Because motion pictures are primarily a visual medium, what invariably remains in the minds of audiences are the indelible images concocted by the director together with the cinematographer.
Who does what in the director-cinematographer relationship? It varies with every film and partnership. What remains clear, however, is that the best work results from both parties pushing each other beyond their individual skills with ideas that reflect the artists’ passion for their work.
“I find that (Steven) Spielberg really wants you to show him things with lighting, and the more you’ll be daring, the more he’ll like it,” says Allen Daviau, who shot Spielberg’s “E.T.,””The Color Purple” and “Empire of the Sun.”
“Before ‘E.T.’ began production,” recalls Daviau, “Steven said, ‘Allen, if you fail because you went too far in trying to light a scene, I won’t be half as mad at you as I would if you failed because you played it safe.’ So it was a wonderful mandate to go out there and push the limits. I think the great directors always want you to push the limits and I think that’s the greatest situation a cinematographer can have.”
Just as the best cinematographers are stimulated by directors who test their daring, the most secure directors want to be challenged by cinematographers with strong points of view.
When presented with the theory that directors generally compose the shots and establish the tone while DPs fill in the brush strokes, director Harold Becker balked at the notion.
“I just finished working with Gordon Willis (‘The Godfather’ films, ‘Annie Hall’) on ‘Malice’ and before that Owen Roizman (‘The French Connection,’ ‘The Exorcist’ and Becker’s ‘Taps’). We’re talking about major artists here and I would not relegate them to a role of just filling in the brush strokes.”
Becker, whose background is still photography, has an enormous regard for composition and image. “I’m looking for someone who’s going to make a contribution that way, not someone who’s merely a technician. The best one could hope for in a cinematographer is that they be a filmmaker first, and that’s what people like Gordy and Owen are. In other words, they are people who are well-steeped in the script and the story that’s being told. So by the time we get started, we are collaborators in terms of putting that on film.”
Some cinematographers take the principle of preparation to extremes, such as Robert Richardson, who has shot all of Oliver Stone’s films since “Salvador.” Richardson not only studied the script for Stone’s “Heaven and Earth,” he immersed himself in the teachings of Buddha, theosophy and Rudolph Steiner’s definitions of “light and color in particular auras, as framed in various stages of spiritual enlightenment.”
While Richardson admitted difficulty in translating this spiritual aura on screen, he and Stone effectively managed to project the contrast between the softer, more lavish images that surround protagonist Le Ly’s Hayslip’s life before the war to the harsher, more polluted images later on.
In discussing his working relationship with Richardson, Stone leaves no stone unturned: “I would consider Bob a filmmaker. He’s totally involved — on the script, the characters, the editing. When we go on scouts together, I generally do my shot lists and he does some of his own and we compare. Bob is a 360-degree photographer. It’s not a job for him, it’s a way of life.”
Stone and Richardson’s work together is a perfect example of an artistic collaboration where each person augments the other’s talent to such a degree that it has changed the language of cinema, not unlike the fruitful relationship between Bernardo Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro.
“It’s essential that the chemistry between the cinematographer and the director be a positive one,” says Becker, “so when you find a cinematographer who’s on your wavelength and who you can respect in terms of the way he thinks and the quality of work he does, then it’s a smart thing to stay with people like that, because a shorthand develops which facilitates the process and helps you find that elusive thing you’re after.”
Andrew Davis, the DGA-nominated helmsman of “The Fugitive,” has joined the rarified company of successful cinematographers-turned-directors such as Haskell Wexler, Nicolas Roeg and Claude Lelouch. His background lends a special dynamic to the relationship with his cinematographer.
“It’s a mixed blessing for the poor man because in one sense it’s great for a cinematographer who understands cameras and lighting,” says Davis. “At the same time I have a lot to say about the way I want things to look … I think the idea of someone directing a movie who doesn’t understand the camera and doesn’t understand lighting is like someone trying to conduct a symphony who doesn’t read music.” Davis feels that having been a cinematographer is one of the best places to come from for a director because as a veteran crew member, one has the advantage of knowing what everybody’s job is and how to relate to those people. Says Davis: “If you’re a writer or an editor and you’re all of a sudden put on a set with 100 people standing around saying, ‘What are we doing next?’ That can be very intimidating.”
And yet very few cameramen have graduated to feature film director with any long-range success. Allen Daviau posits that the reasons for this are twofold, principally because the DP has one of the most gratifying jobs on the set. “People on the outside don’t understand what a joy it is to be a cinematographer ,” says Daviau, whose recent collaboration with director Peter Weir on “Fearless” represents some of his finest work.
The other reason, says Daviau, is that the motivation for many cinematographers to direct is not organic. “I find that actors are far better at developing projects that suit themselves as actors and may coincidentally attach themselves as directors and have an ease of doing that. On the other hand, I think cinematographers have looked for opportunities to direct rather than develop something that is really fitting to their particular vision.”
Lucky for some filmmakers, however, some of the most eminent cameraman have continued to hone the art of cinematography with each film they shoot.
Conrad Hall, this year’s recipient of the ASC Lifetime Achievement Award, brought immeasurable dimension to the films of three directors who came primarily from writing backgrounds: Robert Towne with “Tequila Sunrise,” Bruce Robinson on “Jennifer 8,” and first-time director Steven Zaillian’s “Searching for Bobby Fisher.”
All three directors point to Hall as a man of rare gifts who innately understands “where the dramatic fulcrums are in the scene,” as Towne put it.
Adds Davis, who was a protege of Haskell Wexler: “Haskel and Connie (Hall) broke ground as cameramen who made the transition from black-and-white to color, and using still photographic techniques of lighting and mobile lightweight cameras and practical sources so the film got faster and the lenses got faster.”
While the director-cinematographer relationship presents a dynamic unique in and of itself, Daviau is quick to cite the production designer as his real associate in terms of working with a director to get the ‘look’ of a film.
“The look, mood and texture of a film has to be arrived at in a consensus with the production designer, because the production designer’s providing much of the physical reality to be photographed,” adds Daviau.
Daviau also notes, however, that often what happens on film evolves beyond style considerations. “I find that in addition to the things you decide with the production designer and the director in the beginning — what I call ‘the design factor’ — a lot of the look of a film will evolve from reacting to the performances of the actors.”
“A lot of people think that lighting for actors is just cosmetic,” adds Daviau. “Well, sometimes it is. But a lot of what comes out of a strongly executed photographic portrait of a character is understanding the emotion that the actor’s putting into it and finding a way with lenses and light to underline those emotions.”
Oliver Stone, who opines that the camera for him is an actor, goes several steps further, making the camera a proactive, rather than observant, force. This camera-with-attitude approach often manipulates the viewer’s interpretation of what’s going on, although Stone is sensitive to the term “manipulation” used in association with his work.
“I don’t think the word ‘manipulation’ is correct because the whole concept of a movie is seduction,” says Stone. “John Ford may have a static camera, but he’s using interpreters. Where does he put the camera? Once you make that decision you’re manipulating … Once you have actors, once you have costumes, once you have make-up, it’s an interpretive action.”