the occasional anamorphic flare or a hiccup of one sort or another. But the fact is, once you’re off and running and you have the vision for the film and you have a consensus on what this film is to be, the dailies are more of a confirmation of the story.
ICG: What were the biggest lighting challenges on exteriors?
ACKERMAN: The biggest exterior was Hollywood Boulevard, but I think the most interesting situations were the Pasadena locations that were central to the story. We wanted the perfect house in the perfect neighborhood with the perfect front and back yards, and the appropriate connections to the neighbors’ yards. It was very contrast-y. We had a lot of huge trees surrounding the house, and we were shooting those scenes in late July and early August. We had to be careful not to stage those scenes at high noon under harsh glaring light, where half would be in deep shade and the rest in brutal sunlight. We had a furling silk system in the back yard, and in the front yard, I used a 30x40 silk with a double net flown from a construction crane, so that we could keep the best part of the sunlight, dappling through the background, while keeping the immediate playing area under control with a nice soft ambience, while creating additional contrast with 18K HMIs.
ICG: It sounds like your lead actor, David Spade, must be in almost every scene if not every shot. How do you help an actor in that situation?
ACKERMAN: Yes, David is on screen a lot. It is hard on an actor to be physically involved in so much of the script, but David is a trooper. He is an enormously gifted performer who is also extremely disciplined. The entire crew looked for ways to make his job a little easier. From my standpoint, nothing’s more important than preparation. In other words, I tried to think through the problems, so when we say ‘it’s ready,’ we are truly ready to roll. I may run in from time to time to tweak a light or a flag. In fact, David ribbed me about it now and then. But, there was a bond of trust established. In the beginning, I don’t think an actor knows whether you’re a dilettante, megalomaniac or somebody who’s just sincerely trying to make the most beautiful pictures possible in the service of their story and their character. That kind of bond doesn’t take shape instantly, but we did have that kind of a bond. I tried to help David by using the B camera whenever we could. If it was a stunt or something that would have been messy or unpleasant or gratuitously difficult to stage a second time for take two. We all tried to help David by keeping the mood and the atmosphere on the set conducive to good work. I’m proud of my crew. They are people who love what they do and are extremely disciplined. We don’t have any screamers or prima donnas, and at the end of the day I think it’s a pretty nice climate for everyone, most importantly for the actors.
ICG: For the younger filmmakers reading this, how do you feel about all the hype about the role of cinematographers being reduced by auteur filmmaking? Are you concerned that future directors are just going to shoot their own films with digital cameras?
ACKERMAN: I think the twilight of cinematography as we know it is greatly exaggerated. As Mark Twain once said, ‘the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.’ The stories about cinematography being eclipsed are simply unfounded. Of course things are going to change. They are always changing. We’re not shooting films the same way we did 20 years ago, and I’m not just talking about having better film stocks and sharper lenses. I’m talking about fundamental styles and techniques, and the way we look at things. Feature films, 20 to 30 years ago certainly, were largely shot by people whose life experiences were kind of yeoman-apprentice processes that was created by the motion picture studios. Many of those people had never photographed anything off the stage or off the lot. Now, you have people like myself, who were trained shooting documentaries, music videos and commercials. It’s not better or worse. It’s just different. I really appreciate and admire those finely crafted looks that we associate with movies from the ‘Golden Age,’ but that isn’t the way we shoot today, because we have different experiences and we look at things differently.
Our culture has changed. It’s interesting how the argument about cinematography and its future has been focused almost exclusively on whether it’s to be digital or analog, which I think is absurd. It’s an absurd conceit to imagine that this is really the battlefield. That’s not the battlefield. That’s not the pivotal issue. The pivotal issue is the degree to which cinematographers will retain their authority and their vision. This has nothing to do with the camera, the format of origination or whether it’s a chip or a piece of film in the gate. There was a big hue and cry, a lot of concerns when the Kodak and Panavision Preview system came into being and was being widely used on sets a few years ago. It was feared that somehow this would erode the cinematographer’s authority. If an AD walked up and saw you looking at a print from the Preview camera, and if it looked halfway decent to him, that he could legitimately say, ‘oh, looks good to me, you must be ready.’ The truth is that any director of photography who has no legitimate comeback for that deserves to lose the argument. If you don’t have any more cachet or any more credibility than to acquiesce – in other words, if you can’t just say, ‘I’m not ready yet, and by the way, you know, this picture is just one small increment in the process here.’ Obviously, you have to work in a timely fashion. Talk to any of our most highly esteemed cinematographers, and you’ll find the reason they work a lot is not only because they gifted; it’s also because they know how to get the job done on time and on budget.
ICG: We know that you recently completed a Project Greenlight Film, The Battle of Shaker Heights, with a couple of first-time directors. We are not going to ask a lot about that experience, because there is an article in ICG magazine and on the website. But in general, from the perspective of your experience, what advice do you have for students and other young filmmakers?
ACKERMAN: My advice in the near term is to do the best work you can every chance you get. This sounds really simplistic, but I think that if you want to be a cinematographer, you should shoot film every chance you get. If you want to direct, you should direct every chance you get. If you want to write, you should write. I think if you are looking to some hypothetical future in which strategically you should do this or that, like work at a talent agency on the periphery of the business hoping to make contacts, is a bogus notion. I think you must be relentlessly focused and true to your vision. Volunteer for every project that you can that’s reasonably well-conceived. It’s really important to network with your peers because generally those peer relationships are going to wind up someday as working relationships. You need the stamina it takes to keep focused on your dreams. The chances of you landing the perfect job immediately out of film school are remote. You’ve got to be prepared for the long haul. When I came to Hollywood, it was essentially a closed shop. I know lots of people today working in different disciplines who are doing exactly what they set out to do. They were the ones who stayed. The ones who got discouraged after half a year of working at a fast food restaurant buckled and disappeared. It also takes a certain amount of luck. I have never had any employment that was not directly involved with what I wanted to do in this business. I’m really grateful for that.
* * * * * * * * * *
The following are audio excerpts from the interview with Tom Ackerman conducted by Robert Fisher.
Clip 1 (180k)
Tom Ackerman explains how the Viet Nam war indirectly led to his career as a cinematographer. This clip is approximately 3.3 minutes long.
Clip 2 (262k)
Tom Ackerman explains how early MTV and music videos opened the doors to new talent. This clip is approximately 5 minutes long.
Clip 3 (134k)
Tom Ackerman explains why the DP must be both "poet and field marshall." This clip is approximately 3 minutes long.
Clip 4 (188k)
Tom Ackerman speaks about the importance of collaborating with both the production designer and costume designer. This clip is approximately 4 minutes long.
Clip 5 (200k)
Tom Ackerman says the battleground in the future will not be between digital and film. This clip is approximately 4 minutes long.
Live Chat / Transcripts
Aug. 23, 2003
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 12:53:30 PM)
Good morning. It's good to be here and I'm glad to join the chat. I'm looking forward to a productive exchange with everyone signed on.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 12:54:01 PM)
As it so happens, I'm speaking from Post Logic in Hollywood where we are making final color corrections to the D5 master for The Battle of Shaker Heights.
Op_Ed (Aug 23, 2003 12:54:36 PM)
On Project Greenlight, there really wasn’t any mention of union guidelines for how a production should be conducted and it seemed to me that the terms of production for The Battle of Shaker Heights were unrealistic. Was that done for dramatic effect?
