Review: ‘Cinematographer Style’

One hundred and ten world-class cinematographers' thoughts on their widely discussed but little understood art-plus-craft are packed into 86 minutes in "Cinematographer Style." For a film about cinema's visual aspects, docu is strikingly contained to talking-heads shots -- often closely held -- of the lensers, who rep the cream of the English-language film world.

One hundred and ten world-class cinematographers’ thoughts on their widely discussed but little understood art-plus-craft are packed into 86 minutes in “Cinematographer Style.” For a film about cinema’s visual aspects, docu is strikingly contained to talking-heads shots — often closely held — of the lensers, who rep the cream of the English-language film world. The open and gracious manner of the subjects confirms what some already know: That no group in the film biz matches lensers as a collection of classy, level-headed folks. Tech-heads may chirp about lack of inside baseball chatter, but docu (aimed for eventual DVD release) is rightly directed toward a general aud of movie lovers.

Though each participant has an average of 45 seconds’ worth of screen time, a few inevitably dominate the discussion by virtue of the sheer depth, value and theatricality of their comments. The unquestioned star is Italian maestro Vittorio Storaro (“The Conformist,” “Apocalypse Now”), legendary in film circles as the greatest living philosopher/practitioner on the application of light, color and shadow for the film camera.

Storaro not only stands apart for being the only lenser filmed inside a cinema, but he uses props (light bulbs, dimmers) to demonstrate such techniques as light placement and the effect of color on mood. And to makes matters clear, he also explicitly states at the start, “I am a cinematographer. I am not a director of photography.”

Alongside Storaro in impact is vet lenser Gordon Willis (“The Godfathers,” “Manhattan”), whose frank and matter-of-fact statements lend pic a vibe of honesty and common sense. Willis addresses pic’s title, saying that, in cinematography, “there is no formula … style comes out of you.”

Willis’ biggest admission is that he didn’t decide on the look of “The Godfather” until about 20 minutes before first day’s filming, and he draws possibly the biggest laugh by asking fellow lenser and pic’s director Jon Fauer to momentarily turn off most of the lights in the room during his interview; now viewed in near darkness, with just a splash of backlight, Willis says, “See? That’s about right.”

Fauer’s esteemed group reflects a pleasing range in age — from elders such as William Fraker, Ron Dexter and Fred Koenekamp to relative youngsters like Remi Adefarasin, Ernest Dickerson and Matthew Libatique — ethnicity and even (in this male-heavy profession) gender. Each IDs themselves at the start in a rapid montage in alphabetical order and are never again identified with graphics. This may confuse some viewers trying to be sure who is saying what, but it also stresses content of the comments over individual names.

Discussion starts with childhood and education (a striking number here were not science, physics or chemistry students, contrary to assumptions), first jobs, mentoring and such themes as style, artistic influences, the values of color, shadow and beauty — or not (highly regarded cinematographer Roger Deakins remarks that “ugliness can have a certain beauty”).

Controversy is pushed aside in “Cinematographer Style,” so this is not the film to expect a crosscutting debate on the merits of, say, film versus video. (Fauer himself appears to opt for film, since pic is shot on 35mm stock donated by Kodak, one of the docu’s co-presenting companies.)

Ellen Kuras and others note that working in documentaries was crucial for them in developing an eye and the ability to work with cameras and light, while a number here (including a typically jolly Allen Daviau) stress how key making commercials was in their development. Not surprisingly, most insist that their work on a film begins with the script. The incisive Caleb Deschanel says he reads a script “at least” 10 times before prepping.

Where “Cinematographer Style” perhaps suffers as a filmic demonstration of the art is its lack of clips as illustrative examples. When Deakins discusses “the happy accidents” that late, great lenser Conrad Hall used to his advantage on the set, it screams out for a clip or two from Hall masterworks like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” or “Fat City.”

New docu is thus notably different from, and a useful counterpoint to, the 1993 film “Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography,” made by Variety chief film critic Todd McCarthy, Arnold Glassman and Stuart Samuels, which liberally deployed clips and focused on a more select group of hall-of-famers.

