Conrad Hall, who is receiving the ASC’s Lifetime Achievement Award for 1994, has an Oscar for his cinematography on “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and Oscar nominations for six other films (“Morituri,””The Professionals,””In Cold Blood,””The Day of the Locust,””Tequila Sunrise”– for which he also received the ASC’s Outstanding Achievement Award for a feature in 1988 — and this year’s “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” also nominated for the ASC features honor).
The dozens of films Hall has photographed since his first major feature, “The Wild Seed,” in 1961, increasingly reveal a visual style as individual as Breugel’s or Hogarth’s (an artist he particularly admires). The hallmark, so to speak, of his most personal work is a look of unvarnished naturalism which makes the subject matter appear not so much to have been lit as to have been discovered and recorded just as it was found. The approach requires no less artistry than the carefully modeled and thoughtfully composed images that were the glory of an earlier Hollywood and in some cases still are. But it derives from a different philosophy.
In his self-mocking way, Hall says, “I’m a funky kind of artist, a different kind — Hogarthian! For the benefit of the story, I like to use things that people used to consider false in cinematography, like flares in the lens, adverse light, images too bright or too dark. I use them to produce emotional magic in the images. I don’t start from scratch and impose a photographic image; I like to absorb what’s there and manipulate it.”
He works, Hall says, as if what he was shooting wasn’t a movie, but “as if what you’re seeing is reality lit the way the reality is lit. You use your photographic sensibility to alter it if it’s not right, or augment it.”
As a young operator earning his spurs in the union, he worked with many of the giants of cinematography — Ted McCord, Robert Surtees, Ernest Haller and Floyd Crosby, among others. “They were the “inventors”of the cinema, so I feel I was handed the baton. I’m dying to pass it on.” In a sense he has passed the baton; his son Conrad Winchester Hall is a Hollywood camera operator about to become a cinematographer. Hall’s daughters Naia and Kate are also working in film.
Like other artists whose vocation seems to find them, rather than the other way around, Hall did not seem destined for cinematography.
In 1919, his novelist father James Norman Hall and another young novelist, Charles Nordhoff, who had flown together in Lafayette Escadrille in World War I, went off to Tahiti to write the official history of the outfit. They stayed on, fell in love with local women, and married them. Conrad’s mother was the daughter of a Tahitian woman and an Anglo-American sea captain. The two men wrote “Mutiny on the Bounty” and many other novels, and Conrad Lafcadio Hall (Named for Joseph Conrad and Lafcadio Hearn) was born in 1926.
He first came to the U.S. in 1934 when he was eight, to live with an aunt and uncle and be educated. He attended the Cate School in Santa Barbara and then USC.
Hall and two classmates, Harvey Weinstein and Jack Couffer, made a short called “Sea Theme,” which won an ASC student film award. After graduation, they added new music and sold it to a distributor who hired them to do another short. They formed Canyon Films and made educational films, industrial films, and documentaries.
Eager to do a feature, the trio paid $ 750 for a prize-winning short story by Steve Frazee called “My Brother Down There.” A week after they bought it, Irving Lazar offered them $ 25,000 for the story on behalf of another client. Swallowing hard, they turned down the offer. Raising a sizable amount of family money, they went ahead with the film.
Each of the three wanted to direct it. To settle the matter, they put slips labled Producer, Director and Cinematographer in a hat. Weinstein, later a builder in Arizona, drew Director. Couffer, who became a successful writer-director (“Living Free,””Ring of Bright Water”) got Producer, and Hall drew Cinematographer.
But the union refused to let Hall photograph the film, and struck a bargain with him instead, promising him membership in a year if he would hire a union man for the project. Hall says he could have taken the matter to court, but with family money at risk, decided not to. In time, he worked for a month as assistant to Floyd Crosby to qualify for union membership.
“Cinema was still so new, so young, so innocent,” Hall says of the ’50s. “It wasn’t, as now, driven by the motor of marketing. We don’t tell stories any more with the joy and the passion and the sensibilities we used to tell them with.”
Hall is a devout believer in filmmakers’ passions and hunches. “I work only organically or instinctively from the material,” he says. “Nothing in my life is deliberate. I work on the accident, the invention. The tears on Bobby Blake’s cheeks in “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here” were an accident, which I perceived.” Again in his self-mocking way, Hall adds, “I’m a wonderful observer of the accidental magical revelation, which I then put to use and put my name on. Of course, anything the director wants me to do, I’m willing and very glad to do.”
Shooting “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” Hall realized that the boy’s eyes contemplating his next move were crucial. “I created a composition that was unnatural in a way — the eyes close to the top of the frame, so the forehead and the hair are not in the picture. You focus the audience’s attention where you want them to look, and you’ve got to look in the boy’s eyes, observe the genius that’s happening.”