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 12:55:00 PM)
I'm not sure I understand what you mean by terms of production. But the Camera Guild signed a low-budget contract with the producers of the film, and all the work was conducted under those guidelines.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 12:55:53 PM)
As far as dramatic effect is concerned, any drama you may have observed in the series originated from causes and effects not having to do with the union contract.
Richard (Aug 23, 2003 12:56:27 PM)
What were the most memorable documentaries that you worked on with Charles Guggenheim, and were they all interviews or did he also use historic footage?
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 12:56:56 PM)
I think one of the most memorable films I worked on with Charles was May Peace Begin With Me, which was produced for the government of Israel in 1973. It was done at a time when Israel was facing many of the difficulties that it currently faces but was trying to reach an accommodation with its Arab population to work things out.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 12:58:04 PM)
As far as the use of interviews in Charles's work, most of his films were not interview based. In fact, Charles was a great lover of strong photography; he was committed to imagery. And wherever possible, he tried to construct his documentaries so those images could tell the story on their own.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 12:59:15 PM)
Of course, he was a consummate interviewer. He was an extremely intuitive guy who could draw out from his interview subjects those elements that could support the story. And of course, in the end, he was a marvelous editor. When the footage when to the cutting room, that was when the story was finally written. It was written with pictures.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:00:26 PM)
I did quite a bit of editing for Charles as well as shooting, and I can assure you that his standards for that process were extremely high. He tended not to suffer fools or bad cuts; it was a great learning process for me.
Gino (Aug 23, 2003 1:00:57 PM)
Do you think it is possible for someone coming out of film school today to follow the same kind of career path that you did such as setting up a company and shooting commercials, or are you better off trying to shoot low budget films?
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:01:32 PM)
I think what you have to do is anything and everything that will allow you to put film through the camera, no matter where that opportunity may originate. The atmosphere in Hollywood when I arrived, the opportunities that were available, were very different than they are now.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:02:35 PM)
Mike Robe and I started a little production company, which if we had thought it through carefully we could easily have concluded that it had no chance whatsoever of success. But it was pretty clear there were no jobs at the studios. The unions were closed tight.
Which meant that we had to fashion our own opportunity. And so we started out little company. Ultimately, that created momentum that gave us the way that we would proceed in the future.
Richard (Aug 23, 2003 1:03:45 PM)
What were some of the political commercials you shot for Guggenheim, and do you have any anecdotes about your impressions of some of the politicians?
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:04:11 PM)
I worked on spots for Teddy Kennedy, for Walter Mondale, for Gary Hart. Ultimately, the biggest campaign we did was when George McGovern ran for President in 1972.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:05:32 PM)
I suppose the political anecdotes could fill several pages, though as far as I'm concerned, they happened in a timeframe during which my primary goal was to just get through a 12-hour day with an Eclair NPR glued to my shoulder. The subtleties of the political exchange and political process sometimes went unobserved because I was just trying to get the pictures on film.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:06:31 PM)
The McGovern campaign was the most memorable, not only because of the size and scope but because it was such a lost cause. It was a time when the election belonged to Richard Nixon and nothing that we could do with this decent and highly effective candidate could make any difference. It was Nixon's time.
Cal (Aug 23, 2003 1:07:14 PM)
I read about your experience as a military cameraman. What would you do if you were called back into duty and sent over to Iraq w/ a dv cam on your shoulder?
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:07:32 PM)
As a matter of fact, I considered volunteering to do something like that. I, at one time, talked to the ASC to investigate the possibilities that we might put together some kind of an archival photo group wherein we could do some cinematography.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:08:41 PM)
My original proposal had to do with trying to fashion a non-political photo group that would cover Presidential activities. But ultimately, it seemed a little too political for my colleagues at the ASC.
Brooksie (Aug 23, 2003 1:09:02 PM)
Did you have any music background before you shot music videos? Is that something that's even necessary?
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:09:59 PM)
Well, I played viola in the high school orchestra. I wasn't much of a musician. However, I think I do have some musical sense. And, more importantly, I was completely stoked on the idea of mixing pictures with music. My first professional experience in Hollywood when I got out of the Air Force was shooting a promo clip, as they were called then, for Motown Records for the Jackson Five.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:11:41 PM)
It was notable not only in that it was my first music clip, but also the fact that I also had the opportunity to use a Tyler mount for the first time. We were shooting aerials around Catalina Island when, after an hour of serious maneuvering and banking the aircraft and many rolls of film having been shot, we landed only to discover that although my safety belt had been secured around my waist, it was not secured to the Tyler mount.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:12:59 PM)
What was my first big break in Hollywood could have proved to be my last!
SBDP (Aug 23, 2003 1:13:06 PM)
On the music videos you shot...were you shooting 16 mm negative, Ektachrome, video or all of them? What were some of the most interesting people and situations? You said it was experimental filmmaking. Are there examples?
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:13:25 PM)
We shot initially 16mm color negative. By the time I started shooting the videos no one was using a reversal film anymore. The use of video was also not very widespread for the clips.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:14:15 PM)
I would say that some of my most interesting experiences in music videos were when we were shooting for Marty Callner. He was an absolutely definitive rock 'n' roll director.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:15:01 PM)
I guess I liked Marty immediately when he said, in our first meeting, "Lighting is next to God." Nothing was too extreme on a Marty Callner shoot. We did Heart. We did Stevie Nix. And there was not much of a commitment to story per se. Marty really didn't care about continuity. What he did want to do was to press the envelope. He would come up with four or five looks that he wanted to pursue in a given clip – none of which bore any relationship to the others.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:16:36 PM)
It was like "okay, here we have the fire." Or, "this is going to be blue light and rain." We really just had the gauntlet thrown down to make the pictures as strong as they could possibly be. And ultimately the only bottom line obligation was that the artists look great.
Lone Ranger (Aug 23, 2003 1:16:52 PM)
What has happened to your original videos.. do you own any of the film or is it lost?
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:18:22 PM)
I have most of the videos in one form or another. Most of them at this point are on 3/4" cassette. I do have a few laser disks. For example, we did a concert film, Stevie Nicks: Live at Red Rocks. I also have a long-form video that we did for the Manhattan Transfer on laser disk. As well as one for Pat Benatar. But most at this point are on 3/4" cassette.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:19:47 PM)
I have promised myself to sort through the masters someday soon; I'm sure it would prove to be an interesting trip down memory lane. But the work would seem very dated, I think. I still love to watch MTV and see the clips that are being done; I think it represents some of the most exciting photography that we can access. It's the cutting edge and there's a trickle down influence on every other kind of production.
danny tz (Aug 23, 2003 1:20:42 PM)
What year was the Jackson Five video shoot?
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:20:56 PM)
The Jackson Five video shoot was 1973.
Brooksie (Aug 23, 2003 1:21:02 PM)
How did you get involved with the Project Greenlight film, and what did you think of the HBO documentary? Was it a fair and accurate depiction? It made the directors look pretty arrogant and also indecisive. Were they really like that?
