Spontaneous combustion

Sometimes the most compelling images are captured by chance

“I was one of the people who called Connie Hall and said, ‘How did you shoot that scene, because Steven Spielberg wants me to do something similar for a scene in “The Color Purple,” ‘ cinematographer Allen Daviau recalls. “So Connie told me the story, and then he said: ‘More cameramen have called me up to ask about that shot than anything I have done in my entire career!’ “

The “shot” is what three-time Oscar-winning director of photography Conrad L. Hall, who died in 2003, referred to as a “happy accident” while filming “In Cold Blood” (1967). Robert Blake, portraying killer Perry Smith, gives one last speech to the prison chaplain before his execution. Although Blake remains emotionless as he reminisces about his unhappy past, the drizzling rain outside the cell’s window is reflected on his face, forming a river of symbolic tears. The effect was not planned.

Hall was lighting the scene when he noticed a light illuminating a trail of water sliding down the windowpane, which he brought to the director’s attention, and the result is cinematic history.

“You talk to any cinematographer (and they will tell you) that those things happen all the time,” says cinematographer Haskell Wexler. “When I shot a picture called ‘Hoodlum Priest’ (1961), I had a net on the camera. And as (actor) Keir Dullea goes off to prison, he comes closer into focus. And my net, which is used to soften the focus, appeared to be bars. Critics said, ‘What a great effect!’ But this shot doesn’t make me a great cinematographer. It does make me a filmmaker who can deal with and see things unplanned and use them creatively.”

For d.p. Owen Roizman, collaborating with directors like William Friedkin on “The French Connection” (1971) was what led to one of his happy accidents.

“We were all set to shoot a scene with Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider,” Roizman recalls. “They were walking into a bar in the middle of the day. Just before a take where Hackman and Scheider were rounding the corner, Bill sees that the sun was just shooting down the street, creating a beautiful light. And he said, ‘Oh my God, look at that! We have got to shoot that.’ I said, ‘Yeah. Absolutely. Let’s go.’ So we just backed the actors up so they started the scene further down the street, turned the cameras on and rolled. I had my fingers crossed that they had the exposure right, because they were going from the sun into a dark hole, basically. We got it. The shot is in the film, and it is a beautiful image.”

Stephen Goldblatt, who shot “Rent,” says it’s a d.p.’s job to expect the unexpected. “Obviously you have some sort of plan in your head in case you are unlucky,” he says. In the case of “Rent,” Goldblatt’s plan changed in midstream.

“I was standing on a stage watching the crew rig lights for the ‘Seasons of Love’ number,” he recalls. “I noticed that as the motorized pulley brought the stage lights into position high over the stage, (the lights) were creating little circles of light in otherwise absolute darkness. The circles got bigger and bigger as they closed in until they looked like halos over the heads of the actors. The perspective change, with the change in the diameter of the light on the black stage, just looked so beautiful that we re-rigged the lights and shot it. (The pulleys) were not meant to be used for any lighting effect, but the shot worked, and it ended up being the first shot in the movie.”

While most cinematographers will tell you such visual adjustments are par for the course, Goldblatt says an intrinsic sense of how environments create drama is also important. “I think what is great about Connie is that he was inspired not by other cinematographers but the natural world,” he says.

“I think all cinematographers have had things happen where our adaptability gave us a wonderful result,” Daviau agrees. “But for something stupendous as Connie’s ‘In Cold Blood’ shot — it is a rare occurrence.”

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