Fauer shares the all-crucial lensing duties with Jeff Laszlo, Brian Heller and David Morgan, and the team playfully adapts to their subjects. Deakins at one point instructs the cameraman to change from a telephoto (used for his interview segment) to wide lens in order to correctly illustrate that the long lens is a poor tool for conveying psychological warmth.

With so many subjects’ noggins on screen, talking-head framing is deliberately similar, in standard TV docu fashion. Below-the-line hero of the film is unquestionably supervising sound editor Chris Stangroom.

Closing credits, reflecting the special nature of the project, contains several technical items (including digital intermediate finishing, details on Avid editing tools, negative database prep, terrablock data storage, and answer and release print details) rarely if ever noted in credit rolls.

Cinematographer Style


An ARRI/Kodak/Technicolor presentation in association with The American Society of Cinematographers of a T-Stop production. Produced by Jon Fauer. Executive producer, Volker Bahnemann. Co-executive producers, John W. Johnston, Robert Hoffman. Directed by Jon Fauer. Concept and theme, Volker Bahnemann, Fauer.


Camera (Technicolor), Jeff Laszlo, Brian Heller, Fauer, David Morgan; editor, Matthew Blute; music, Florian Schlagbauer, Thomas Schlagbauer, Christian Bischoff; sound, Fred Burnham, Geoffrey Patterson, Bob Israel, Robert Gravenor, David Kirschner, Tom Holman, Julian Townsend, Ian Munroe, Jeff Hawkins; supervising sound editor, Chris Stangroom; cinematographer wrangler Bob Fisher; associate producer, Franz Wieser. Reviewed at Samuel Goldwyn Theatre, Beverly Hills, June 28, 2006. (In Los Angeles Film Festival.) Running time: 86 MIN.


Remi Adefarasin, Russ Alsobrook, Peter Anderson, Howard Anderson III, Howard Anderson Jr., Michael Ballhaus, Dion Beebe, Bill Bennett, Gabriel Beristain, Larry Bridges, Jonathan Brown, Stephen H. Burum, Bill Butler, Bobby Byrne, Russell Carpenter, James Chressanthis, Peter Collister, Jack Cooperman, Ericson Core, Richard P. Crudo, Dean Cundey, Oliver Curtis, Allen Daviau, Roger Deakins, Peter Deming, Caleb Deschanel, Ron Dexter, George Spiro Dibie, Ernest Dickerson, Bill Dill, Richard Edlund, Jon Fauer, Don Fauntleroy, Steven Fierberg, William A. Fraker, Michael Goi, Stephen Goldblatt, Jack Green, Adam Greenberg, Robbie Greenberg, Henner Hofmann, Ernie Holzman, Gil Hubbs, Judy Irola, Mark Irwin, Levie Isaacks, Johnny Jensen, Victor J. Kemper, Francis Kenny, Richard Kline, Fred Koenekamp, Laszlo Kovacs, Ellen Kuras, Jacek Laskus, Andrew Laszlo, Denis Lenoir, Matthew F. Leonetti, Peter Levy, Matthew Libatique, Stephen Lighthill, Walter Lindenlaub, Bruce Logan, Julio Macat, Isidore Mankofsky, Chris Manley, Steve Mason, Clark Mathis, Donald McCuaig, Robert McLachlan, Charles Minsky, Donald M. Morgan, Kramer Morgenthau, M. David Mullen, Fred Murphy, Hiro Narita, Sol Negrin, Michael Negrin, Daryn Okada, Woody Omens, Daniel Pearl, Ferne Pearlstein, Wally Pfister, Bill Pope, Steven Poster, Robert Primes, Anthony Richmond, Owen Roizman, Pete Romano, Paul Ryan, Nancy Schreiber, John Schwartzman, John Seale, Dean Semler, Michael Seresin, Steven Shaw, Newton Thomas Sigel, Bradley B. Six, Dante Spinotti, Ueli Steiger, Tom Stern, Vittorio Storaro, Rodney Taylor, John Toll, Kees Van Oostrum, Amelia Vincent, Haskell Wexler, Gordon Willis, Ralph Woolsey, Robert Yeoman, Vilmos Zsigmond.

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