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:21:56 PM)
No, they were not like that. As far as the HBO documentary is concerned, in my opinion, it was a travesty. To say that it was unfair and inaccurate would be a massive understatement.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:23:02 PM)
The fact is that Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle did remarkably well under the pressure of shooting their first low-budget movie and the intense scrutiny of the PGL reality show. But please don't misunderstand, and don't be misled, the directors that you saw on Project Greenlight were reinvented under the extremely biased spin imparted by the producers of the series.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:24:16 PM)
At the same time, and I've seen this point made in a couple of chat rooms, you have to say that there were mistakes made. There were missteps. There was a learning curve. Who could possibly expect otherwise?
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:24:51 PM)
Two guys from Maine win a contest based upon some pretty good work and with a great deal of competition. They are given the opportunity to make their first Hollywood film, supposedly being nurtured and supported in that process. The charge of the television show, as it was explained to me prior to my agreeing to shoot The Battle of Shaker Heights, was to be "a documentary about film production."
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:26:18 PM)
The reality show spin, the bogus infusion of fake drama that so pervaded the first season, was ostensibly going to give way to a more fair and balanced portrayal. Obviously that was not the case. And it's unfortunate, but I suppose understandable, given the fact that nobody wants to watch a show without conflict.
eff-stopper (Aug 23, 2003 1:26:41 PM)
After reading the script for The Battle of Shaker Heights, would you have selected Kyle and Efram to direct or would you have gone with on of the other directorial finalists?
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:27:22 PM)
This is an intriguing question. In order to answer it, I sort of have to go into a time warp. But I'm willing to do that.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:28:17 PM)
I would have to say that a more logical decision would have been to award the assignment to the woman who was so enamored of the script in the first place, and was so ardent in her desire to direct Erica's screenplay.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:29:21 PM)
It is true that Kyle and Efram's body of work before Battle of Shaker Heights was not related to this genre. And so if someone is getting a film to direct as an assignment, I guess one has to think about whether it's a good match. I hope that's helpful in answering your question.
E_the_AC (Aug 23, 2003 1:29:25 PM)
HBO does a great job of demonstrating how directors/writers interact w/ all the key people on the set and in the offices, but there wasn’t much evidence of the interplay between the departments. Was that dynamic ignored by the PGL cameras?
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:31:03 PM)
I don't think it was consciously ignored. But if you consider the mountain of material that the PGL editors had to contend with I think they had to eliminate a great deal of the on-set process, the interplay between departments and so forth, in order to focus on the main story structure, i.e., the struggle and the dynamic and the character arc of the directors and the writer and the producers.
SBDP (Aug 23, 2003 1:31:12 PM)
Have you worked on other films where a production was being documented for posterity? If so, how did those experiences compare with Project Greenlight?
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:32:19 PM)
Almost all films that I have worked on have had video crews on set in order to either make promotional materials for the studio, i.e., the "electronic press kit," or we have had crews visiting from any one of a number of networks, Entertainment Tonight, the foreign press, etc.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:32:59 PM)
The difference between these experiences and Project Greenlight is pretty significant. As far as the EPK, electronic press kit, is concerned, that is first and foremost a marketing tool for the film. It is non-controversial and essentially advertising oriented.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:33:54 PM)
Even the independent coverage of a production of a film (Entertainment Tonight and so forth) rarely, if ever, touches any controversy. But the fact is the journalists have access to the film set only through the good graces of the studios and the unit publicity. The quid pro quo is that for them to have access to the stars, the director, and the on-set activities, they have to be, shall we say, relatively discreet in how they do their work. That means no hard questions and trying not to rock the boat.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:34:57 PM)
I don't think anyone looks for hard hitting coverage in the entertainment press. It's usually fluff and appeals to the broadest and maybe the lowest common denominator in the television viewing audience.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:35:51 PM)
Project Greenlight, on the other hand, was an extremely willful depiction of the production of a film. It was carefully crafted, and in order for it to weave its story, it was necessary to take the key players and reinvent them in a way that served their purpose.
Langley (Aug 23, 2003 1:35:55 PM)
Did PGL spark a desire for you to get back into shooting documentaries again?
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:36:23 PM)
It sparked a desire for me to run away from any lens pointing in my direction. (LOL, only kidding.)
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:37:23 PM)
Seriously, I have always loved the documentary expression. I just did a film last year called Los Zafiros: Music From the Edge of Time, which we shot in Cuba on 720P. It's a wonderful music film that is just now making the festival circuit. I think there is much to be learned by going out with a box with three lights and knowing that you don't have a truckfull of equipment to rely on. It sort of gets you back to basics.
Ralph (Aug 23, 2003 1:37:57 PM)
Why do you think so many great narrative cameramen come from the world of documentaries?
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:38:24 PM)
Maybe it's because you literally learn to see the world as it is. If you think about some of the great still photographers, working without any powers of manipulation except in the darkroom, it sort of erases any of that conceit that in order to make art, you have to equate that with having huge amounts of equipment and having scores of people at your disposal.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:39:17 PM)
A lot of times when I was shooting documentaries I couldn't light anything, I just had to put the lens in the right place. It's humbling, but it also leads you sometimes to exactly the right photography choice.
CamLens (Aug 23, 2003 1:39:42 PM)
You have a pretty unique perch from which to observe the evolution of CGI. In hindsight, were films like Beetlejuice or Jumanji all you wanted them to be? How much different would they be today working with the tools that are now available?
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:40:08 PM)
That's a great question.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:40:36 PM)
Beetlejuice, of course, was at a watershed. Although it isn't really in what we would call the "distant past," it was nevertheless a time when blue screen was a large and challenging enterprise. It was a time when many effects could still be done in camera. Tim was intrigued with that possibility and we used it several times in Beetlejuice.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:41:37 PM)
In Jumanji, there was a tremendous sense of liberation. We could now make moving camera shots that would be composited with other layers in a CGI shot. And all of a sudden it was, "oh, don't worry about motion control, just give us some witness marks and we'll make it work."
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:42:43 PM)
I think what I found most daunting and I started noticing it in the production of Jumanji was that we, as cinematographers, had to begin timing our film months ahead of the end of post-production. I would be getting film clips brought to me on set, and wedges, that had to be evaluated. Decisions had to be made so the people at ILM could carry out their work in the hundreds of composited digital shots that would ultimately be used. But I had to in effect time the film piecemeal way before I would ordinarily do so.
Isaac (Aug 23, 2003 1:43:38 PM)
You worked with Tim Burton on Beetlejuice. What do you think makes him such a brilliant director, especially visually. Can you give an example or two.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:44:24 PM)
Actually, I had two experiences shooting with Tim, the first being a half-hour B&W short called Frank 'n' Weenie for Disney in 1983. Tim is a brilliant visual director because he is an artist. He is truly an artist. He brings that vision to everything that he does. It was what was so striking about his process from the moment I met him.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:45:49 PM)
Now, as to his methods, I guess everyone might have the common wisdom that when you work with a strong visual director that everything is spelled out clearly, there's some sort of a dictatorial super explicit process where all you do is follow the numbers and the photography pops out.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:47:01 PM)
Tim's way of working is, first of all, to create an environment in which his vision of the film infuses the whole process. He has deep and very strong convictions to how he wants things to look. But sometimes his way of steering you to the realization is sort of oblique. It's not direct. It's not explicit. I remember when we were choosing colors for Beetlejuice, gel colors, and lighting styles, he would say things like, "Well, Tom, just make this look weird." And sometimes he would cite a music video that I had shown him, something we had screened together. If someone had been standing there listening, they would have said well that's not very clear.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:48:11 PM)
But sometimes those kinds of comments were part of a code, one piece of information, integrated with lots of other guidance on all kinds of levels. So that ultimately it became everything that Tim wanted it to be.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:49:02 PM)
And of course, anyone who's seen any Tim Burton films knows that the production design is fundamental. It is something that is so linked with the film and is so much an expression of Tim's view of the world, that for a photographer it becomes a very clear roadmap for everything that follows.
CamLens (Aug 23, 2003 1:49:07 PM)
How did you come to shoot Frankenweenie, and why did you pick that as your first film?
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:50:20 PM)
Actually, Frankenweenie was not my first film as a DP. Although it was the first film which I shot in the Union. I wanted to work on the film because I was intrigued with this guy Tim Burton, who at that time hadn't done much except an extremely low-budget project for the Disney Channel. But he was a fascinating guy. He seemed to be a filmmaker that was going to take Frankenweenie to a pretty interesting place.
Wide Angle (Aug 23, 2003 1:50:43 PM)
You mentioned that John McPherson was very influential on you. How?
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:51:08 PM)
For one thing, he was one of the first DPs that I had a chance to operate for once I got my union card. I was very green; I was very new to the studio system. And John always made me feel welcome on the set. I felt as if my little contribution panning and tilting, maybe on a B or C camera while we were doing a stunt or a car chase, I felt that that contribution was welcome. And it was gratifying.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:52:20 PM)
I also have to say that – and remember that we are now talking about the late '70s, TV series photography – I have to say that John McPherson's lighting style and whole photographic approach was pretty much on the cutting edge. He felt confident to under-light at a time when most of his colleagues were lining up Maxi-brutes and just incinerating everything on camera. Literally burning it up.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:53:09 PM)
In contrast, I remember working once on a Kojak episode with John. He had chosen to light a practical location with only the fixture in the ceiling. And I walked by the trucks and I heard the grips and electricians grumbling about how he wasn't using any equipment. Probably that was a fairly unique experience, because it was the only time I ever heard anybody on a crew complaining about not having enough work to do.
Brooksie (Aug 23, 2003 1:53:54 PM)
What did you learn from working as an operator with some of the old-timers, Joe Biroc and Benny Coleman, for example?
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:54:32 PM)
I guess one of the big lessons was crew leadership. These guys were tough. They'd seen it all. They knew that at the end of the day, they would be accountable for the photography.
They saw directors on the TV series shuffling in and out. And by that time in their careers they had shot God knows how many hundreds and thousands of days in the industry. But they were unflappable.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:55:54 PM)
We can look back and we can perhaps see their work and we can split hairs as to the nuances of their writing style, but they certainly shows the importance of confidence and leadership in getting the day's work done.
eff-stopper (Aug 23, 2003 1:56:02 PM)
You were very eloquent in discussing why Dickie Roberts was filmed in anamorphic format. There is a perception at least at one studio that it cost more money to shoot in anamorphic. Was that an issue and how would you handle it if it came up?
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:56:57 PM)
I think at many studios there is a concern that anamorphic production is more costly. And like any other process, there are assets and liabilities.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 1:58:37 PM)
But I think it's important to de-bunk the old wives' tale and discuss anamorphic in a more empirical, factual way. For anyone who wants to have a wonderful condensation, a side-by-side comparison of anamorphic and spherical photography, I would suggest that they read a paper written by Rod Hummell. He did a great job in his comparison. But one of the things he de-bunked was that old paranoia about depth of focus. The fact is, and I've tested this side by side, that if you have the same size shot, if the angle of view is the same, and if you have the same stop on the lens, then spherical and anamorphic look pretty much the same.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 2:00:18 PM)
Now, on the negative side, there is a very good reason to be worried about lens flare with anamorphic. You have to be far more cautious. There's a lot more work for the grips and the camera department to do in terms of stopping any stray light because you will have problems if you are not careful.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 2:00:58 PM)
As far as the aesthetics of anamophic, I think you either like to compose in that format or you don't. And here, for directors and cinematographers both, that's sort of a very subjective consideration and you can't answer the question in any kind of scientific way.
paulie walnuts (Aug 23, 2003 2:01:14 PM)
I read that you decided to take a step back and work as a camera operator for a number of years. It retrospect , did you learn enough to make up for the time you lost as a cinematographer, and would you make the same decision today, or recommend it to someone today?
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 2:02:16 PM)
Here again, I think everybody writes their own script. If you walked away from a series of wonderful projects as a cinematographer to pan and tilt for someone else – and of course here I'm over-simplifying – then I think you might give it a second thought.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 2:03:03 PM)
However, that said, for me there was no better way to learn the real heartbeat of a set, the way things worked at the studios. For me it was a chance to go from the small independent world to the world of major scale production. And I was of course inspired by many of the DPs for whom I had the pleasure of operating. Their lighting styles, their philosophies, really empowered me and confirmed some tendencies that I had had, and gave rise to all kinds of new possibilities.
steadicamoperator.com (Aug 23, 2003 2:03:38 PM)
Hi Tom, I read that you are from Iowa. I'm originally from Des Moines, Iowa but I now live and work in L.A. as a Steadicam Operator. Where in Iowa are you from and where did you go to school for film. How was the program there?
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 2:04:43 PM)
I went to University of Iowa in Iowa City. At the time that I got my BA, we didn't have a film school per se, although there were several film production classes and we had decent equipment. The program for me gave me complete access and really planted some seeds that were important. The department at Iowa has grown considerably since then and I think bears investigation by anyone who is looking for a school.
Cal (Aug 23, 2003 2:05:06 PM)
Did you have a problem getting the studio to agree to film dailies on Dickie Roberts? There is so much hype about video dailies being better and cheaper?
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 2:06:11 PM)
I don't recall that we ever had that discussion. I don't think there was ever a question that we would not have film dailies. It might have been touched on very briefly, but there was never a serious request from the studio to have video dailies rather than film.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 2:06:21 PM)
Yes, there is a great deal of hype on video dailies, and they are certainly cheaper. But there is no comparison to seeing the picture on the big screen. Just in terms of inspecting your focus, for example. You can talk to any number of producers, cameramen and directors alike who have had focus problems that have gone undetected by video dailies until they began to finish their films in the lab many months after production was wrapped.
k2obren (Aug 23, 2003 2:07:49 PM)
What do you do differently when working with new directors?
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 2:09:12 PM)
First of all, you have to listen carefully. You have to be open not only to what they say but to all the pieces of the puzzle. What films do they love? What books are they reading? They bring so much to their process that isn't easily summarized on a neat little list. Basically, every director/cameraman relationship is different.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 2:09:43 PM)
You don't relate to directors in some kind of a rote way. You try to find out who they are and that's what guides you ultimately.
Op_Ed (Aug 23, 2003 2:10:10 PM)
Were you satisfied with the way The Battle of Shaker Heights came out in the end? Is it the film that you envisioned in the beginning?
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 2:10:46 PM)
I'm really happy with the look of the film. I think the crew can be proud of their contributions. It doesn't look like a 22-day super low-budget project.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 2:11:43 PM)
As far as the story and the film as a film, I'm afraid I'm no longer objective. There's been so much press attention, there's been so much negative and in fact hateful commentary, and any number of really cheap shots taken in the press and on the web, that it has sort of contaminated my whole view of the thing.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 2:12:53 PM)
I will say that at the premiere there were some pretty favorable and in fact heartwarming reactions to The Battle of Shaker Heights. And I think that Kyle and Efram can feel good about their accomplishment. But I heard from many sources at the premiere last week, including many industry people who have no reason to say anything good, that they really liked the picture.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 2:14:55 PM)
By the way, anyone who has read Kenneth Turran's current review in yesterday's L.A. Times would have to say that he has, as far as I'm concerned, forfeited any right to present himself as a reviewer of film. Maybe I'm being simplistic, but I thought that a review was to address the success or failure of the work. He reviewed not only the movie but what his perceptions of the directors were in PGL. It seemed an unforgivably low blow. And in so reviewing the film, he lowered himself to the lowest common denominator of the audience out there who just want to sit on their sofas and watch somebody get voted off the island. I really had expected something better than that from Mr. Turran.
NanOp (Aug 23, 2003 2:14:58 PM)
Do you have any advice for young filmmakers considering entering the PGL competition next year?
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 2:15:49 PM)
Here I'm struggling to be positive. Because I think that the notion of Project Greenlight is extremely worthy of support. That's why I and my crew agreed to shoot the movie for PGL2.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 2:17:44 PM)
I mean, it's really a great idea. You support new filmmakers in their first feature movie. However, I think any filmmaker thinking of entering the competition would have to contemplate the down-side. They would have to seriously wonder how fair a shake they were going to get. Because ultimately PGL is not a documentary. It is a reality show. And has, with its virtually unlimited coverage, its thousands of hours of material, it has the capability of skewing the story arc any way its producers desire.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 2:18:40 PM)
There's an old saying, “Who sups with the devil must have a long spoon.” If you really want to make a film, if you want to have someone hand you on a platter the cameras, the lights, the raw stock, the crew, the studio release, then go for it. Just know that at the end of the day, the story of your making of the film may not be told as you would wish it to be told.
Tom Ackerman (Aug 23, 2003 2:19:46 PM)
Thanks for the opportunity to chat with you all. I've enjoyed this forum many times in the past as my colleagues have taken part. And I welcome the chance to join all of you today. The questions were excellent, and I wish all of you well.
Behind the Scenes with Tom Ackerman during The Battle of Shaker Heights
by Bob Fisher
Just when you think that you have seen and done it all, something different happens. Just ask Tom Ackerman, ASC, who began his career shooting documentaries and political campaign spots with Charles Guggenheim in Washington, D.C. In 1973, he moved to California, where he would compile scores of credits in commercials, music videos, and eventually feature films. Ackerman was a camera operator for a while, which gave him an opportunity to work with such icons as Joe Biroc, ASC, Emil Oster, ASC and Frank Thackery, ASC. His last job as an operator was with Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC, on One From the Heart in 1982. He has subsequently compiled some 25 cinematography credits, including Beetlejuice, Dennis the Menace, Jumanji, George of the Jungle, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and The Muse.
Ackerman had just wrapped principal photography for Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star when his agent called to discuss The Battle of Shaker Heights, the second film produced under the auspices of Project Greenlight. LivePlanet—the company created by Ben Affleck, Sean Bailey, Matt Damon, and Chris Moore—launched the Project Greenlight contest as a platform for nurturing new talent. The contest begins with an online submission and review process, and culminates in the naming of winners in screenwriting and directing competitions. The winners then have the opportunity to make the winning screenplay into a feature film with a $1 million production budget. The movie is produced and released by Miramax and LivePlanet. The behind-the-scenes making of the movie is shot and airs on HBO as a multi-part series.
Erica Beeney bested some 7,200 writers with her script for The Battle of Shaker Heights in this year’s competition. The directors, Efram Potelle and Kyle Rankin, were selected out of thousands of applicants. The co-directors had previously collaborated on several independent projects in Maine, mainly 16mm and DV short films.
Project Greenlight provided a breakthrough opportunity for the co-directors. They had come to Los Angeles in search of their destiny. Potelle was editing digital effects at a post production house in Hollywood, and Rankin was employed as a landscaper in Los Angeles when they were chosen to co-direct The Battle of Shaker Heights.
“My agent said the only caveat was that I had to be willing to be photographed by the HBO documentary crew while we were shooting the film,” Ackerman recalls. “They were going to produce a 12-episode HBO series that would air weekly prior to the release of the film. The documentary crew met me at the door and wired me up for sound when I showed up for my first meeting with Chris, Efram and Kyle.”
Ackerman felt that Potelle and Rankin asked all the right questions and had all the right answers at their initial meeting. He liked the idea of working with talented and enthusiastic young directors on a film. In part, it satisfied his inclination to lend a helping hand to young filmmakers at the dawn of their careers.
“I had a strong feeling that they were people I could work with,” he says. “Each of them brought something a little different to the process. Efram is more visual. He seemed more interested in how you can express ideas and emotions with images. Kyle seemed more focused on the performances, which isn’t surprising since he was a principal actor in a couple of their projects. It was an interesting duality.”
Ackerman decided to accept the film when it was offered to him. One factor was that they were going to produce the film at practical locations in Los Angeles. His one proviso was that he wanted to review the HBO documentary from the previous year. Ackerman had heard that it was quite confrontational. He received a box of tapes, highlighting a couple of episodes that had a lot to do with cinematography.
“Frankly, it made my skin crawl a bit,” he says. “There were questions like, why did they wait until the light was almost gone to make that one magic hour shot? Why did they build this huge crane platform considerably offshore of Lake Michigan, only to cantilever the camera out and look straight down? You can make that shot in a garage. Of course the show paid a lot attention to the missteps and problems. Before I agreed to shoot The Battle of Shaker Heights, I was assured that there would be a more even-handed approach to this year’s series.”
The production was no walk in the park. The script was chosen and the directors were hired in January. Shooting was slated to begin in April and a release date set for cinema screens on August 15. Ackerman had three weeks of preproduction planning and a 22-day shooting schedule.
The Battle of Shaker Heights is essentially a coming of age story. Shia LaBeouf plays the film’s principal character Kelly Enswiler, a 16-year-old high school student who has endured several tough years in a dysfunctional family. The weak link is his father, Abe Enswiler, a former hard drug addict, played by William Sadler. He has been on the wagon and turned a corner in his life for a couple of years, but his son still harbors a great deal of resentment and rage. Kelly’s mother Eve Enswiler is an artist, and played by Kathleen Quinlan. She is more tuned in to her son’s psyche.
“Efram and Kyle were thirsty to drink in as much information as possible before we started shooting,” Ackerman says. “We created storyboards and shot lists during the first week of preproduction. During the second and third weeks, we scouted locations and walked the sets together. When you’ve got a budget as small as we had, there aren’t a lot of choices, because you’re not going to be building sets. The most important location was the house of Kelly’s friend Bart Bowland (played by Elden Henson). His dad is rich, so it had to be appropriate. We found a place in Pasadena with every attribute we wanted.”
Ackerman says that the co-directors made an important decision by bringing the right production designer onboard. Potelle, Rankin and the producers chose Lisa Sessions, who was moving into production design after having been a set decorator for several years. She had a meager budget, which Ackerman estimates at around $30,000.
“In scene after scene, she took what she had and made it work brilliantly,” he observes. “It’s a textbook example of how you can transform locations by adding a few simple elements. The directors envisioned a naturalistic look and feeling, and they weren’t looking to gratuitously push the envelope when it came to coverage and camera choreography. There were times when I could see them worrying about how much time it would take to lay a section of dolly track, because that might have been their experience with student crews. I’d tell them, ‘Guys, I know what you’re thinking, but don’t be afraid to use a crane or dolly. We’ll make it work, and you’ll be happy.’”
There were no makeup or costume tests, but Ackerman says that wasn’t a hindrance because there were no problematic actors. “I had worked with Amy Smart, who plays Tabby, on Rat Race, and knew she could take light from virtually any angle,” he says. “Shia has a very interesting face with wonderful eyes, and Kathleen is a beautiful woman. The father is probably in his late 40s or early 50s, so he has a few wrinkles, but he has fantastic, piercing blue eyes which reveal the intensity of his feelings.”
Despite the time and budget constraints, it was a given that The Battle of Shaker Heights would be produced in 35 mm film format. Ackerman says that Kodak, Panavision, FotoKem and other companies provided considerable support. He says that the camera guild and other locals have a low budget contract, which helped to make it feasible to produce the film in Los Angeles. He believes that was essential, because it took a skilled and talented crew to bring the film in on schedule without compromising.
They had storyboards for a fair number of sequences and had shot lists for every scene. Ackerman got them going during the first week or so, and the co-directors took over after that. He began each day reviewing the shot lists with the first assistant director Dennis Benatar. Ackerman says they concentrated on getting the essential shots, and trying not to bite off more than they could chew because he knew if it wasn’t in the can at the end of that day, there would be no coming back. He considers the AD to be a key collaborator along with his gaffer, grips, camera operator, focus puller and the rest of the crew.
“I shared my take on what we needed to do to cover particular scenes with Dennis,” Ackerman says. “He was very receptive. Nothing is more frustrating than being ready with lighting and the camera at the perfect time of day, only to find out somebody is doing makeup or that the right prop isn’t there. Your relationship with the AD is crucial on every film, especially one like this.”
Ackerman says that one of the bonuses was that The Battle of Shaker Heights gave him an opportunity to move Steve Hiller, his long time focus puller, up to operator.
“Ben Affleck and Matt Damon and the Miramax people were very involved in nurturing the directors and writer, and they helped with the script and casting,” Ackerman says. “They came on the set a couple of times and couldn’t have been more supportive.”
Ackerman recommended composing in Academy aperture 1.85:1 aspect ratio, because he felt it was the correct aesthetic for the sets and story. He also wanted the flexibility of using Panavision Primo spherical lenses. His camera package was modest, including a Panaflex Platinum camera with an assortment of Primo primes and zooms, and occasionally an ARRI 435 for ramping, and a Panavision Lightweight camera for Steadicam shots.
His film palette consisted of a mix of Kodak Vision2 500T 5218 film and Kodak Vision 250D 5246 film. Ackerman used the new 5218 emulsion for almost all interiors and night scenes, and the 5246 film for daytime exteriors and interiors.
“With the 5218 negative, you can stop lighting sooner because you don’t have to worry about shadow details,” he says. “It’s a 500-speed film that sees deep into the shadows. It also has a tremendous response curve at the brighter end of the scale.”
The 5246 emulsion is rated for an exposure index of 250 when exposed in daylight. He says that the speed gave him an edge in leveraging practical light.
“The relationship with the lab was crucial,” Ackerman notes. “I got feedback from Mark Van Horn every day. I’d get the negative report and his impression of the dailies even before I saw them. Every now and then, he would put a roll of negative on the Hazeltine, so I got printer lights even though we weren’t making film dailies. He gave me a fix on densities, which I equated to what I saw on the Beta SP dailies. Mark has a good eye, and I knew he was watching out for us.”
The story takes place in a relatively condensed 15-day period of time. It begins in a park-like setting where a young deer is grazing. The deer is surrounded by ethereal looking banks of floating mist. Ackerman backlit the night scene. There are some figures running in slow motion. They are infantrymen dressed in World War II uniforms. Ackerman ramped from 64 frames per second to a normal 24. A mortar hits and the camera trucks and dollies through the trees, showing the audience the unfolding action from an intensely subjective perspective in a series of visual impressions.
There is a fierce firefight underway. A cell phone rings. That’s when the audience discovers that re-enactors are fighting the battle in contemporary times.
“This scene wouldn’t have had the oomph without strong back-light and smoke,” he says. “It almost romanticizes the feeling of the battle as compared to a gray, dark day.”
They filmed the battle scene at the Arboretum in Los Angeles.
“It’s not a contemporary version of Father Knows Best,” Ackerman relates. “Shia portrays a good student who is very bright and mature beyond his years, though he is also really quirky. He’s a World War II re-enactor, where he’s found his identity and a refuge from the realities of his life. There is humor and also poignant moments.”
“Kyle and Efram always knew where they wanted to go in terms of the mood and the heartbeat of each scene,” he observes. “They bounced ideas off one another, and usually came up with something a little different and better. They were remarkably clear, decisive and at ease with the co-directing process.”
There is a sequence where Shia meets his friend Bart Bowland’s sister in an art supply store. His sister, Tabby Bowland, is played by Amy Smart. It is the beginning of his romantic encounter with a 23-year-old college student.
“This very important scene is book ended with about a half page of dialogue that carries them from the store to her Range Rover parked outside,” Ackerman recalls. “As frequently happened on this film, we didn’t have time for proper coverage, so we had to get it all into one long dolly shot. The interior of the store looked really great with brushes, canvases and racks of paint that were inherently very colorful. The outside of the store was a bright cinder block wall with an interesting sign on top of the building. Lisa (Sessions) created about a dozen colored squares that she deployed horizontally in front of the building. There are pretty dramatic gradations in colors. She also used some very nicely sculpted potted trees, and spaced them so there was a geometric and colorful environment that went perfectly with the interior. It was exactly the right background for that shot. We had to block to avoid getting reflections on the car.”
Ackerman also describes a sequence where some of the re-enactors stage a mock raid, kind of a swat team drill, on a bully’s house. It happens in the middle of the night, so the lighting was very low-key. He strapped flashlights on the muzzles of the carbines carried by the reenactors and used their beams to penetrate the darkness.
There was a night exterior shot of the mansion in Pasadena. Ackerman notes that the permit from the city required shutting down at 10 p.m.
“There is no way we could extend the shooting day, and we had exactly eight minutes to light a wide shot of the front of the house,” he says. “The plug was definitely going to be pulled. We panned a Mighty Mole over from lighting a previous shot and bounced another one off a four by eight Beadboard thrown down onto the driveway. I grabbed a 2K Nooklite from craft service and raked it across some greenery in the foreground. The shot was great except at the last second you can see the shadow of an electrician running out of the frame.”
Ackerman notes that not having all the bells and whistles created a sense of freedom rather than constraint. If he didn’t have money for a Musco he would float a balloon light instead. He lit big interior scenes with a China ball and one other lamp.
There is a big scene outside a church in Pasadena that takes place near the end of the film. Ackerman says that around 80 percent of that shot was lit night for day in order to complete a scene after the sun sank on the horizon.
“I think you have to be a student of natural light,” he says. “You have to decide where the sun is supposed to be in the sky and whether there would be any ambient bounce, such as sunbeams reflecting off the pavement or a wall that’s a different color. Our lighting had to be interactive. We were replicating soft sunlight bouncing off a church wall, which was made of sandstone brick. I warmed the light with an amber gel on an 18K HMI and did some modeling with a 12 by12 muslin.”
Most camera movement consisted of classic dolly shots with long lenses. Ackerman also had use of a Steadicam for several days, which he primarily utilized for walking and talking shots. In those situations, he sometimes used floating bounce cards and nets on the lamps with Matt Chubet operating the Steadicam.
The HBO crew was ubiquitous, but it generally managed to stay out of the way, Ackerman acknowledges. He only recalls two or three times when somebody got in the shot or was intrusive, but there were always multiple cameras around the cast and crew, and at one time he counted five microphone booms used by the documentary crew.
“Obviously we were under a lot of scrutiny,” says Ackerman, “and there is no such thing as ‘cinema verite.’ The minute you make a single cut in a roll of film, you’ve created a different point of view. When the shooting ratio is literally several hundred to one, you have enough material to restructure what happened and give it any spin you want. That being said, the making of a low-budget feature film in 22 days is a rich source of challenges and drama. It should give the PGL (Project Greenlight) audience a pretty good ride. The crew did a phenomenal job and I think they’re going to be seen in that light.
“In any film, the dialogue between the cinematographer and the director is never-ending. It’s an incredibly powerful link between people who are pursuing the same vision. You’re joined at the hip for months in a relationship that has one purpose: To serve the film. In Project Greenlight, that relationship was recorded in minute detail. I trust the editors and showrunners will show the process for what it was. It began well and it ended well. We’re all friends, and we accomplished some excellent work together.
“Working on a film like this is a great exercise,” Ackerman says. “It was a wonderful opportunity to practice the aesthetics of putting one or two lights in the right places. We chose locations based on how they would help tell the story, and how natural light would play at certain times of day. I’d ask myself, while we were scouting, what kind of light are we going have here in the afternoon? What kind of opportunity is it going to give me to work with a relatively small package so I didn’t have to build it all from scratch? I think my documentary experience helped immensely on this film.”
There are memorable father-son scenes. The last one is in the hospital where the father is recovering from a bout with a life-threatening illness. Shia goes to see him.
“We shot this scene very early in production, and despite Lisa’s wonderful dressing of the location, it was a very institutional, antiseptic place,” Ackerman recalls. “We only had the opportunity to do a couple of takes. I tried to create contrast without interfering with the credibility of the scene. The directors wanted to end the scene by pulling back from the room and dollying down the hallway. It was a really ugly hall with a low ceiling.”
Ackerman notes that the stage was set for that sequence by the way the father is depicted earlier in the story. He lives in a drab house in a grey world and is usually seen in gaunt shadows in neo-realistic light. The dad is under a cloud of suspicion. There’s a scene where he is hanging out across the street acting suspiciously with somebody who is sitting in a shiny new car. The audience and his son think that he’s doing a drug deal. It turns out he was talking to a realtor because their house is on the market.
Later in the story, the father comes across as essentially empathetic. There is one touching scene where he is at home preparing a pile of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to bring to a clinic for recovering drug addicts.
“I think one of the issues that the filmmakers and actors struggled with, and I also thought about, was whether we were forfeiting some sympathy for Shia’s character because he was ragging on his father so hard from day one. The audience never sees the father doing anything wrong, but the boy talks about it incessantly. It will be interesting to see how that dynamic plays out with the audience.”
In retrospect, Ackerman contends that the ambivalence the crew shared about Project Greenlight at the outset was largely gone at the finish. “The producers, the directors, and Miramax had gone out of their way to express gratitude for a job well done,” says Ackerman. “Everybody felt truly appreciated. They felt good about helping to make Efram and Kyle’s film a reality. Having to do more with less only brought people closer together.”
Dennis the Menace: The Imp Takes on a Whole New Audience
by Bob Fisher
(This article originally appeared in International Photographer Magazine in June 1993.)
It is a quiet morning in the beautiful neighborhood of Anywhere, USA. The birds are chirping. The grass is green. The streets are safe, even inviting. What few clouds dot the sky are fanciful and benign. All is right with the world.
On such a day George Wilson might heave a sigh as he reaches into the hedge for his favorite newspaper, relishing the solitude of the morning.
"Mr. Wilson!" a piercing voice cries from a nearby sidewalk. Wilson's face fills with dread. His worst fears are realized. Dennis is home! And he's heading directly for the Wilson house.
Dennis The Menace is back, in an authentic portrayal of the troubleprone kid three generations of children have come to love, and identify with. And, after six months on location in Chicago, Tom Ackerman, the movie's cinematographer, should be well-acquainted with the 'world according to Dennis.'
"It is true. Trouble seems to follow Dennis. But I'm not talking about a malevolent 'bad seed' here. He's made of the same stuff of all kids his age - innocence combined with a huge dose of energy and curiosity. My son, Alex, finds it next to impossible to resist pushing a button, for example. ANY button. This doesn't mean he wants to dump a couple of hours work on the computer. It is just an impulse to satisfy the question of the moment - What does this thing do?
"Kids tend to observe the adult world in simple terms. We're the ones who are carrying the excess baggage. There are some terrific scenes between Dennis (Mason Gamble) and Wilson (Walter Matthau) based on that premise. Dennis sees things with great clarity. And the irrefutable logic that Wilson's several extra decades on the planet have long since taken from him. He's not an ogre, either. Crotchety and curmudgeonly - absolutely! But the relationship between Wilson and Dennis evolves in this movie. It's not just a smart aleck kid hassling the old geezer next door. The film was conceived as a much more interesting adventure."
When cartoonist Hank Ketchum first created Dennis he was inspired by the world he learned to see through the eyes of his own son. It is this enormously popular character that is now brought to the screen by Writer/Producer John Hughes and Director Nick Castle.
The film's story unfolds during the first days of summer vacation. It is a time of endless possibilities. Most adults might be hard-pressed to remember what it was like to fill a long summer day with events of their own choosing. No one-line schedules. No Six AM calls. No pressure of any kind.
The basic elements of Dennis' idyllic neighborhood, though considerably embellished, were found in Evanston, Illinois, with additional locations in Hinsdale and Winnetka. "The idea was to contrast the modest Mitchell house with the more imposing Wilson place," recalls Ackerman, whose Midwestern roots made him feel very much at home. "As is sometimes the case with childless couples, the Wilsons have developed rituals in which their possessions take on exaggerated importance. George, in particular, is really hung up on his stuff. Martha (Joan Plowright) is much more relaxed. Still, they're such creatures of habit that Dennis' intrusion is all the more grating on George.
"The Mitchell place, on the other hand, was to be simpler and cozier. And, once the right pair of houses was found, side by side, surrounded by the correct neighborhood, we had them reproduced on stage."
The key locations chosen for large-scale exterior shooting had mirror-image counterparts faithfully executed at the Hughes soundstage in nearby Skokie.
"We knew our schedule would take us into cold weather, not exactly ideal for a summer movie," Ackerman recounted. "Then there was the challenge of working with the children and their limited hours. Going on stage was an absolute necessity. We had complicated logistics to begin with, and with the kids turning into pumpkins every time you turned around, we needed as much control over the shooting environment as possible. As a result, there's a lot of this film that originated on the stage on Touhy Avenue - day and night, interior and exterior. There really wasn't much that eluded us there."
One of the first decisions Ackerman made was not to over-control the visual elements. "Having survived all the vagaries and punishment of location shooting, there's a temptation when you get back to the stage to lock things down. Obviously, that would be a terrible mistake. It's not that any of us look forward to the insanity of Tragic Hour, the pursuit of great light before it sours. But some great things happen when the adrenalin is pumping. You don't want to stifle that energy when you go on stage."
Recreating a credible day exterior look for Dennis The Menace was one of Ackerman's main challenges and, eventually, one of his obsessions. "We were trying to convey the pristine first few days of a child's summer vacation. Deeply imbedded in the protocol of our little world was the fact that the sky would never, ever by cloudy. Yet, shooting scene after scene in merciless sunlight was not an acceptable option. Nick and I soon determined that the key word would be 'dapple.' Dennis' neighborhood and its surroundings would always be seen, by day, in a sun-drenched mode. But when possible, action would be played in the shade, with hot sun dapple ever-present in the background.
"The task on stage was to recreate the anomalies of the original location work. Sunlight streaking across a background, or pounding through a window, really did have to be hot - almost out of control in terms of overexposure. And we tried hard to keep the color faithful. In the late afternoon scenes, I keyed with half or three-quarter CTO and maintained half CTB bouncing from large muslins rigged over the backyard sets to keep that nice contrast of cooler skylight as evening approaches.
"I wouldn't want to suggest that we were slaves to reality. One always looks for the chance to depart from the way things look, anyway. I just wanted to be sure the credibility level was not open to question, which in turn could undermine the movie. It was reassuring to work on grading the answer print with the timer at Technicolor and occasionally lose track myself of what scenes were shot on stage."
According to Ackerman, much of the credit for an effective 'visual' goes to the movie's greensman Phil Hurst and his assistant, John Vela. "This was Olympic, world-class greens work," says Ackerman. "Phil gave us everything we asked for. We couldn't have kept consistent with our un-compromising approach, if they hadn't been so talented. We were all obsessive about detail - depth, color, 'randomness' of foliage, movement of leaves. "Certain trees or branches became favorites - some were useful as foreground pieces, some as background, others as shadow gags. If Ted Rhodes, my key grip, and his crew were paid by the leaf, they could have retired at the end of the show! The crew was constantly arranging and rearranging entire artificial trees with foliage wired together by hand. Phil also maintained several thousand square feet of real grass, which did so well in the enclosed space that it had to be mowed regularly!
"Our stage work was typified by contrast. Often I would light a medium shot in, say, the Mitchell kitchen. The foreground action, the real meat of the shot, would be keyed with a Baby Junior double diffused through a 6 by 6 frame of grid cloth. The background as seen through the window, when all the bells, whistles, and dapple had been added, might take two thousand amps of power, if not more.
"We had two Mole-Richardson 20k's as the best and smoothest source of 'sunlight,' but lots of 10k Big-eyes, Sky Pans, Striplights, Maxi-brutes (for bounce), and a very large complement of smaller incandescent lamps, many of which might be in play during a given set up. There were moments when Larry Kennedy or Bill Ward, who shared gaffing duties, would have to warn me that our inventory was close to being maxed out."
The production crew's cooperation made the tough job much easier. "Director Nick Castle was always a steadfast ally in pursuing the look for the picture. He was very keen on what the camera could achieve, and was a great supporter of the efforts going into the lighting.
"One of Nick's aspirations was to portray Dennis' point-of-view. Not to make the camera into a kid, with forced angles and extremely wide lenses, but more to fashion a sense of the neighborhood as beautiful and hospitable. A place where kids can venture into non-spooky woods, or where playing hide-and seek after dark is a safe thing to do."
In contrast, the world of Chris Lloyd's 'Switchblade Sam' needed to be ominous. The scenes with the film's evil influence took the crew, and the audience, out of the friendly neighborhood and into a much sketchier look. "At one point in the climax Switchblade ensconces himself under a railroad bridge. Here all the lighting was motivated by a single bonfire, with a trace of blue moonlight accenting the surrounding terrain. There was a stream running alongside Sam's camp, which enabled us to skip some tasty reflective patterns from the surface of the water onto the underside of the bridge.
"Usually I keyed with pure firelight, then blended in incandescent lamps with full CTO gel. It was always a challenge to maintain the logic of where the light was coming from. The geography of the campsite was so specific that I didn't feel we could be too cavalier about the direction of the source. And as a result, a lot of the coverage was the fire playing as backlight.
"Switchblade Sam is definitely a swarthy guy, but the greasiness of his appearance actually helped in the murky conditions. Even when we worked at dark levels his face picked up the light nicely. By the way, it's to Kenny Myers' great credit that I never had to rethink lighting or recompose a shot to disguise any shortcoming in the special effects make-up. This held true even when we framed Sam so tightly his face looked like the craters of the moon.
"Like many of our sets, the railroad bridge and creek were inspired and established on location, then reproduced at Touhy. In the case of Sam's camp, we did the night establishing shots two months before continuing the coverage on stage. This meant Nick had to give a lot of thought about how this long, elaborate sequence would eventually be blocked. And I had to be careful not to light us into a corner. It was really in preparing that initial bit that the ideas of how to play the single-source campfire originated, as well as the water reflections and the general treatment of the background.
"Some of the inspiration for our night work might have come from some of the wonderful N.C. Wyeth illustrations of the 20s and 30s, especially some of his work in Last of the Mohicans," says Ackerman. "Now, in spit of or maybe because of the fact that he was painting for childrens' books, the drama of these images leaps right off the page. Long golden streams of twilight trail off to the most lustrous black shadows you've ever seen. It's a marvelous example of the artist as a storyteller, a perfect blend of the visual and narrative elements.
"I think of the photographer on a movie as an illustrator. We put our craft in the service of a screenplay.
"We're fortunate in this undertaking to have some pretty impressive resources to draw on. In this case, the Chicago crew, in addition to my key people, were of the highest quality, both in terms of skills and attitude. They still seem to be excited about making movies.
"My next film will also be shot in Chicago, and I'm already getting goose bumps thinking about observing Steve Hiller, our first assistant, on Dennis, whip out his laser pen and tape it to the dolly for super-accurate focus marks.
"I recall a night in Wilmette when he had to pull focus on a 270 degree pan shot of an entire brigade of neighbors out searching for Dennis. It was an intricate move, with the camera being conveyed by a Technocrane astride the Chapman Supernova, leading to a closeup of Margaret in her second-story bedroom window. Steve made the shot, take after take, with T2 on the Primo 35mm. All from a control console fifty feet away from the action, Yes, I'm willing to return to Chicago.
"But all good experiences and crew camaraderie are extraneous if they fail to illustrate the film. Basically, I think we have to seek the heart of the movie as single-mindedly as we shoot the setups."